There are certain moments in a dancers career which are firmly sketched into our brains for the entirety of our lives. The moment we slip into a pair of pointe shoes for the very first time, or master a dreaded entrechat (still yet to do that), the first news of landing a role we worked so incredibly hard for, or the first bow in front of a an audience, who’s smiling faces in that split second, make everything worthwhile.
But like a quote I once read on the back of a Berlin toilet door ‘You can not have the sunshine without having the rain.’
No dancer’s career is complete without an abundance of stories filled with blood, sweat and copious amounts of tears. The first bloody blister that you learn to ‘just dance through’, the feeling of falling flat on your face in front of a hundreds of not-so-anymore adoring fans, the moment of great sadness the overcomes you when you’re not selected for a piece you feel you truly deserve, and then theres the moment what feels like your heart is literally being wrenched directly out of your chest – injured, you can not dance anymore. Whether it is for one week, six or career ending injury, being told as a dancer you can not dance is like telling a bird they’ve lost their wings.
Learning how to deal with injuries properly is something I believe ALL dancers should be educated on well before any injuries occur. It’s like making sure your home has fire extinguisher in your cupboard – you don’t know how much you need it until your French toast is in flames on the stove.
There are two incredibly important learning points I personally found life changing that I only was educated on from overcoming major injuries in my career ( it still astounds me that I wasn’t educated on these facts pre-injury). You shouldn’t have to get sick before you appreciate your health and you certainly shouldn’t have to suffer a serious injury before you’re educated on injury prevention and a healthy mindset during an injury and through the rehabilitation process.
Learning about injury prevention could be an atlas sized book in itself. It involves listening properly to your body and ensuring you’re looking after your body ‘correctly’. Everything from proper nutrition to self massage, baths, ice buckets, time off and strength and/or flexibility training. I’ll be delving deeper into injury prevention in another article but today I’d like to share with you one of the most important things anyone can teach you when dealing with an injury – your mindset.
If you’re not aware of my story, in the ballet world, it’s not uncommon. I was told at 16 years old I had Os Trigonum Syndrome. A small extra bone that develops behind the ankle bone. One moment I felt like I had the ballet world at my feet, the next I was sitting in an orthopaedic surgeons office being told I’d be in surgery next week followed by 5-6 months of rehabilitation and of course months bedridden, and out of the studio and stage.
At the time I was studying in Munich so I immediately flew home to Australia to have the surgery. My dreams, world and walking privileges came crashing down around me. Post surgery I had no rehabilitation program except a long list of movies I never had the time to watch, a fridge full of comfort food ( chicken nuggets and chocolate ice cream) and a new subscription to watch series online. As you can quickly guess, I feel quickly into depression. Why had this happened to me? What had I done in my life to deserve this? Questions that bounced constantly around my head for months on end.
I was put on crutches for nearly 2 months. After two months of morphing into a bed sloth, I attempted to begin the incredibly long hard road of getting back on my feet, regaining my strength and back into the studio. The process was tiresome and extremely painful and looking back on it now, my head had already given up before I even went under the knife.
Six months after surgery and months of rehabilitation after, I was back in the studio. Weak, scared and unmotivated as hell, although a part of me was still etching to get back to ballet. But all through the rehab process I had nothing but pain. Praying to the ballet body gods it would magically disappear – it did not. Scans showed my body had produced scar tissue exactly where the bone had been. The surgery wasn’t just unsuccessful but the chances of another surgery being successful were heartbreakingly slim and the possibility I may have problems walking for the rest of my life were terrifyingly high. I was told by the top doctors in the field that this is where my career came to a screeching end. Completely disregarding the surgeons advise, I demanded they do the surgery again.
Six months after my first ankle operation I was being wheeled into the operating theater for surgery number two. As I opened my eyes post surgery, leg in a cast yet again,I was determined this time had to work. No more feeling sorry for myself, falling into depression or being utterly sad. This was my last chance, and I had nothing but determination to show the world it could be done.
I put daily, weekly and monthly goals in place. Shifted my focus from sad, injured poor Ballerina to being lucky enough to be alive and blessed to have this time to focus on absolutely everything else. I began to read. And by read I mean every medical book, research study and Orthopaedic journal I could get my grubby little hands on. Instead of relying on others to swoop in and help me, I was determined to be my very own Queen in shining armour and attempt to heal myself. I began for the first time in my career to learn about the body. How it really works, how to fuel it properly, how to strengthen it properly and how to release muscles tightness. My entire diet changed and with that came motivation, energy and one hell of a faster healing body. I learnt about the power of my mind and how to talk to myself with positivity. I used the time off to strengthen parts of my body I neglected and spent hours upon hours on learning how to activate and engage my muscles in the correct way. Although I was yet to walk again my mind to body connection had never been stronger. I spent only 4 weeks off my feet post second surgery and came back with not only guns blazing but one heck of a strong body and spirit. The rehabilitation back to the studio and pointe work still took months but holy tutu was I stronger than I had ever been in my life. Twelve months after my first surgery I made my debut back onto the stage, pain-free. Not only had I defied the odds to dance and walk again but I came back stronger than I’d ever been in my entire life.
What I learnt through surgery round two gave me incomprehensible tools to take with me not just for the rest of my career, but the remainder of my life. It woke up the immense joy inside of me for sharing knowledge and helping others and ultimately became the birth of Train Like a Ballerina.
Getting injured does not have to be a career death sentence. Nor does it have to be a sad, depressing, horrible feat you must fight to overcome. Sometimes injuries are blessings in some seriously painful disguise. A sign from the dance bod gods telling you to slow the heck down. To learn to look after your body properly, to fuel it better, talk nice to it more often and to be ultimately kinder to this gift of a beautiful body you were so damn lucky to be given.
So if you are injured, have been or ever are in the future, I urge you to not fall deep into the sad ballerina injured, dark hole. Shift your mindset, change your short term goals, and fight for your dreams in the upmost best way possible. And I can promise you, your comeback will ALWAYS be stronger than your setback.