Category: Dance

Dancer In Recovery

I am trying to remember how my body works.

No, that’s not quite right. I know how it works. I know the stiffness of my knees in the morning, the strain of that early cycle into work. I know the clicks and clunks of my spine as I shift in an uncomfortable chair, the way my head feels too heavy for my spine, the threat of a headache that will linger for weeks.

But ballet… ballet feels like pouring myself back into an old mould, trying to inhabit the shape of it again. Tracing familiar paths, looking for the routes I remember. It’s familiar; I haven’t been gone so long. It’s unknowable; it is a thousand years since I have spoken this language and the words of it are lost to me.

Pliés are fine, though soundtracked by clicking joints, with the occasional throb of the left foot where I might have a stress fracture. (More likely, it’s a tendon problem. I’m to have an x-ray on Wednesday, just to be sure.) And I am remembering the rhythm of tendus, feeling the stretch of every fondu in calves strung tight by Irish dance, drawing up into a developpé supported by muscles honed more often by cycling than by dance.

It is attitude that poses the problem. Not mine — the step. Raised leg, bent at the knee, body making spirals from the floor on up and up. The hip injury that kept me from Irish dance all of last term makes itself known, reminding me that while I may have redirected some of my focus for the moment, these two disciplines are not so different that ballet is a place where I can escape from my injuries.

Of course I can’t escape from them; letting go of pain has always been my body’s problem. It insists on clinging to it, sounding alarms long after the fire has been put out. More than a quarter of my life has been soundtracked by those alarms, the ache in my hands still a barrier, if a smaller one than it was six and a half years ago.

My hips are tight, that’s the trouble with these attitudes. I am not currently capable of keeping my hips turned out the way they need to be, because after months of not being allowed to stretch, not being able to push too far, not being able to use them, the muscles around my hips are like a tight cage, trying to protect the fragile area.

I have been reading a book about pain, about how to tame it, because this is something I need to learn how to do. The book told me that a dancer who suffers from a foot injury will feel pain more intensely than an office worker with the exact same injury. For the dancer, this injury is a risk to their livelihood, their career, their passion — and so their brain processes the threat as much larger than the officeworker’s brain. And because the brain recognises a threat, it rings the alarm bells louder.

Brains are only trying to protect us, but sometimes, they are so bad at it.

My hip throbs. Except that’s not really what it feels like. It’s more of an… itching, underneath the skin. A scratchy kind of pain, like a low-level electrical current, or steel wool where there should be soft cotton. And with it comes a predictable cycle of thoughts.

You’ve injured your hip again, my brain tells me. You shouldn’t have gone back to dance. You should have waited longer. Now you’re going to have to take more time out. You should drop out of the show. How can you tell them that you have to drop out? You have a soloist role, you’re going to screw everything up for everyone. This isn’t going to go away. You could take the whole term out and as soon as you dance again it will come back. It’s never going to heal fully. You’re going to lose dance the way you lost music. You’re going to have go through all of it again.

Those last two thoughts worm their way beneath my skin, itchy as tendon damage. You’re going to lose dance. It’s a vicious whisper. You’re going to have to go through it all again.

Our brains know our worst fears. How best to frighten us into compliance. My brain remembers 2013, the overwhelming despair of losing the use of my hands, the profound depression when I didn’t know if I would ever write again. My brain remembers feeling like I barely weathered that storm.

My brain knows I’m afraid that if that happened again, I would not survive it.

The book I am reading about pain is very keen on stopping these spirals before they get to that point. It is, after all, very hard to deal with them once they already have, especially when they have such potent fuel as ‘past trauma’ and ‘legitimate anecdotal evidence’ to fan the flames. My brain processes the sensation of pain in my hip, draws its own conclusions based on several months unable to dance last year, compares that to the older injury and subsequent chronic pain and everything that I lost because of it, and concludes that this is the threat level it needs to process.

It says: you are going to lose dance.

The pain intensifies.

In an ideal world, or as ideal a world as one could find where I would still be experiencing the pain in the first place, I would stop my thoughts in their tracks almost immediately.

There is a pain in my hip, says my brain, in this not-quite-ideal world.

I can feel that, I would say in return. That doesn’t mean another injury. I must have overworked it a little today. I need to rest it. Perhaps a heat pack or a hot bath will soothe the muscles, and I can take some painkillers and go to bed. In the morning, it will have eased off. I’ll have to remember that pushing my turnout like that can trigger the pain, and take it slower in the future.

And my brain would say, Okay. I just wanted to make sure you knew about it, and I wouldn’t have an anxiety attack while cycling home, and the pain would lessen.

The things brains do to protect us are sometimes not as helpful as they should be, especially when they learned how to ‘help’ from a traumatic experience that has left them with a skewed understanding of the body. I am learning to acknowledge that. I am learning not to berate my brain for it, but to gently remind it that maybe it is reacting based on instinct, not evidence, and that perhaps this is closer to a PTSD episode than an objective assessment. Not all pain is life-changing, life-ruining, neverending.

But it is hard, when those are the tracks I have walked for so long. More than a quarter of my life. It feels unfathomable. If my seventeen-year-old self had known what my twenty-four-year-old self would be living with, what effect would that have on me? It is better, I’m certain, that I didn’t know. Hope is the only thing that kept me going.

I am not going to lose dance. These days it is less about hope and more about stubbornness. Even if my participation doesn’t always look like this, I have to believe that I will not lose dance. I refuse to consider the possibility of losing it. I have already lost too much, and the grief of that is feeding my fear now. I cannot give it any more fuel.

As I stand at the barre and assess my posture, perhaps it’s not that I need to remember how my body works. It is that I need to teach it all over again. I need to relearn the muscles and the joints, remapping my brain’s understanding until it no longer automatically associates my right hip with pain even in my imagination. I need to start again, from the beginning.

One hand on the barre, first position. Demi-plié. And rise.

Christ’s College Chapel, 20th December 2019

The pain management book I’m reading is A Practical Guide to Chronic Pain Management by David Walton. [NB: This is an affiliate link.]

To support me as a dancer (and, potentially, in getting therapy to deal with all the pain stuff), please consider dropping a couple of quid into my tip jar.