Dancer Constance Devernay Details Lifelong Struggle with Asthma: It 'Wasn’t Going to Stop Me' (Exclusive)

“My family was always very positive and told me, ‘Don’t limit yourself. Just learn to live with asthma,’ ” the French-born prima ballerina tells PEOPLE

<p>Shot by G.S.; Sian Trenberth Photography</p> Constance Devernay

Shot by G.S.; Sian Trenberth Photography

Constance Devernay

It was the final rehearsal on the day of the Scottish Ballet’s opening-night performance of Swan Lake at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal in April 2016. The company’s principal ballerina, Constance Devernay, was in the midst of a pas de deux with her partner when she suddenly began gasping for air.

“I was really not breathing,” recalls Devernay, who had been dancing with the company since 2008. “I started to feel the wheeze coming on, so I told my partner, ‘We have to stop!’ ”

Fortunately Devernay’s boyfriend and fellow solo dancer Jamiel Laurence saw her struggling and grabbed her inhaler.

“We ran to get it just in time,” recalls Laurence, 35, who married Devernay in June 2022. After she used her inhaler and rested for five frightening minutes backstage, her breathing stabilized, and she was able to finish the rehearsal — and dance the premiere performance that night without a hitch. “I’ve had to learn through the years [the difference between] being tired versus an asthma attack coming on,” says Devernay, who was diagnosed as a child. “Luckily it was just the rehearsal.”

<p>Courtesy Constance Devernay</p> Devernay practices yoga daily to supplement her dance skills.

Courtesy Constance Devernay

Devernay practices yoga daily to supplement her dance skills.

Devernay is among 300 million people worldwide who suffer from asthma — including an estimated 26 million Americans. The chronic respiratory disease causes inflammation and a narrowing of the small airways in the lungs, with a range of symptoms that include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest.

While there’s no cure for asthma — which can be triggered by stress, food allergies, pollen and cold weather, among other things — new treatments developed in recent years have made the disease much more manageable.

“We used to have people with severe asthma in the hospital all the time, wheezing, and we just don’t see that anymore,” says Dr. Brian Christman, a professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. “For a lot of people, if they just manage their asthma well, they’re able to do whatever they need to do in any athletic endeavor.”

Related: Olympic Swimmer Dara Torres on Her 30-Year Journey with Asthma: 'It's the Challenges That Motivate Me' (Exclusive)

<p>Courtesy Constance Devernay</p> Constance Devernay at age 6

Courtesy Constance Devernay

Constance Devernay at age 6

For most of her life Devernay has successfully used inhalers twice a day to prevent attacks.

“I’ve had to learn the triggers — theaters that get dusty, certain shows that use dry ice or when I’m running or putting in [physical] effort,” says the 33-year-old award-winning dancer, who left the Scottish Ballet in June 2023 and now lives in North London with her husband. “I was going to make it as a ballerina,” she adds. “My asthma wasn’t going to stop me.”

Devernay grew up in the city of Amiens, in northern France, the youngest of three children to Marc Devernay, a retired construction company director, and Carole, a former interior designer. “We were a very active family,” she recalls. “It was always tennis, running and cycling.”

She was just 6 years old and out horseback riding with her mother when she suffered her first asthma attack. “My mom would always take me horse riding. I loved it,” recalls Devernay. “And then one day I just couldn’t breathe. My mom didn’t know what was happening and panicked.”

Following a battery of tests, doctors discovered that she was allergic to pollen, animal fur, dust and certain trees, among other things; not long after that, they determined that her allergies had triggered her asthma. “I always had to write down what gave me a reaction,” recalls Devernay, who stopped horseback riding but, at her mother’s insistence, took up other sports including jogging and tennis.

“My mom wanted us to be active, but I had to learn to pace myself,” adds Devernay, who stopped playing tennis after discovering she was allergic to the red clay dust. Her doctor suggested she try indoor dance classes — and “I fell in love with it,” recalls Devernay, who entered her first competition at age 9.

<p>Shot by G.S.</p> Devernay in London in 2023, where she lives with her husband, fellow dancer Jamiel Laurence.

Shot by G.S.

Devernay in London in 2023, where she lives with her husband, fellow dancer Jamiel Laurence.

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Three years later she successfully auditioned for the prestigious École Supérieure de Danse de Cannes Rosella Hightower in the South of France, a 12-hour drive from her hometown.

“I had to do a lot of convincing with my parents to let me go,” she says. “But that’s when dance became more than a passion for me, I realized, ‘I’m good at this, maybe there is a career here.’”

In 2002, at age 15, she was accepted into the esteemed English National Ballet School in London, where she studied dance during the day and attended educational classes at night. “My parents are very academic, and that was the deal,” says Devernay. “I had to get my French baccalaureate [high school diploma].”

She credits her parents’ unfailing support with helping her learn to manage her asthma. “They never wanted it to limit me and say, ‘You can’t do something because of your asthma,’” she says. “They were like,  ‘As long as you’ve got your inhaler, you know what you’re doing.’”

<p>Rimbaud Patron</p> Devernay dancing with Ryoichi Hirano in the Scandal at Mayerling ballet in May 2022.

Rimbaud Patron

Devernay dancing with Ryoichi Hirano in the Scandal at Mayerling ballet in May 2022.

She also started practicing yoga to supplement her dance skills — and soon discovered that it helped her build stamina and increase her breathing capacity. “It’s about going down into the low belly and using your full, deep breath,” says Devernay, who is now a certified yoga instructor.

In 2008, when she was 17, she was admitted to the Scottish Ballet based in Glasgow. “It was amazing. Straight away I got to tour,” she says. “We did the ballet Carmen and traveled to China.” A touring repertoire, the ballet troupe has about 100 performances a year throughout Scotland and the United Kingdom and also performs internationally in Asia and the U.S. Known within the ballet community as Coco, Devernay quickly established herself as a rising star and in 2016 was promoted to principal dancer. “I loved dancing and I loved the company,” says Devernay, who met Laurence, also a soloist dancer, in 2009.

“Being married to another dancer, we understand the pressure, the dreams and the tough and happy times,” she adds. “We grew as a couple dealing with each other’s daily struggles. And we got to tour the world together, which was really amazing.”

<p>Shot by G.S.</p> Constance Devernay

Shot by G.S.

Constance Devernay

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Last June, Devernay fractured her left foot while performing in The Crucible in Nashville. It proved to be her final performance for the Scottish Ballet, not because of her injury, but because she’d been offered—and had accepted—a new creative opportunity. By September she’d recovered and was dancing again in Ballet Nights, a cabaret-style show in London produced by Laurence and featuring some of the world’s top ballet and contemporary dancers.

“I felt like I needed new things to sort of revive me,” says Devernay. Later this year she also begins filming for a new Prime Video eight-part dramatic series called Étoile, about two prominent ballet companies from executive producers Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, the Emmy Award-winning creators of Gilmore Girls and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. “It’s very exciting,” says Devernay. “I’m really looking forward to this next chapter.”

Until then she’s enjoying life at home in North London with Laurence and their cat Apollo, practicing yoga daily, going on frequent runs and taking professional classes with the Royal Ballet Company.

“Last week I went out for a run on one of those really cold days, and I could feel my asthma was flaring,” says Devernay, who hasn’t had a full-blown attack for several years. “So I just sat there for three or four minutes—and told myself I wouldn’t run as fast as I would want—and then I carried on. I’m quite a determined person,” she adds, with a smile. “My asthma hasn’t kept me from doing anything I want to do.”

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