Gianna Forte reveals her scars. Stark Photo Productions, Courtesy The Washington Ballet.

Washington Ballet Trainee Gianna Forte's Journey Back to Ballet After Life-Threatening Health Problems

Before I was born, my parents found out that I had a condition called an omphalocele. All of my organs were outside my stomach. I was rushed into surgery as soon as I was born, and they put a little patch in, pushed in my organs and sewed me up. When I was 1 1/2, I had another surgery to remove the patch. Ever since, I've just had a scar on my stomach—I didn't have a belly button, but I had no problems other than malrotation, which means all of my organs were going the opposite way.

I was raised in Connecticut, and stayed there until I graduated high school. It was the year Julie Kent and Xiomara Reyes were taking over The Washington Ballet company and school, and I sent my video and got accepted into their professional training program.


Baby Forte in the hospital

Courtesy Forte

Last February, when I was 19, my health got worse. I had torn my labrum in my right hip, and my parents drove to DC for the surgery. When we got home, I started to feel nauseous. We thought it was from the anesthesia, so we waited it out for a few days, but I ended up in the ER.

I spent two days in the hospital, and was just getting worse, so they rushed me into surgery. I had gone into septic shock. My doctors described it as the perfect storm because of the malrotation and something that happened with the anesthesia when I went under for my hip surgery. I ended up having four surgeries altogether. They closed me up with 30 staples, so I have a big scar going down my stomach. I was in the hospital for about three weeks total.

The first week or two that I was home was probably my darkest time. The reality set in of what had happened. I couldn't even really sit up straight. I wasn't supposed to use my core muscles. A physical therapist would come to my house every other day and we would work on walking and small things. I was getting really defeated; I didn't want to go outside, didn't want to get off the couch. My biggest fear was not being able to get back to dancing how I was before, or be able to progress. I had a lot of anxiety, so I would stay up really late, but I would watch ballet videos, and that inspired me. I emailed back and forth with Julie and Xiomara. Xiomara told me to visualize, keep the feeling of dancing in my body, because it would help when I could dance again. Once I got the staples out of my stomach I started to feel a little better, and wanted to get back to ballet more.

Two months after my first surgery, I came back to DC. I didn't dance, but I went to the physical-therapy room, and eventually I could try some barre—no fifth position, but some pliés and relevés. I would find an open studio and work by myself. Then I decided to do the summer intensive here, and I think that was one of the best decisions I made. I just worked on what I could. My leg was at 45 degrees for a while, but by the end of the summer I was doing grand allégro. I started back at the end of August in the professional training program.

Forte in the hospital post-surgery

Courtesy Forte

During one of our last shows of Nutcracker, Julie came down to the dressing room and promoted me to trainee, saying how brave and courageous I was. I'd just done the snow scene and was getting ready to go on for "Waltz of the Flowers." It was a really special moment. I felt so supported by her and everyone here—I was shaking and couldn't stop crying.

I have a lot of scar tissue in my stomach, so it's still hard for me to engage my core, and even now there are days where I get frustrated. But I'm just excited for what's to come, and I'm not going to stop working.

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"To have them be like 'We want to help you with this and we love this idea and what you're doing is amazing,' that was really exciting to me," she said. "It was very heartwarming."

Jordan Reed, the creator of custom dancewear brand Lone Reed Designs, said she has donated seven items to Peace Love Leotards with plans to donate more consistently every quarter. Custom leotards often retail at higher prices, but Reed, a former Houston Ballet corps member, said the one-of-a-kind clothing offers an "extra bit of confidence, which can go more than a long way in a dancer's journey of training."

Paul Plesh, a sales director for Wear Moi in the United States and Canada, said the company donated 11 leotards after finding Peace Love Leotards' mission to be "commendable." Joey Dowling-Fakhrieh, the founder and creative director of Jo+Jax, said dancewear "can make a significant impact on a student's confidence, as well as how much they enjoy the process of learning dance."

De Roos has worked to expand Peace Love Leotards, Inc. rapidly in the past few months, but she first created the organization at eight years old after participating in a mentorship program with competitors in the Miss Florida and Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen pageants. The pageants, which are part of the Miss America Organization, require competitors to have personal platforms they advocate for as titleholders. As a competition dancer, de Roos instantly thought about the cost barriers to dance when wondering what her own future platform would be.

De Roos said she and her young classmates often outgrew nearly brand-new dancewear, so she approached her studio's owner about placing a collection box at the studio.

Barbara Mizell, who owns Barbara's Centré for Dance in Florida, said she was unsurprised by de Roos' proposal. De Roos always had "such a way of pushing herself and she never forgot those around her," Mizell said. As the box filled up, she distributed the dancewear to others at the studio, local schools with dance programs, and the local YMCA.

"When they could start to see that it was providing happiness for others, then it was almost like the kids couldn't wait to donate," Mizell said.

Nearly a decade after the Miss Florida organization inspired her to launch Peace Love Leotards, de Roos is now a titleholder herself, as Miss Gainesville's Outstanding Teen 2020. Her new mission for Peace Love Leotards is applying for grants, and she has already received a $1,000 grant from the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund that will be used to fund a Title 1 school class.

"The whole organization behind Peace Love Leotards is the dancers," de Roos said. "Being able to help the dancers that are in need and being able to think about the dancewear that they're going to be receiving or have received has been truly amazing."

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