In May 2013, I ended my 20-plus-year relationship with ballet.
Over the length of two performances, May 4 and 5, 2013, I danced for the last time in front of an audience during Wonderbound’s “Industrial Project,” a series of performances produced, choreographed and promoted by the dancers of the company with all proceeds benefiting the Artists Resource Fund for transitioning dancers.
It was a small, anticlimactic role. But I rationalized that it was a way of putting a clean end on a lifetime of work.
Leading up to those performances, I promised myself not to cry. But, when all the Wonderbound dancers huddled together to have a shared moment and artistic director Garrett Ammon thanked me for my short time with the company, I couldn’t help it. I wept openly.
I looked around at the faces of my fellow dancers, feeling the grips of the two standing next to me tighten on my hands. At that moment, I thought, “This is it. In less than 48 hours, I will no longer be a dancer.”
To fully tell my story, I need to rewind to the fall of 2012.
I had recently moved across the country, trading in my concrete playground of Manhattan, where I danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, for greener pastures out west to accept a position with Ballet Nouveau Colorado, now known as Wonderbound.
Prior to my two and a half years in New York, I danced with the Minnesota Ballet and the James Sewell Ballet, also in Minnesota.
I sold most of my belongings in anticipation of my fifth cross-country move and prepared to start over in a new city once again. After spending four years vying for this job, leaving New York seemed like a small sacrifice.
About two months into Wonderbound’s 2012-2013 season, I began to feel pain in my right leg.
As a long-time dancer, pain management was part of my daily routine. So I attributed the growing ache to the usual soreness and spent about a month desperately icing, heating, massaging and favoring my left leg in rehearsals. I was convinced I could beat it and didn’t want to admit to my superiors – or to myself – that my body was not able to withstand the rigorous schedule.
At one point, my sister Jennifer observed me hobble from the sofa to the kitchen in the townhome we shared.
“Stephanie, that’s not normal,” she said.
Upon Jennifer’s insistence, I made an appointment with the ballet company’s orthopedist.
As things seemed to be wrapping up at my initial appointment with the doctor, I asked her, “What do I need to do to be able to perform this weekend?”
The orthopedist had just watched me walk from one side of the small room to the other. She had an ominous look on her face.
Immediately, she sent me in for a computed tomography (CT) scan and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan with an arthrogram injection to have dye injected into the tissue of my hip joint. I was about to become very familiar with these procedures as I went on to have two CT scans and six MRIs over the following four months.
The official diagnosis was a spiral fracture on my right femur and a tear to the labrum, the protective tissue surrounding the head of the femur, in my corresponding hip. The diagnosis took about six weeks to pinpoint due to a stress reaction and bone contusion to my leg.
Dr. Brian White, a surgeon with Western Orthopedics in Denver who specializes in labral reconstruction of the hip joint, told me the fracture was a trauma injury.
I traced it back to a fall in rehearsal and possibly inadequate nutrition. I thought perhaps I had not been eating enough to support the level and quantity of dancing I was doing. But this is just speculation on my end. The immediate treatment was time off and pain medication. The doctors put me on crutches and prohibited me from weight-bearing activities.
A few weeks in, I began physical therapy twice a week, executing simple exercises like flexing and releasing my quadriceps muscle. It was humbling to relearn basic movement patterns.
I became reliant on others for simple tasks like grocery shopping or even carrying a coffee cup across the room. I gained weight due to my uncomfortable sedentary state. I felt betrayed by my body, frustrated with my physical limitations, anxious about the future and jealous of my colleagues’ able bodies and busy dancing schedules.
Friends kept encouraging me to “buck up” because things could be worse. Their incessant optimism only made me feel awful for feeling awful.
After 12 years of fighting for my dance career, it became clear this was not an injury from which I could bounce back. My body had already been through too much, and I felt fatigued from chasing my dreams. While I had always had outside interests, I was now forced to really look at what life would be like post-dancing.
Losing your mobility
My story is not uncommon in the dance world, especially in the United States where contracts are seasonal, ranging from 20 to 40 weeks for most regional companies. With little job security and meager paychecks, dancers frequently push through injuries, even broken legs.
Stephanie Burg danced with Charleston Ballet Theatre for eight seasons before a bulging disk in her cervical spine sidelined her indefinitely. She was injured during a rehearsal, while working with an inexperienced partner.
“Sometimes we are asked to do things we aren’t trained for,” Burg says, recounting the afternoon that she and her partner attempted to work through the complicated sequence that eventually compromised her safety and strained her neck.
Feeling pressure from her director and choreographer, Burg says she continued to dance in spite of her searing neck pain.
“We often fight through injuries because we are scared of losing our place in a company or production,” Burg says. “Emotionally charged, we feel like we don’t have a choice.”
Burg says she was baffled and demoralized when she learned her injury was a “partial-permanent disability,” meaning she could not dance at the same caliber anymore. After training for the greater part of her life, Burg felt like her body had let her down when she needed it the most.
Nick Mullikin, who had a professional career with the Houston Ballet in Texas and Ballet West in Salt Lake City before a shoulder injury forced him out of the occupation, says he also tried to push through an injury until he couldn’t stand the pain anymore.
Mullikin was in rehearsal with Ballet West when his shoulder dislocated during an overhead lift with his partner. Initially, Mullikin was told he could return to dancing in a week. But he didn’t make it back to rehearsal until four months had passed, only to learn that he had stretched his cartilage tissue so much it was no longer able to hold his shoulder in place.
Agreeing to have the surgery to address the constant pain, Mullikin says he knew it would end his career.
“It was weird to be so flexible, and then all of sudden be so immobile,” Mullikin says, recounting the frustrations he experienced post-surgery.
Losing your identity
Because dancers’ lives are often wrapped up in their careers, the lines between the professional and the personal can blur. That’s why serious injury has such a visceral impact on people who dance for a living.
I wasn’t ignorant that my career as a ballet dancer had an expiration date; a body can only take so much high-impact activity. But face-to-face with the mortality of my dancer lifestyle, I found the breakup more painful and challenging than I had anticipated.
“For a good month after my diagnosis, I couldn’t get out of bed,” Burg says. “I felt like I had lost whom I was.”
Mulliken admits that the emotional impact took him by surprise as well.
“I wasn't prepared for how to deal with the idea that I was never going to be a dancer again,” Mullikin says. “I had spent 25 years of my life dedicating myself to this and all I had was my body. Now it was broken. I lost a lot of hope, and the idea that I could do anything I wanted. I had reached my physical limitations, and didn't feel like the same person. Something inside me died.”
American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland addresses her battle with injuries in her recently released memoir, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina.”
“One minute you are the star, and then you are hurt,” Copeland writes in her book. “Someone moves into your light, and you disappear so completely, you cannot find your shadow.”
“Star” would not be the correct word to describe my ascension in the ballet hierarchy, as I spent my career with small, regional ballet companies. However, Copeland’s words bring back painful memories of witnessing the entire Wonderbound season go by from the sidelines, as another dancer flourished with the company in my place.
‘Great creativity should not be life-threatening’
Dancers pride themselves on being artists. But we are also athletes.
The demands on a dancer’s body are often more strenuous than those facing a football or basketball player, according to Erroll Bailey, M.D., a sports medicine foot and ankle specialist at Resurgens Orthopedics in Atlanta, Ga. Bailey works regularly with the Atlanta Ballet, and refers to dancers as “artistic athletes.”
“Dancers should strive to never sacrifice their health for their artistry, and learn to identify the difference between soreness and actual pain,” Bailey says.
Artistic director of Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet, Ashley Wheater, hopes to use the experiences he learned from his dance career and battling with injuries to influence his direction as an artistic leader.
After a long, successful performing career with companies like the Australian Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet, Wheater says his retirement from the stage came in the form of a devastating neck injury that required surgery, fusing together three of the vertebrae in his cervical spine.
Now, Wheater says he tries to be more cognizant of the “interaction between the artist and the art.” Wheater focuses on empowering his dancers to speak up when they feel nervous about specific choreography because they should not feel like they have to sacrifice their safety for their artistry.
“Great creativity should not be life-threatening,” Wheater says.
I started taking dance classes when I was 10. I’m now 32 and working as a journalist. So, I’ve spent about two-thirds of my life in the dance studio. That was where I belonged, what I knew as my day-to-day reality.
A year out from my retirement, I still grieve at times. I am reminded of a “Sex and the City” episode when the prim-and-proper character Charlotte York tells her three friends that it takes about half the amount of time you’ve been in a relationship to get over one. Based on those calculations, I have another nine years to go to recover from my dance career.
Yet, I’m learning that life goes on – with or without dancing – and I am healing by finding new outlets to focus my energies.
Burg, who now enjoys her work as a certified holistic health coach, says it’s about “learning to shift things in a more positive direction and ultimately rearranging who you are.”
So that’s what I’m doing: rearranging how I see myself, while still honoring all the parts of me that are representative of my dancing roots.
Exactly a year ago, I performed for the final time in Wonderbound's “Industrial Project.” The dancer-led, postseason production returns this year, May 2 and 3 at Wonderbound’s headquarters in Five Points at 1075 Park Ave. W. All proceeds from the performances go to benefit the Artist Resource Fund, a fund set up by the artists of Wonderbound intended to help dancers transition out of their performing careers. For more information, visit Wonderbound.com.