Dancer outshines illness to compete on top stage

11-year-old Jamie Castillo is headed to New York in April to compete in the Youth of America Grand Prix finals. - Submitted
11-year-old Jamie Castillo is headed to New York in April to compete in the Youth of America Grand Prix finals.
— image credit: Submitted

A Renton ballet dancer has overcome health challenges to compete for the third time in the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix Finals in New York this April.

Even though Jamie Castillo, 11, has been to the competition twice before, she’s still excited about the opportunity to perform for some of the best ballet directors and teachers in the world.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a pro, but I would say I’m comfortable with it,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I’m not freaking out before I go on stage.”

Jamie has been dancing with the Emerald Ballet Theatre for the past six years and has twice placed in the top 12 of the Youth America Grand Prix. This year she finished in both the top 12 of the pre-competitive classical category and the pre-competitive contemporary division.

In April she will perform Emerald Ballet Theatre’s “Lezginka,” as coached by Artistic Director Roman Zinovyev in New York.

“It’s a great experience. You get lots of info from other teachers; it’s an experience of a lifetime,” Jamie said. “So I’m just really excited.”

It’s also an amazing feat considering what she’s had to endure to get to where she is today.

When Jamie was four years old, she came down with self-healing juvenile cutaneous mucinosis. It’s a skin condition that is characterized by skin lesions and forms of arthritis. It’s also extremely rare. Jamie’s mother Angelique said her daughter was the 10th person to be diagnosed in 33 years with the condition.

Before her diagnosis, Jamie used to be naturally flexible; but after, her entire back broke out in lesions and her joints developed nodules, making her less flexible. It’s a self-healing disease, but Jamie’s immune system was already compromised and worn down from severe Raynaud’s Disease, from which she also suffers. That disease caused her hands and feet to go numb in weather colder than 70 degrees, her mother said.

Both had an effect on her daily and extracurricular activities.

“She could not play outside for several years unless it was at least 70 degrees,” said Angelique Castillo. “She was constantly dressed in layers because if she got too warm it caused her rash and nodules to itch worse.”

At the time, Jamie couldn’t do gymnastics or go in cold gyms. She had to give up swimming and martial arts. She has healed considerably from both ailments, but calls that time in her life the “long painful years” in which she sought the help of specialists and doctors.

Today, Jamie battles some stomach issues and goes through detox cycles where her body is still trying to rid itself of the self-healing juvenile cutaneous mucinosis.

“It hurt her flexibility, she had to work hard to get her flexibility back,” said her mother.

Jamie currently undergoes physical therapy at G4 Athlete on Mercer Island to stay flexible.

“They are working on body mechanics, alignment and strengthening to help her body to be strong and able to handle the rigors of ballet,” said Angelique.

It is not known definitively if her illness has contributed to her flexibility issues or not, her mother adds.

Because of her symptoms, Jamie has not had a full night of sleep without interruptions from her symptoms since she was four years old. She’s also allergic to many things like eggs, dairy and gluten, which can make traveling very challenging.

But, their trips to New York for the Youth American Grand Prix Finals have been a special treat because they’ve found several restaurants there to accommodate her diet. It’s also the ballet trip of a lifetime with access to the who’s who of ballet schools and teachers in the city.

Last year, Jamie attended classes and rehearsals at the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, Alvin Ailey American Dance Company and LaGuardia High School. She also competed at the Skirball Center at New York University and she performed for the gala, as she will this year, in Lincoln Center at the David H. Koch Theater. There she’ll get to perform on the same stage as the New York City Ballet.

When asked if her health conditions have made her a stronger dancer, Jamie answers “yes.”

“It makes me stronger and strong-minded because of all the things I’ve gone through,” she said. “Ballet has given me so much because it gives me the courage to keep going forward.”

Emerald Ballet Artist Director Viktoria Titova calls the grand prix finals like the Olympics games for dancers. Originally Jamie was scheduled to perform with a different ensemble of 11- to 13-year-olds, who qualified for their performance of “February,” set to Tchaikovsky’s “Seasons” and choreographed by Titova. Not all of the girls in that ensemble can make the trip, so Jamie was selected to perform with another ensemble in “Lezginka,” choreographed by Zinovyev.

“I’m really excited; it feels great that I’ve accomplished so much,” Jamie said.

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