At the judge’s table on the 10th season of ABC’s hit reality show Dancing With the Stars, Carrie Ann Inaba, 42, always looks gorgeous, glamorous and fit. But the Hawaiian-born dancer with golden feet is actually in the final stages of recovering from health problems that threatened to force her into a life of debilitating pain.
In November 2009, Inaba had surgery on her spine to relieve pain caused by spinal stenosis, a narrowing of one or more areas of the spine — most often in the neck or lower back – that puts pressure on the spinal cord or spinal nerves, creating tremendous pain.
“There were days were I was barely able to move because the pain in my neck was so severe,” she says.
Born to dance
“When I was three years old and growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii, I started dancing,” says Inaba. “I threw myself into dance, it’s my passion and a wonderful way to express your feelings and communicate.”
The youngest of two children, Inaba grew up dancing the hula, lyrical jazz and other dance forms. She also played the piano and violin and sang in the choir. Although she tried out life as a jock and played high school volleyball, performing remained her one true love.
“Nothing compared to how wonderful I felt when I was dancing,” she says.
While still in school, at the age of 16, she and a close friend won a statewide talent competition dancing a piece they choreographed together. After high school, Inaba set aside plans to attend college to pursue a career as a musical artist and dancer in Japan, but after two years, life in Los Angeles beckoned and she returned to the U.S. to study dance under Hollywood’s glittering lights.
“One day in dance class I was approached by a producer who asked me to be in a music video and I never looked back. It was amazing to book that job,” she says.
To stay in shape and on top of the competitive dance world, Inaba trained hard, dancing for several hours every day. “Most of the time, I danced with reckless abandon and rehearsed without concern for my health. I was young so I didn’t worry about possibly hurting myself or protecting my body. I just poured everything into every move.”
Her passionate approach paid off. Inaba launched her television and screen career in 1990, when she landed a prize position as a Fly Girl on FOX’s sketch comedy show In Living Color. The attention and acclaim led to an opportunity as one of Madonna’s main dancers in her “Girlie Show World Tour.”
The pain of passion
“Unfortunately for my body, I was a bit too passionate and threw myself a little too much into dance. About 3 or 4 years ago, I started having so much pain in my neck and back that I was losing my range of movement,” she says.
Inaba was diagnosed her with spinal stenosis, a condition that causes pain or numbness in your legs, back, neck, shoulders or arms, limb weakness and loss of coordination and loss of sensation in the extremities.
“In my case, my neck, upper back and shoulders were most affected.”
Because her spine was so fragile, Inaba was having trouble dancing or working out. “I was in so much pain, I couldn’t do the things that I really loved to do because my back would get out of place and I’d be locked. I could hardly move. If I pushed myself even a little bit, I’d have to stop moving for about 2 months,” she says.
In November 2009, Inaba’s doctors suggested surgery to reduce her pain. “The space around my spinal cord has become compressed,” she says. “My neck was so stiff so I agreed to the procedure to relieve that.”
Inaba’s surgery was partially successful. “It helped my pain, but it didn’t’ completely eliminate it,” she says. “I still have some pain.”
In May 2010, following the conclusion of Dancing With the Stars’ 9thseason, Inaba received steroid shots in her back to provide some additional relief. “Your body gets into a pain cycle and it’s hard to get out of it. And the shots helped me remember how not to be in pain. “I’ve been in recovery mode ever since. I trust my body, and listen to it, a lot more.”
To strengthen her back and prevent further narrowing, Inaba says she sees a chiropractor and has a massage once a week. “I have also been doing quantum biofeedback for the past 3 years. That’s really helped relieved the stress I might carry in my neck and back,” she says.
In September 2010, Inaba says she was finally able to return to her normal workout routine. “I had been working out for months prior, but I was taking it very easy. Then one day I just decided I’m going to push through this time because my back finally seemed strong enough. I can’t imagine a world where I’m not dancing.”
Or a world where she’s not stressed.
“There’s not too much time to relax these days, as my life has been very hectic outside of Dancing With the Stars. This summer, my father was diagnosed with Stage IV tongue cancer and I’m in the process of helping him through his chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He moved from Hawaii to live in CA close to me so I could help care for him.”
This isn’t the first time Inaba has been a caregiver. “My mother had breast cancer a little over 2 years ago, and I went through the treatments with her as well as choosing the doctor, deciding the treatment plan, etc.”
Inaba says her furry friends help her get through the tough days.
“I love animals and will go to great lengths to save one – or a dozen.”
She’s “mom” to three cats and in fact, says if she could, she’d open her home to every stray cat without a home. “I have a five-year goal of opening an animal sanctuary in Arizona. I saw the movie The Birds when I was a kid and even thought it scared me to death, I was so inspired by what Tippi Hedren had done with her animal sanctuary.”
Her relationship with fellow co-judges, Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli help, too. “I love those boys. Whenever they’re in LA, they come to my house for a BBQ and we play Wii. They make my job a great place to be.”