Back From The Brink
Ballet dancers have nearly 100 percent injury rates. From minor sprained ankles to major bone breaks, nearly everyone faces time away from the stage sooner or later. The good news? Recovering from an injury doesn’t have to be a career setback. It can actually make you stronger, as these dancers discovered when they coped with the long, difficult journey back to the stage.
American Ballet Theatre soloist
The beginning of my 13th season with American Ballet Theatre marked an exciting time for me artistically. The cherry on top: I was slated to perform my first Giselle during the company’s spring Metropolitan Opera House season in New York. Needless to say, I was loving life. Then everything came to a screeching halt.
What began as a simple ache in my left calf quickly deteriorated into debilitating pain. Within a few weeks, I could barely walk, let alone dance. The injury proved to be an overstretched sciatic nerve in my back, but since the pain was in my calf, it went undiagnosed for months.
At first, I kept trying to work through it. I gave up performances reluctantly, little by little, but fought until the bitter end for my Giselle. I surrendered only after the doctors realized that there was nothing they could do for me. “The nerve will just need time to heal,” they said. “Maybe a year and a half.” Walking into the artistic office to relinquish my debut was devastating. It marked both the end of one struggle and the beginning of another—the long road back to health.
Over the next 12 months, my injury became the center of my world. I started to wonder if I would ever walk again without pain. And I had hundreds of setbacks. There were times when my calf would flare up just from spending too long standing in my apartment and I would need to spend the next three days in bed flat on my back. At my lowest point, grandmas in walkers would pass me on the sidewalk as I shuffled along. Unless I was bedridden, I was diligent about my daily trips to ABT for physical therapy. When seeing the healthy dancers and hearing the music got too intense, I started going to Westside Dance Physical Therapy for a mental reprieve.
Thankfully, I had an amazing support system. My family was wonderful, and as soon as I could, I went to Amsterdam to be with my husband, Sascha Radetsky, who was dancing for Dutch National Ballet at the time. I was completely down in the dumps, but being around Sascha made me feel better. Since he’s had three ankle surgeries, he could commiserate, and, more importantly, he was a great listener.
When a year had passed, I decided it was time to try dancing again. Back in New York, Craig Salstien, ABT soloist and company teacher, guided me. He taught me a private class every day. Technically we went back to square one—he micromanaged my every movement. Even though progress went at a snail’s pace, it worked. In three months, I was back taking company class, and soon after, I eased into rehearsal. Working with Craig, coupled with getting four cortisone shots in my back, had me dancing again.
Supposedly, I am healed now. I’ll still get a buzzing feeling in my foot every once in a while or my calf will ache a little, but the sensations are just a shadow of the original pain. Before, I had faith in my body to simply do the movement; now I’m more analytical. My moments of abandon now give me greater joy. It may sound clichéd, but I appreciate dancing more now that I know it can be taken away from me at any moment.
My first show back I performed one of the Odalisques in Le Corsaire. It gave me a sense of achievement that’s hard to describe. I was so overwhelmed with emotion because I realized I hadn’t let the injury defeat me. While a year-plus might not seem long, when you don’t know if you’re going to heal, it’s an eternity. I know now that, more than anything else, I want to dance. My spirit has been steeled.
—As told to Kate Lydon
New York City Ballet corps member
For some dancers it might be torture, but watching company performances and rehearsals kept me sane while I was out with a torn FHL tendon. I’ve danced my whole life; I couldn’t be away from it. Sometimes I’d feel angry and frustrated, but that made me more diligent with my physical therapy and more driven to stay in shape. And when you’re always dancing you rarely watch from the audience, so I made a point of sitting high up to see the architecture of the ballets. That taught me a lot: The dancers I loved most had no tension in their bodies and their faces were open. Every time I watched someone dance, I remembered what it felt like to perform, and recovery became my life.
Unfortunately, my injuries kept coming. It was the end of my first year as an NYCB company member when I first felt a debilitating pain in my right ankle and foot that turned out to be a tear in my FHL tendon. Coming back from surgery took eight months, but I felt like I had a new foot! I danced in the 2004/2005 season, but then I needed the same surgery on my left foot. Barely a year later I had a bone spur removed from that foot, too.
The first time I came back, it didn’t seem like that big a challenge. I felt stronger, and was dancing better than ever. The company even gave me some nice roles, making me feel like I had lost less ground. But the injury cycle continued and staying positive became hard. I don’t give up easily, but I felt impatient. Every day I was thankful to still be in the company, but I worried I might be thought of as the girl who was always injured.
With each setback, though, I realized I had become a little stronger emotionally and physically. Now when I’m onstage, I don’t worry about little things. I put everything I have into each performance. My injuries put my life into perspective. I know the pain of not being able to dance, so I try to dance each time as if it were my last day.
—As told to Jen Peters
Colorado Ballet principal
I always dreamed of dancing Odette/Odile. Then Swan Lake was scheduled for the fall of my 10th season. But during the Nutcracker run the winter before, my knee started buckling. I had noticed knee pain before but wrote it off and danced through it. During our January layoff I rested, hoping it would get better. It didn’t, and I started to worry. I went in for an MRI, but the images showed nothing, so I kept dancing.
But the pain didn’t go away. By March I made the difficult decision to have exploratory surgery. The doctors didn’t know what they would find. I’ve never had a major injury before, so I felt scared. Would I regain full mobility in my knee? Would I miss Swan Lake?
The surgery lasted only 18 minutes. They found a small tear in the medial meniscus—a little flap that was successfully removed—as well arthritis on the bottom of my femur bone. They did a chondroplasty for the arthritis, a procedure which roughs up the bone to promote tissue growth. They told me I would have 100 percent recovery. I made up my mind to come back in time to dance my dream role. I had six months to get into the best shape of my career. I was hard on myself. I wanted progress fast, but the chondroplasty made my recovery take longer. I did physical therapy three times a week, plus Pilates, walking, massage, acupuncture and icing. My husband, Rob, is also a dancer and he helped every step of the way. Another girl in the company had the same surgery on the same day, so it was helpful to talk to her. But I had difficult days when she was able to do more than me, and I felt her recovery was going faster than mine.
The company was off during my first four months out, so I gave myself a modified barre after three months and kept gradually adding on. I felt like I was learning to dance again. As we got closer to Swan Lake, I put more pressure on myself than anyone else did. My mind was absolutely set on getting onstage. I pushed too hard sometimes and the next day my knee pain would flare up and my leg muscles would become tight from compensating. Even through the pain, I never doubted that I would be able to get back in time. And I did. I performed Odette/Odile and didn’t miss a single performance. It was really tough some days, but there were performances when I actually forgot I’d had surgery I was so thrilled and thankful to be dancing.
—As told to JP