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Local teen ballerina is redefining what it means to be ‘challenged’

By ABBY KAUP
SPECIAL FOR THE FOCUS

NORTH PHOENIX  – At just 13-years-old, Natalia Cardona is transforming what it means to be an athlete.

Natalia first began dancing at age seven, taking classes in ballet, jazz and hip hop. A few years later, she decided to focus solely on ballet. A passionate ballerina and eager student, Natalia now trains intensively at the Arizona Classical Ballet, where she is learning a classical Russian method of ballet.

However, in March of 2018 the talented young girl faced a startling discovery that seemed to put her dreams of dancing in jeopardy. She was diagnosed with gastroparesis, a rare autoimmune disease that paralyzes the stomach, leaving Natalia unable to eat and causing her to lose 13 pounds in a brief period.

While Natalia Cardona was sharpening her dance skills over the summer with American Ballet and Ballet Austin, she was also managing her gastroparesis, which is a rare autoimmune disorder that paralyzes her stomach and requires her to carry a feeding pump. (Photo courtesy of Ron Brewer Photos)

“She was requiring tube feeds for 100 percent of her nutrition,” said Christine Severance, Natalia’s mother.

Trying to find a more long-term solution, Natalia and her family flew to Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to consult with a neurologist, who specializes in gastrointestinal related issues. The doctor confirmed Natalia’s large and small intestines were not working properly and decided to move forward with treatment, hoping for the best.

If this diagnosis wasn’t challenging enough, Natalia was starting seventh grade at a new school. Despite frequent visits to the nurse and carrying her feeding pump everywhere, Natalia maintained straight As and made friends.

Unfortunately, “Natalia’s life as a 13-year-old was becoming less and less normal,” according to Severance.

Natalia needed to switch to online school so she could receive weekly infusions, which take six hours and can have lingering side effects. Natalia and her family had to adjust to a new normal, and it certainly was not easy.

Severance described some of the challenges that come with Natalia’s condition: “Mealtime required changes in perspective. We had to adjust to the feeding tube and all the paraphernalia that goes with it. We got less sleep as a result of malfunctioning pumps and necessary formula refills.”

Understandably, all of this occasionally became too much and began to weigh on Natalia, but she persevered and turned to her passion as motivation.

“The only thing that kept her going through all of this was her dancing” Severance said. “Dance makes her happy, feeds her soul, and allows her to express whatever she feels without using words.”

Thanks to the Arizona School of Classical Ballet in North Phoenix, Natalia didn’t have to give up on her pursuit of ballet. The studio was supportive and incredibly accommodating of Natalia’s condition.

“Her teachers encourage an inclusive environment,” Severance said, and as a result all the other dancers were understanding and uplifting.

In fact, in November of 2018, Natalia landed the role of Sugar Plum Fairy in her company’s production of the “Nutcracker.” The studio worked with Natalia and her partner to modify certain movements, such as lifts, to avoid hurting her or damaging her feeding tube.

Pictured: Natalia performing her role as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the “Nutcracker” produced by her studio, Arizona School of Classical Ballet, in November 2018. With a few modifications to some of the lift moves in order to avoid damaging her feeding tube, she was able to perform the role like any other dancer.
(Photo by Christine Severance)

Because of this, Natalia and her partner were able to perform a beautiful piece just like any other dancers.

The blooming ballerina reaped the rewards of her dedication and hard work this summer. She was accepted to both of Ballet Austin and American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensive programs on a full scholarship.

“I got the best summer ever!” Natalia said over the phone on August 8, while she was at University of California in Irvine finishing up her second program. “I am finishing tomorrow and I am kind of sad about it. It was fun and I learned so much.”

She says she made a lot of friends, including a girl who lives in Arizona that she plans on keeping in touch with.

Natalia completed the first program in Texas at Ballet Austin on July 12, where she was training for six to eight hours a day with instructors and dancers from all over the country. The training includes classes in ballet technique, pointe work, choreography, contemporary, jazz, health and conditioning.

Pictured: Natalia Severance and Duncan Lyle, a soloist with American Ballet Theater, who was one of her faculty members at UC Irvine.

“They [instructors] didn’t treat me any differently , which I liked,” Natalia said.  “I think it was the exact same experience as everyone else. I feel like I have grown a lot. I think intensives have really helped me to pick up combos.”

With a few years under her belt of caring for her daughter’s gastroparesis, Severance shared some words of wisdom for others facing similar obstacles.

“Don’t give up!” Severance advises. “Don’t allow an illness to take everything away from you, and don’t let fear of being different interfere with your desire to do something you love.”

To the parents, she assures them, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and don’t stop advocating for your child. I had to push boundaries, question the ‘norm,’ and be the squeaky wheel at times, but it was entirely worth it.”

Even after losing her ability to eat and having to adjust to life with a feeding tube while enduring six-hour, weekly infusions that have negative side-effects, Natalia has persisted with ballet. Over one year after her diagnosis, Natalia’s condition is improving and she has learned to eat again, which means she is maintaining her weight without formula and can return to traditional school. (Photo by Karen Severance)

Natalia’s condition has been improving since starting the weekly infusions. Her last studies provide great hope as they showed that her digestive tract is moving again. Remarkably, after going a year without food, Natalia has learned to eat again and is maintaining her weight without the formula.

Although Natalia is sad her summer of ballet is coming to an end, she is also “very excited” to start traditional school again as an eighth grader at the Foothills Academy in Cave Creek. And to start rehearsing for this season’s production of the “Nutcracker.”

There is no doubt that Natalia has adopted the positive perspective of her mother because she has learned to embrace her illness rather than conceal it. When Natalia had her professional photos taken, Natalia refused to hide her feeding tube saying, “it’s part of her story now.”

With a bright future ahead, Natalia hopes to continue dancing professionally and sharing her story with others.

When Natalia had her professional photos taken, she refused to hide her feeding tube saying, “it’s part of her story now. (Photo courtesy of Ron Brewer Photos)

Contributions to this story were made by Tara Alatorre.