Gigi Crouch is not your typical ballerina – she has scoliosis.
But the 17-year-old ballet dancer refuses to let the condition – a lateral curvature of the spine – stop her from doing what she loves.
Crouch, who began ballet at age 11 to help with her flexibility for figure skating, was diagnosed with scoliosis just two years later – she had a 30-degree curve in her thoracic spine, and a 20-degree curve in her lumbar. This meant Crouch would have to wear a brace for roughly 20 hours a day.
“My mom had told me stories of her own teenage years in a brace, so I knew what was coming,” Crouch tells PEOPLE. “The brace was surprisingly easy to get used to, but still hard to get comfortable with the almost constant pressing of plastic to my skin. It was hot in the summers, and I would get heat rashes.”
Crouch, who took her brace off for good in October because she reached skeletal maturity, currently attends Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Professional Division.
“It is unbelievable how helpful it is to talk to people who have gone through and continue to go through the same thing as you,” Crouch says of finding a community of girls like her – and building her own community on Instagram, where she currently has over 106,000 followers.
“It was hard to be in middle school, so blatantly standing out, until I found Curvy Girls, which is peer support group for girls with scoliosis,” she says. “They helped me discover things, like which clothes to wear with the brace, and how baby powder could help diminish the heat rashes. They helped me emotionally and physically to deal with the brace.”
Now, she returns the favor. “I get messages on Instagram from girls with scoliosis, and I love being able to help. I realized that I could help when I started getting comments that I ‘inspired them’ and made them ‘realize they aren’t alone’ in this,” she says. “I feel so honored that people trust me and tell me pieces of their life.”
Crouch has advice for others with the condition: “There are going to be times when you are going to be limited. It is important to focus and explore what you can do rather than dwelling on that you cannot.”