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Dream comes true for young dancer
Born with spina bifida, Katherine Whitlock is lead in 'The Nutcracker'
Katherine Whitlock.jpg
Katherine Whitlock, born with spina bifida, said that dancing with Statesboro School of Dance gives her a sense that she can do anything. Whitlock performs on Dec. 2 as Clara in "The Nutcracker." (LORI GRICE/special)

By the time 14-year-old Katherine Whitlock takes the stage as Clara in Statesboro School of Dance's "The Nutcracker" performances Dec. 2 at Georgia Southern's Performing Arts Center, her pique turns will be polished and her saut de chats straightened after hours and hours and weeks of practice.

The eighth-grader at Bulloch Academy doesn't mind the work or time she spends dancing and preparing under the direction of Shay Morgan, owner of the Statesboro School of Dance studio. She absolutely adores dancing. She says it's "a dream come true."

Dancing and playing the role of Clara may be Whitlock's dream come true, but there was a time in her life when her parents, Austin and Heather Whitlock, weren't even sure their daughter would ever walk. 

Whitlock was born with spina bifida occulta, a birth defect affecting the spine. Katherine's spinal cord was tethered; in her case, it was attached to a fatty lipoma rather than free-floating, as it should have been. 

Due to a mix-up with a blood test while Heather was pregnant, the Whitlocks were unaware of Katherine's birth defect until she was born Nov. 1, 2004, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the Statesboro natives were living while Austin Whitlock completed his residency. 

Scary delivery

Heather Whitlock remembers the delivery like it was yesterday and said that all was normal except that she'd been extremely sick and nauseous throughout the entire pregnancy, unlike her first pregnancy with then-2-year-old, Ansley. 

"Right after she was born, someone yelled, 'NICU,' and the doctors and nurses rushed out of my room," Heather said. 

She later would learn that a dimple on Katherine's lower back alerted the medical professionals of a problem and they took action immediately.

An MRI at 4 days old, under complete sedation, revealed Katherine's diagnosis.

At that time, her father Austin was a pediatric resident at Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga.

"That's the only way we got to take her home," Heather said. 

By Thanksgiving, the Whitlocks had an appointment to meet with a surgeon who was willing to do the spinal cord release surgery that Katherine needed. 

Her surgery at 9 weeks of age lasted hours. Their only consolation during the grueling hours of waiting were the frequent updates. 

"Ansley's godfather, a surgical resident, was with her during the surgery," Heather said. 

Though the procedure was a success, no one knew Katherine's prognosis. 

"We didn't know if she would ever walk."

Learning to sit, walk

Katherine couldn't sit on her own until she was 1, and she never really crawled, her mother said. 

"She rolled everywhere." 

"Whenever I got down, Austin would comfort me with these words: 'God knew what he was doing. He put her with the perfect medical family that could take care of her,'" Heather said. 

Both parents worked with Katherine daily and took her to physical and occupational therapy appointments. 

At 16 months, Katherine took her first steps.

"We moved back to Statesboro when she was 18 months old for Austin to open his pediatric practice here in our hometown," Heather said. 

One of the first things the couple did was locate a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, who told them that dance would be good for Katherine to help with the weakness she continued to have on the left side of her body. 

"We went back about a year after she started dance and her doctor said that ballet had significantly increased her muscle strength on the left side," Heather said. 

Wanting to dance

Most likely, Katherine would have begged to dance, even without a doctor's orders. 

Just as Clara falls asleep at the end of the first act of "The Nutcracker" and dreams of marzipan and candy canes and bon bons and an array of dancers that include a sugar plum fairy and a prince and a snow queen, a very young Katherine dreamed of those things, too.

"My older sister Ansley danced with Mrs. Shay, and she was always dancing around the house," Katherine said. "I wanted to be just like my sister. I wanted to dance, too."

Heather said Katherine once asked, while on the way to pick up Ansley from the studio, "When am I going to get to dance?" 

She was only 2 at the time.

"Ansley's first recital was 'Beauty and the Beast,'" Heather said. "Katherine watched the DVD after the recital and could dance Belle's entire part even before she started dance classes." 

This will be Katherine's 12th "Nutcracker" performance, but her first big role and the first time she performs on pointe. It's also the first time the entire Whitlock family will be on stage together in a scene. 

A family affair

Sixteen-year-old sister Ansley dances, and younger sister Harper, 9, dances, too. Parents Austin and Heather have participated in "The Nutcracker" for the previous six years as party parents, passing their three girls in the wings during the performances, but haven't been on stage at the same times with all three girls before.

During the party scene, Ansley as the lead maid, Harper portraying a party child, Katherine as Clara and Austin and Heather as party parents mingle and interact in character as the Stahlbaums host a festive Christmas celebration, delighting guests with magical entertainment, holiday treats, gifts and the spectacular lighting of the Christmas tree.  

"This is the best thing ever," Katherine said about the party scene. "We've all shared being in 'The Nutcracker,' but never all on stage at the same time. It's the best."

Katherine admitted that it is challenging not to smile at her mom during the scene or make faces at her young sister.

Proud mom Heather will find it hard to stifle her smile, too, watching her daughters dance. 

"We couldn't have gotten through that time without our faith in God," she said. "We had so many people praying for our daughter. She was on so many prayer lists, in Chattanooga, here in Statesboro, all over." 

Whitlock family.jpg
The Whitlock family makes the annual "Nutcracker" performance with Statesboro School of Dance a family affair. Shown here from the 2017 show are, back row, from left, Austin Whitlock, Ansley Whitlock and Heather Whitlock; front row, from left, Katherine Whitlock and Harper Whitlock. (HEATHER WHITLOCK/special)

God's plan

Heather remembers that a family friend, Statesboro native Father Brett Brannen, serving at the Vatican during that time, held a mass of intervention at the Vatican prior to Katherine's surgery.   

"We trusted God then and now. Katherine has such a determined spirit. It's never gotten her down. It is who she is and she's fine with it. And Shay [Morgan] has been great with her. Katherine adores dancing."

Katherine recognizes the value of her passion, too. 

"I feel like I'm stronger, physically and emotionally," she said. "Without dance, I might not have a sense of 'I can do anything.'

"And I always remember that God has a plan." 

Katherine points out that she wanted to play soccer when she was younger, but her birth defect and the delicate state of her spine and vertebrae won't allow physical contact sports. 

"God knew. He already had a plan laid out, and everything fell into place."

Everything's in place for Katherine — and Clara — to have dreams come true on Sunday, Dec. 2, at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center. The show is open to the public, and tickets are available at the box office.

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