Suzie Birchwood is a dancer, choreographer and the Artistic Director of Arc dance. Suzie has Dystonia and is a wheelchair user. She trained in ballet and contemporary.
When Suzie Birchwood was 16, and on a full scholarship at the London Studio Centre, a niggling pull down her right hand side, at first put down to rapid muscle development as a result of her full-time training, led to her collapsing in the middle of a class, locked in spasm.
It took Suzie eight painful years of misdiagnosis, hospital stays and a multitude of therapy programmes, before she was finally diagnosed with the incurable condition, Generalised Dystonia, the day before her 25th birthday.
“I have to say it was actually a tremendous relief,” admits Suzie of the eventual diagnosis. “I knew there was something very, very wrong, but it had been such a long time of not being believed, or understood. I’d learnt to deal with it on my own, and I was doing a pretty good job, I felt I was being pretty brave, but getting that diagnosis – I felt I could match anything as long as I knew what it was.”
Shortly after her diagnosis, Suzie met her husband Andy, who encouraged her to explore dancing once again as a professional herself, as well as teaching. Shortly after this, she found the support of another key individual when she began working with her partner, Peter Baldwin, who she describes as ‘wonderful’.
“I explained my condition to him, and he pretty much ignored all of that and started lifting me and throwing me around – Peter is incredibly sensitive to my body and how much strength I have in my legs, when I need catching and how much my legs move. He didn’t presume anything, he just sensed it somehow and he gave me a tremendous amount of freedom,” says Suzie.
Working with Baldwin, and exploring aerial silks and specially designed sets, Suzie began to dance professionally again, touring her work before striking up a collaboration with Ballet Cymru.
“I walk very much hand in hand with my Dystonia now,” says Suzie. “We are part of each other and we inform each other in a funny sort of ways. I understand it much better now and I accept my body and how it works.”
During the past years, Suzie has founded ARC Dance school. ARC Dance integrates dancers with different physical and learning abilities, celebrating each of its dancers’ unique physiologies. The works are set to original scores of live music composed and performed by Nao Masuda. The dance represents a glorious denouement of a personal battle to overcome physical and cultural obstacles. Suzie is also a company member of Wolfgang Stange’s world-renowned integrated dance company Amici Dance Theatre Company.
Diagnosed with Generalised Dystonia