Modern Dancer James Samson Thrives With Diabetes
How the Paul Taylor Dance Company performer manages type 1 diabetes on stage
If James Samson hadn’t taken a chance on dance, he’d be delivering babies right now. Before the 39-year-old dancer decided on a stage career, he was studying premed with the goal of becoming an obstetrician.
Sure, he’d danced as a kid. He’d taken tap and jazz lessons since he was 8 years old and participated in high school theater productions. But Samson never considered a career on the stage. That is, until he fell in love with ballet and modern dance. “There wasn’t an aha moment where I knew I wanted to be a dancer,” he says. “It was a seize-the-moment thing. I knew you can’t dance forever.”
So he decided to major in dance. He could always apply to medical school if his dream didn’t pan out. That was more than a decade ago. Today, Samson is part of the world-renowned Paul Taylor Dance Company, pushing his body to its limit while managing diabetes.
In Good Company
Paul Taylor was on Samson’s radar long before Samson joined the company: The legendary choreographer is known in certain circles as the pioneer of modern dance. Though Samson had never seen a live Paul Taylor–choreographed show, he heard from his college dance instructor that he was just the kind of dancer Taylor recruited.
After two years with the Charleston Ballet Theatre, Samson’s professor was proven right. Samson headed for New York to train at the Taylor School. There, he was plucked from class by Taylor himself to serve as a temporary understudy while one of Taylor’s main dancers recovered from an injury. “That was my foot in the door,” Samson says.
Samson’s contract was supposed to end after six months. That was in 2001, and he’s been a full-time member of the troupe ever since.
Diabetes on Stage
The following year, Samson, then 27, was kicking back in China with members of his dance company after a show. He’d been feeling a bit off that week, but nothing that concerned him too much. A little weight loss. Dry mouth. And maybe some extra trips to the bathroom. But what really worried him was the allergic reaction he had to some ingredient in his traditional Chinese meal. A rash broke out over his entire body.
The harmless rash saved Samson from a potentially dangerous situation. The blood tests conducted by his dermatologist to get at the root of his allergic reaction revealed an unsettling diagnosis: type 1 diabetes.
Yet Samson never considered giving up on his dreams. “I’m a person who doesn’t worry too much in the face of obstacles,” he says. “For some reason, I just took being diagnosed with a grain of salt.” It helped that he had a supportive doctor who insisted Samson could still do anything he set his mind to.
While Samson didn’t stress over the news, he did take it seriously. “I realized it was something that was going to probably change my life,” he says. “I realized that [by] dancing with diabetes I could put my career in jeopardy. If I didn’t take care of it and it affected me, I could lose the trust of my boss, Paul Taylor.”
He’s been seriously low on stage only once, three years after being diagnosed with diabetes, during a performance of Banquet of Vultures in New York. “I could feel I was getting behind. I had to concentrate really hard on what came next,” he remembers. “Luckily I was in a quartet with three other guys and I could watch them.” In the end, his understudy took over as soon as he exited the stage. After guzzling orange juice, his glucose returned to a safe level, and Samson continued the dance, the audience none the wiser.
That hypoglycemic episode prompted Samson to be more diligent about testing his blood glucose before performances. He began checking his numbers before each dance—the company does three per night—to make sure his glucose was safely between 120 and 150 mg/dl. “At 110, I’d get a little nervous,” Samson says.
He also made sure orange juice was kept handy backstage. “I would rather drink something than start chewing something and have to go back on stage,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to start chewing and have something fall out of my mouth or have my jowls moving [while dancing].”
Now Samson keeps track of his glucose level with a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), which he started wearing five years ago. The sensor-transmitter piece that attaches to his skin is small enough that he can conceal it while in costume. “I wear it around my waist, so it’s not in the way if I do partnering. Even during shirtless dances, it’s hidden in my costume,” Samson says. “Just having my glucose checked 24 hours a day and not having my finger pricked is amazing.”
But what he finds the most helpful are the trend arrows that tell him whether his glucose is rising, dropping, or holding steady—something a single blood glucose number never could. “That helps me as a dancer to be ready for what I have to do next, whether take a shot of insulin or eat,” he says.
As a man whose fitness is an integral part of his career, Samson understands the value of healthy eating and exercise—even while touring. “A lot of the hotels have gyms, so I use those when I can,” he says. When he’s not performing, he’s in rehearsal for weeks. Twice a year, he spends six weeks in the studio every day from noon to 5 p.m. learning new dances. And he regularly takes ballet, does upper body workouts, and practices yoga.
Samson’s also mindful of his meals. “I don’t follow a special diet,” he says. “Mentally, I know that with anything I eat I can always dose insulin. But as a dancer, I do have to stay in shape.”
Since his diagnosis, Samson hasn’t had juice or soda unless his blood glucose was low. He focuses on lower-carb, high-protein meals. Dinners, for instance, are usually pac ked with vegetables and protein such as chicken, pork chops, or fish.
On the day of a performance, Samson eats light—enough to have energy but not too much that he feels weighed down. Breakfast is typically high in protein, such as an omelet with meat and veggies. Lower-carb meals allow him to dose less insulin, which in turn reduces his chances of overdosing and going low during a performance.
Though Samson is careful about what he eats before a performance, all bets are off once the curtain falls. By the time he eats dinner—after a two-hour performance and, on certain days, over two hours of rehearsal—he’s ravenous. “At that time I eat whatever,” he says. “I don’t hold back. I’ll have the burger. I’ll have the fries.”
For Samson, the toughest part of following a healthy diet is eating on the road. When the Paul Taylor Dance Company takes to the world’s stages, dining options can be slim. That’s not a problem in, say, Chicago, but it’s harder to know what you’re eating in foreign countries—never mind the number of carbohydrate grams. Thankfully, strange food is the exception, not the norm. As a precaution, Samson always packs cereal and protein bars (along with his stash of other diabetes supplies, including his meter, test strips, insulin, and extra CGM sensors) while touring. “On the road, I do the best that I can,” he says. “I’m only human, so I have my bad days.”
Twelve years after his diagnosis, Samson is more familiar with his body and, as a result, his diabetes. “I really don’t have any [severe hypoglycemic] episodes anymore,” Samson says. “I can feel pretty much right away when my glucose is getting too high or too low.”
His fellow dancers have also become accustomed to his diabetes. “Sometimes they can tell if I’m acting funny. They’ll be like, ‘James, did you check your sugar?’ ” His bosses are aware of his diabetes, and everyone who works with him knows how to help him if he goes low.
They were with him this summer when the company took to Italy for an arts festival, and they’ll be with him this fall, as he takes off on a four-week, four-city tour across the United States.
Then, in November, Samson hopes to hop a plane to Arlington, Texas, to watch a student production that marks an important milestone in Samson’s life. It’s the first show he choreographed, a piece he taught a group of college students over four days this summer. But while teaching the students was a highlight of the gig, Samson’s not ditching the stage any time soon. There’s not much that can diminish his passion for dance—not his love of working with kids, not his interest in choreography, and certainly not diabetes.