Sitting Out for the Season: How to Deal When You’re Sidelined by a Long-Term Injury

June 1, 2020

Jordan Nicole Tilton had always wanted to dance in Balanchine’s Apollo, and in her second year with Diablo Ballet she got her chance. But during dress rehearsal, she landed a sissonne wrong, sustaining a catastrophic ankle injury that required surgery and put her out for more than a year. “I was heartbroken,” Tilton remembers.

Every dancer will sustain injuries. This is a fact so certain that UK-based dance psychologist Dr. Lucie Clements encourages dancers to mentally prepare by understanding their company’s or school’s injury procedures before one even occurs. And when you are battling a long-term injury that leaves you out for the season, at least half the fight is mental. But with the correct mind-set and support system in place, you can get through a major injury and come out on the other side stronger.

Explore Other Parts of Your Identity

Clements notes that when she asks a dancer who they are, most reply, unflinchingly, “a dancer.” “The biggest challenge of a major injury is the threat to your identity and sense of self,” Clements says. Yet it’s also an opportunity to cultivate the other parts of who you are. If you’re struggling to identify outside interests, says Clements, consider what activities may inspire the same feelings that make you enjoy dance. For example, if you love ballet’s artistic expression, you may also like writing or drawing.

For Tilton, who has had recurring ankle injuries throughout her career, time away from dancing has allowed her to cultivate skills she has become deeply passionate about. After a terrible ankle sprain in 2013, while she was in the corps at San Francisco Ballet, she discovered a new passion for refurbishing furniture, which eventually developed into a side business called Rénové́.

Tilton turned the heartbreak of her most recent injury into a podcast called Ballet to Business, interviewing other dancer-entrepreneurs about why they started their companies and how dance has prepared them for life outside the studio. “I had no idea how much I needed to hear people talking about their injuries and hardships, and to hear about what they built during that time.”

Tilton in a white dress standing in arabesque onstage holding a scroll.

Jordan Nicole Tilton in Apollo, moments before seriously injuring her ankle

Bilha Sperling, Courtesy Diablo Ballet

Invest in You

Cataclysmic injuries can also be a lesson in self-care, whether that means investing in a strengthening routine or taking an enrichment class. “You think about all the things that are taken away from you,” says Tilton.

” ‘I can’t go to the studio, I can’t use my body, I am out of work.’ But the one thing that you are given is time.”

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Alejandro Diaz had been ignoring pain in his back and ankle for nearly five months. Because he had been newly promoted to principal, Diaz says he put a lot of pressure on himself to maintain his presence within the company. Eventually he succumbed to multiple injuries—a herniated disk, two bulging disks, torn ligaments in his left ankle, a bone spur and a broken cuboid. He was out for nearly a year.

Through his injury rehabilitation Diaz discovered Gyrokinesis, a movement method that focuses on strengthening, stimulating the nervous system and opening energy pathways. “The quality of the conditioning led me to have much greater awareness about the body–mind connection,” Diaz says. He was so impressed that he spent his recovery time getting certified to teach it, a four-part process that he will conclude in the fall. “I really believe that this was meant to happen.” Diaz pays it forward now by donating his time teaching Gyrokinesis to PBT School’s pre-professional students.

When Tilton decided to start her podcast, she enrolled in a web-based course called Power-Up Podcasting to avoid making common rookie mistakes. “It was absolutely worth it,” she says.

Diaz jumping in the air in sous sous in an all green unitard

Alejandro Diaz in William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated

Rich Sofranko, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Prioritize Friendships

If a dancer’s identity is hit hardest during an injury, their social life is a close second. Being out of the studio also means being away from some of your closest friends and confidants. Clements encourages dancers to stay focused on their most supportive relationships. “The biggest predictor of recovery from any stressful event is the strength of your social group,” she says. “Human beings don’t generally go through catastrophes alone.”

You don’t need to force yourself into the studio before you’re ready, but make social occasions or even regular chats on the phone with friends a priority. And cultivating relationships with nondancers can help broaden your world beyond ballet.

Talk to Someone Who Will Challenge Your Thinking

Be willing to invest in your mental health just as much as your physical health; negative self-talk, anxiety and even depression can creep in while you navigate a long-term injury. Talking about your fears and frustrations with loved ones can be beneficial, but if you are struggling to get out of a negative mind-set you may want to seek counseling. Speaking to a therapist is helpful, says Clements, because there is no one-size-fits-all antidote to managing mental wellness. For example, journaling may help some dancers identify and root out negative thought patterns, while for others it may cause harmful rumination. “When you seek counseling, you’re more likely to feel supported and do the things you need to do to get better,” says Clements.

Even in the most difficult circumstances, you’ll likely come out of your injury with some meaning attached to the experience. In retrospect, says Diaz, spending so much time recovering and retraining was like “coming home” to his best technique— and has made him a better dancer.