The last night that she performed as a professional ballerina, Katelyn Prominski danced “Swan Lake” with a staph infection. A corn on her right foot had become infected, and sixth months of antibiotics had not helped. She had been rehearsing wearing socks. To perform, she borrowed a larger ballet shoe from a friend and went onstage at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music and bouréed her heart out while her foot bled through the shoe.
“It was a terrible experience,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m done with ballet. Done. Done. Done.’ ”
That’s what she thought, anyway, 21 / 2 years ago. But so much has happened since. On Christmas, the D.C. native will return to the Kennedy Center to dance on a stage she knows well. She comes home not as a member of a ballet company, but as the “lead ballerina” in the musical “Flashdance.”
If that sounds like a step down in her career, it isn’t. Not to a young woman who doubted that she would ever perform again.
After that painful “Swan Lake” in March 2011, Prominski left the Pennsylvania Ballet and moved back to her mother’s house in Arlington County to recover from foot surgery. She was constantly thirsty, so her mom positioned a cooler next to the couch. The recovery was slow, but when she was able, Prominski joined her boyfriend, former Pennsylvania Ballet dancer Max Baud, on the national tour of the musical “Billy Elliot.” He played the adult Billy, while Prominski worked as a guardian for one of the young actors and taught a ballet class to girls in the show. Her goal was to be well enough to perform with Suzanne Farrell Ballet at the Kennedy Center that October. Since 2002, whenever the Pennsylvania Ballet and her previous company, the Boston Ballet, would let her, Prominski had returned to Washington to dance with Farrell’s pickup company.
“I decided to semi-retire, and just dance with Suzanne,” Prominski said. “But it didn’t work. Everything came tumbling down.”
In rehearsals, Farrell, who had known Prominski for 10 years, said to her, “You’re not the same dancer anymore, and you have got to find out what’s wrong.”
That December, “Billy Elliot” came to the Kennedy Center, and Prominski started scheduling medical appointments, including a visit to an endocrinologist at Virginia Hospital Center. After a round of tests came a conversation that, she said, went something like this:
Doctor: “So, you are here for your diabetes?”
Prominski: “No, my thyroid.”
Doctor: “I think you have diabetes.”
Prominski, incredulous: “What do you mean you think I have diabetes? How do you know?”
Doctor: “Well, if your blood sugar level is over 120 milligrams per deciliter, you have it.”
Prominski: “What’s my blood sugar?”
At that count, many diabetics have impaired mental functions. But, as a dancer, Prominski’s fitness level, healthy habits and stubborn streak had enabled her to ignore diabetes symptoms for three years.
“Dancers are stoic, and they tend to push through pain,” said Linda Hamilton, a psychologist who serves on New York City Ballet’s wellness team. That means not only that diagnosing a chronic illness be difficult, but dancers can block their own recovery.
“Having Type 1 diabetes is a challenge for anyone, but dancers are used to trying to control your body. It’s your instrument. And yet it’s very difficult to control your blood sugar levels,” Hamilton said.
Back on the “Billy Elliot” tour, Prominski spent several months learning how to give herself insulin injections and regulate her diet. In May 2012, she moved to New York — Baud would later join her — and started thinking about the next step in her career.
“As I started getting better, and getting my blood sugar under control, I realized that I needed to start performing again,” Prominski said. “The disease is what had taken all the joy out of it for me. But I didn’t want to go back to ballet. I just thought it would be too hard to manage my [blood glucose] numbers.”
Hamilton knows another high-profile ballerina who came back after a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes: former City Ballet soloist Zippora Karz, who went on to dance with the company for 13 years. But Karz was 21 when she got the news. Prominski was 28. Seven years can be an entire career in the ballet world.
Prominski started taking voice lessons and working as a stock photo model. She became a personal trainer at Ballet Beautiful, a studio that caters to actors, fashion editors and Victoria’s Secret models. By teaching four classes a day, she got herself back into shape and auditioned for roles as a dancer in musical theater.
There were challenges. She’s not the greatest tapper in the world, and in hip-hop classes, teachers have yelled, “Hey, you! Ballerina!” before they even see her dance But earlier this year, Prominski got the call she had been waiting for: A producer offered her a role in the national tour of “Flashdance,” a new musical based on the 1983 film. As “lead ballerina,” her characters include a dream version of Alex, the steelworker who moonlights as a club dancer; a star student at an elite Pittsburgh dance academy; and a professional dancer who performs excerpts from “The Firebird.”
Backstage, the changes are fast and furious. As many as four people help her dress while she laces up her toe shoes. Yet, compared with life in a ballet company, “this is very cushy,” she said.
“The Broadway world is incredibly appreciative of your talent, which is very much different than the ballet world,” she said. “It’s every man for themselves in the ballet.”
The “Flashdance” team is aware she’s diabetic, so stage managers carry candy in their pockets so that if Prominski runs off and feels her blood sugar crashing, she can grab some. (Typically, her blood sugar level peaks during the show and plummets afterward.)
When the musical sets down for a four-week run at the Kennedy Center, Prominski will have the added support of performing for friends and family. A 2002 graduate of Georgetown Visitation High School, Prominski trained for years at the Washington School of Ballet. Her teachers have since moved on, but she hopes that many area dance fans will be in the audience, even if “Flashdance” the musical isn’t the kind of show that most balletomanes head to the Eisenhower Theater to see.
“It’s the message that’s important,” she said. “Through dance, you can overcome obstacles.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.
Dec. 25 through Jan. 19 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324.