March 14, 2024

Ballet – Injuries and Their Lessons

About the Author: Suzanne Wagner
By Published On: March 14, 2024Categories: Ballet

Ballet – Injuries And Their Lessons

The discipline of ballet allows each dancer to create a baseline of strength mixed with flexibility, skill integrated with confidence. This comes from being able to do something again and again. And eventually the muscle memory is so strong that every dancer can do those motions … on demand.
When I was in SAB (The School of American Ballet), there was a doctor that wanted to study ballet students, professional ballet dancers, marathon runners, and other types of athletes and artists to get a better understanding of the types of bodies that have the capacity to handle such stresses that their art or athletic endeavors requires.
At the end of my testing the doctor said that I had the (almost perfect) ballet body. My bones were straight (except where I broke my ankle jumping off a slide when I was four and half trying to impress my sister and her friends). The doctor explained that because I was not quite straight between my left knee and my left foot, I would probably have an injury in that area at some time. But otherwise, my turnout was perfect for ballet (though the Russian Ballet Mistress, Danilova always wanted more), my flexibility was very good, and my spine seemed to hold the strength and flexibility to withstand the problems of impact from leaping and landing.
As my dance career advanced, I watched many dancers fall prey to terrible injuries that were devastating and sometimes career ending. There is nothing like hearing a bone break or a tendon snap in a rehearsal studio … or a performance.
One never forgets such a sound as it can crack in the room, and everyone cringes inside their own bodies in shock and sympathy. Dancers who work together are more intimately connected to each other than most families or mates. It is something that is hard to explain but on those deepest levels of being, we are all one. Our hearts beat to the same drum and our passions align with a ferocity that few humans completely understand.
When an injury happens to one … it happens to all of us. We are in such sympathy with each other that we cannot help but contract in pain with them.
The first real injury I had was in the Berlin Ballet with Goodrun Leben trying to “dance me till I died” during a Myrtha rehearsal. She saw rehearsals as endless repetition of sequences of jumps until fatigue caused my legs to buckle underneath me and I was on the floor.
With a smirk of success she said, “Rehearsal Over!” and walked out while I was trying to figure out how I got onto the floor in the first place.
Once she was gone, I caught my breath and was able to do an assessment on my body. I could see my ankle swelling (never a good sign) and while I could walk on it, it felt wobbly like it was too loose.
One of the dancers gave me the number of a doctor and physical therapist and the diagnosis was that I had strained or sprained my cross-tendon ligaments in my ankle.
Reflecting back on my time in New York, I realized it was my left ankle.
Of course it was!

That injury was easier to heal because it required electric stem to tighten up those overstretched ligaments and to wear a wrap on that ankle to give it support while it was healing. While it hurt to jump, I was not going to show pain around Goodrun Leben.
After all, she might take me out of the performance and that was a failure that my ego was just not willing to deal with at that time.
Dancers are always helping each other with back cracks and adjustments, meaning that we slightly throw our back out and need some taller dancer to pick us up, drop us down, and crack our back!
(Yes, I know all the chiropractors are cringing right about now!) But it worked.
Bleeding toes and feet were part of being a dancer. In Berlin, taking shoes off was not permitted for any reason. In Ballet West they were much nicer and allowed us a chance to let our toes heal or to bandage them so they would stop bleeding.
But accidents happen in the studio all the time.
I was in Ballet West and taking a class. We were supposed to do a coupe from one angle and then jump up and swing the right leg around from front to back.
A simple thing on a normal day but there are moments when the body is so tightly wound … that the slightest wrong motion is enough to break something. In this case, I went to go up, but suddenly there was a snap in my foot (my left foot) and I never got off the ground.
It is a surprise when such a thing happens. I stopped instantly because of the pain. I carefully walked back to the barre to try to figure out what I had done.
What was clear was that I could not push off on that foot at all! I instantly leave class and go to the administration and explain what has happened.
They call the orthopedic surgeon that they knew and trusted and I am quickly ushered into an appointment to see him. He takes a look and says that I tore the adductor muscles between my big toe and my second toe. That space looked like a canyon rather than a rolling plane.
That was not good, and I could see that it was turning purple. (An indicator of something torn and bleeding inside.)
The doctor said it would be 6 weeks off my foot. UGH!
Then he reminded me that dancers handle stress by moving and I was not going to be able to do much of that for a few weeks at least. He said to be aware that not moving would probably bring up a lot of anger and to not throw the dog across the room.
I laughed at that and promised I wouldn’t!

But he was more right than I knew.
The first shock was that I needed to go to the grocery store. As it was my left foot not my right, I could drive to the store. I thought everything was fine until I realized that I could not use my crutches (as I was not supposed to put weight on my foot) and handle a shopping cart at the same time.
I never even made it into the store. I just started crying my eyes out and then embarrassed (this was before they had scooter carts for those with walking problems) I left without going to the store. Once I got home, I called one of the dancers in tears and explained everything and asked if they could go get me groceries.
They were more than happy to do that, and I was eternally grateful for their help in that moment.
It was a shock to not be able to do such a simple task.
After my 6 weeks healing, getting back to the studio was so very exciting because while I did not throw my dog across the room, I did realize that I did not have any other coping strategy for anger other than dance. It was the first time I realized that I needed to do some deep inner work and soul searching.
I remember, getting back to the studio and Bruce Caldwell (a principal dancer with Ballet West) was there also warming up and doing some recovery of his own. As I try to do a small relevé, I realize how my foot seems to literally be missing something. To my shock, I have no strength in that foot, and I have to modify my movement to even be able to lift my heel.
Instantly, I start crying and I want to collapse but Thank Goodness, Bruce Caldwell was there. He instantly came over and said that I had to take it slow. That rebuilding the strength in the foot takes time. He was so very kind. He gave instructions on what he would try and past challenges that he had to work through. I was so grateful for his honest and gentle heart and sharing. Together we continued to work through issues and figure things out.
While it took me a few weeks to get back into the swing of things. I was able to slowly get better.
But by the time of a performance, I was not super confident about my foot. Yet we were doing Swan Lake, and I was in Big Swans and the Russian Princess in the 3rd Act. Both fabulous soloist roles filled with amazing music and intricate choreography.
All was well until I went to do opening night with the Russian Princess. During the beginning of the solo, suddenly I hear a ripping sound like Velcro tearing. Instantly, my whole left leg goes numb. I can’t feel below my knee. And this variation is on point most of the time.
I had to trust that my foot knew where it needed to be and that my legs could keep going. Which miraculously they did. After I bow to the Prince, I walk back to sit and watch the other dancers perform. I have to sit in a stately way with my left foot underneath me (pointed in the point shoe to look pretty) and my right foot beautifully extended like a picture of grace). All I could think was, “Oh dear, did I just re-tear that part of my foot again?”
But after the show my foot felt fine in fact better than fine. I had more flexibility back and the physical therapist said that I probably tore the scar tissue that is stronger than regular tendons or ligaments. That made sense because after that, I really had no problems with it.
The biggest injury came while I was at Ballet West after the whole Toni Lander/Abdallah fiasco. That whole year was a walking disaster. The tensions and pressures were more than at any time in my life. After all, I had been rejected by Toni, relegated to not dancing in Abdallah, dealing with the dying process of Toni, getting Mono and physically collapsing after the Kennedy Center performances, Toni dying, one of the dancers dying in a car accident on the way to our Summer Aspen Programs, not realizing that I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, having panic attacks, and then Bruce Marks announces that he is leaving to go to Boston Ballet, and then he decided to give me one of the soloist roles in Abdallah.
What was clear was that he did not have any concern about my abilities … but Toni did. After her death, he gave me a cherished role in that ballet. While I was excited to prove myself to Toni (even in death), I did not realize the power that Toni had over my psyche. She had lambasted me with a thought virus when she said, “You are not a Bournonville dancer! You will never be in any of my ballets! It is my ballet and I get to choose who is good enough!”
I had suppressed that voice to the best of my ability, but it was eating at my soul in ways that I did not fully recognize until it was too late.
We are at the Dress Rehearsal on the stage with costumes and sets, when suddenly I am jumping and this time, on my right foot, I hear a very loud snap! Instantly I am down grabbing my foot in agony. Quickly everyone leaps into action and ice is administered and I am off to the Orthopedic Surgeon once gain for an emergency evaluation.
He takes one look at the nodules swelling on my Achilles’ tendon and says, “Congratulations you have torn your Achilles tendon! This is not something you can dance on. If you try to dance on it and it fully tears all the way through, then it will ricochet up to your thigh and then I will have to pull it down from there and it will be a career ender for you! You have to be completely off your leg for 6 weeks. There is not enough blood flow through this area, and it is very slow to heal. In six weeks, come back and I will see if you can actually go back to work!”
In my ballerina crazed mind that wanted to prove myself in Abdallah, I was not going to let that happen. I had a week to let it heal. But I was going to do that performance! I was not going to fail!
I have my final dress rehearsal before the show, and I am out there clenching my teeth in pain as I am dancing. Tears are streaming down my face turning my makeup into black streaks of distress. I manage to finish the variation. But I know that I cannot perform.
Just attempting it that one time made it completely clear to me that I was unable to dance at all without risking my entire career. And I was not willing to give up everything for this ballet.
That was when I realized that inside my head, I could still hear Toni’s voice saying, “You are not a Bournonville dancer! You will never be in any of my ballets! It is my ballet and I get to choose who is good enough!”
That was when I realized how powerfully I had taken in her venom. She was dead but her voice was still haunting me. I realized that I had torn my own Achilles tendon because some hidden part believed her and believed I was not good enough. It showed me the power that one person can have over another. It made me realize how some part of me was still trying to get her approval.
Needless-to-say, Toni won! I never danced any of her ballets! Ever!
I would only be years later in a dream that she would come to me and with real sincerity, say to me in my dream, “Suzanne I am so sorry for doing that to you! Can you ever forgive me!”
And in the dream … I could! In that moment, I did forgive her. In that moment of forgiveness all the upset, resentment, anger, fear, loss, and pain lifted. And I felt complete.
Whatever this karmic process was with her was finally complete. I felt free and I believe it also freed her as well.
To this day, I am very grateful for that entire process even though it was so very painful. I learned that while we don’t always get what we want, getting what we want is most often not the purpose in the first place.
We are here for lessons in forgiveness, grace, and acceptance. We are here to learn that we are all human and that we are not invincible. We are here to learn that to be great … we will fail many more times than we succeed.
We are here to learn that bodies break down and sometimes the mental projections of others can be tremendously detrimental to our confidence and success.
I learned from all my injuries to look to the deeper meanings when the body breaks down. The mind can only override the body for so long. The body can only hold so much trauma and dysfunction before it will no longer be able to hold that type of tension and pressure.
I have learned how to be so much kinder to myself because of being injured. I have learned how my body can be my greatest teacher … if I learn to listen.
I have learned that while I have a powerful spirit, I must remember that there has to be a tenuous balance between what my spirit demands and what my body and emotions are capable of in certain moments.
I learned that when that balance is there, magic can happen. I have learned that in that balance, there will always be tensions trying to find a way to work together towards the best outcome.
And I now know that the greatest self I have to offer this world is when I keep all of those parts inside my being talking with each other, listening to all the voices, and working out ways that everyone can win.
Remember to thank your body for giving you these special moments in your life. For giving you the ability to feel into oneself and others. Your body gives you the ability to feel passion and physical love. It gives you the ability to marvel at a sunset and the snow-capped mountains. It allows you to feel one with nature and to hear the whispers in the wind.
Thank your soul for being a guiding light in this darkness of this world’s density. For constantly reminding you that you have more to offer than you know and that the light inside of you will never really be extinguished.
And thank your heart for continuing to try and for knowing that love is the way and that love is what creates those spaces for magic to happen.
If you can remember those essential pieces in this complicated puzzle that is life then you will evolve, you will find a path that shines your light and you will make a difference in this world.
~Suzanne Wagner~

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