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Savanna's Nutcracker Dreams

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Ballet has captivated audiences for centuries by offering a world of grace, beauty and poise. However, few performances can rival the Nutcracker for its ability to inspire young girls to dream of becoming ballerinas. Just ask Savanna Lilyquist, the eight-year-old dancer will assure you the spell cast by the magical Christmas story is not only real – it’s powerful. This year she had the opportunity to plié, pa de bourée and pirouette with the likes of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Snow Queen and Clara in Mountain West Ballet’s production of the Nutcracker. 

“I was really, really proud.”  Savanna says of her opportunity.  “I had a special part where I got to pull off the rat’s tail.  I loved it.” 

Savanna’s story may sound similar to that of hundreds of young girls around the country, but the medical journey she had to undergo in order to make her debut in the spotlight is anything but typical.

Savanna was born four weeks early with a severe case of hip dysplasia. In other words, Savanna was born with extremely shallow hip sockets which caused her leg bones to dislocate from the hip joints. Doctors warned the Lilyquists’ their daughter might not ever walk and in the best case scenario she would always walk with a limp.  

Savanna spent nine months in a contraption called a Pavlik harness. The device pulled her legs up and away from her core which allowed the ball at the top of her thigh bone to remain positioned deeply in the socket. After the treatment it appeared the medical prediction Savanna would never walk might come true, but for an entirely different reason. She preferred to run - the only trouble was she ran on her tip toes.

“She just never slowed down,” explains Savannna’s mother, Angela. “She orbits the earth in a completely different atmosphere. It never occurred to her that being different wasn’t okay.”

Savanna’s condition was diagnosed as ankle equinus.  That means her Achilles tendons were too short to allow her to stand flat footed. It was clear Savanna would require further medical care or risk further complications. A client of Savanna’s mother recommended she submit an application to Shriners Hospitals for Children. Angela had never heard of the pediatric health care system, but after reading the results of a Google search she applied for care. Angela thought it would be a long shot, but two weeks later she received a call informing her Savanna had been accepted for treatment.

“It was a miracle she was accepted for treatment at Shriners,” Angela explains. “She received care from some of the best doctors and specialists in the world.”    

Dr. Therese Hennessey is one of those specialists. The pediatric orthopaedic surgeon prescribed casting to stretch the tendons. Savanna spent six weeks in casts, followed by four months in custom made braces.

“If she had not responded to the casting, we would have moved on to surgical lengthening, however surgery carries the risk of significantly weakening the muscle.”  Dr. Hennessey explains. “Fortunately, Savanna responded well, if she had been much older it is very likely we would have had to do the surgery.”

Savanna must complete stretching exercises on a regular basis in order to maintain her flexibility.   Savanna has done a good job following Dr. Hennessey’s orders.   Angela says that while the expert medical care at no cost is invaluable, it’s the personal touch that set their experience at Shriners apart, “We’ve been to a lot of doctors.  Shriners is the only place where it’s okay to get a hug from your doctor. Dr. Hennessey never used fancy language and she talked directly to Savanna about her care. It made a big difference.”

Savanna didn’t realize the impact her medical care would have on her life until she returned to her dance class. Savanna’s new ability to keep her heels on the ground meant she could plié correctly for the first time. After five years of dance classes, Savanna was finally able to do something she wasn’t able to do before – audition for the Nutcracker.

Savanna was one of six young girls selected for the coveted role of a Bon Bon.

After nearly two months of rehearsals and a nine show run, Savanna ended her Nutcracker experience wanting more, yet for now the aspiring dancer says she is keeping her dreams in the air, “I want to be a ballerina pilot.”

Whether she soars on stage in a grand jeté or flies through the sky in a big jet one thing is certain – with her feet rooted firmly on the ground, there is nothing to stop Savanna from reaching for the stars.