I stood in the second row for bows that Nutcracker performance. I was a fiery Spanish dancer with curls drawn on the side of my face. I had flirted with the audience and conspired with the conductor. It was a fun show but in that moment in the second row, I knew it was my last performance with the company. I knew that I was saying goodbye to the stage even though it had never been said aloud.
Two weeks prior to that moment I had begun to feel a consistent pain in my right hip. At this point, I was 5 months post op and had survived a run of Swan Lake. By Nutcracker, my body didn’t want to hold on any longer. My spirits were in even worse shape than my hip. It was a Sunday matinee, the end of a weekend of shows and that morning before the performance, as I sat onstage warming up for class, I curled up in the fetal position and cried. I couldn’t go on anymore.
My closest friends came to my rescue. I was in so much pain; the right side of my body was literally double the size of the left, from my knee to mid back. My skin was springy to the touch. It wasn’t normal inflammation. I had built up synovial fluid and no matter how much I tried to deny that anything was going on, I knew that I was doing permanent damage. As much as I wanted to and as much as I had always pushed before, this was the first time I actually knew I had to stop. Before I was caught crying by the entire company, knees tucked into my chest and sobbing, two of my closest friends picked me up and took me backstage. I had lost it and I think for the first time since my initial injury, a few other dancers that did see me crying, did not look at me as I expected. They were not judgmental, their eyes did not tell me to suck it up. They were surprised. They had never seen me like this. They knew I had cracked, and had never expected me to.
My closest friends helped me get through that day. It was because of them and their reminders to just be present and embrace each moment that I was able to put on my pointe shoes and get onstage.
In that moment during bows, surrounded by all of my fellow dancers, I cried silent tears. The lights shone down on me and I soaked in their warmth. I blocked out the looming doctors visit that I had the next day that would tell me to stop immediately, that I couldn’t go on any more. I closed my eyes and the applause embraced me.
When that appointment came and they told me I couldn’t dance anymore, that I had to let my body do what it needed to do, I felt a weird sense of relief. I wasn’t allowed to push myself any further without doing irreparable damage and developing early onset of osteoarthritis. In some extreme cases, synovial fluid build up could mean a loss of ability to walk. The only word that seemed to come to mind was terrified. I was terrified. For the next two months, I barely left the couch.
A couple of months prior I had enrolled in college and had been accepted into St. Mary’s LEAP program. It was a blessing of a program that was designed for professional dancers to work towards an undergraduate degree. I had already applied and been accepted. I knew I need a different distraction in life, one that made me more than a dancer, and in those two months on the couch, I began studying again. It helped reawaken my brain and it helped me move forward. There were times that I was frustrated by having to complete assignments– that I could barely deal with moving on from dancing that I shouldn’t be bothered to invest myself into my studies. While frustrated, I still dove in head first and spent all of my time on those assignments voluntarily because I never did anything half-way and it served as a good distraction from my depression.
Two months after Nutcracker ended, I was still doing as my directors had instructed me. I was laying low. I had not stepped into the ballet for a few months, other than to help with classes in the Academy. The company’s season for that year was quickly drawing to a close and contracts for the following year were being handed out. I was called in for a meeting to discuss my plans and contract and I went in with sweaty palms. I knew exactly what I was going to say, when they handed me my contract for the following year. And they did hand it to me and with that exchange, they vocalized that they hoped I would heal and return, but in response, I took a deep breath and began the speech that I had been planning, questioning, and playing out in my head for weeks.
The conversation went like this.
“I want to tell you that I respectfully decline my contract for next year.” I began to cry. “I truly believe that I am the luckiest girl in the world. I had five seasons to live and breathe my dream when with my hip dysplasia and patella alta, I really should have never been here in the first place. How many people get to say that they got to live their dream? So for that and for everything that you and the company have taught and given to me, I will be forever grateful and will cherish all of it every day.”
I look back on it and I don’t know how I found the strength to tell our artistic director, the man that had given me a spot, a place to realize my dreams, the man that I had tried to please every day, the man that I’d admired from the videos I watched when I was an aspiring child, the strength to tell him and give up what I was giving up. I’m surprised I was able to do it at all.
His response was the validation that I had been looking for so long and for so many years. He began to cry, offered me a Kleenex, and said “Wow. A damper on my day, but I respect you completely. You worked for everything you got. You deserved every part, everything you did. You were passionate.”
It brings me to tears now to even write it. Aren’t those the things that what everyone wants to hear in life? That they did the absolute best that they could?
I didn’t return because I needed true happiness. I needed peace within myself. On a very dire note, my body needed to heal without any expectations or my desire to come back stronger than before.
I spent the next six months trying to figure out my life. I cleaned out my locker at the ballet, I laid low, and I barely said anything to anyone. I was embarrassed, I was ashamed, and I didn’t want to deal with the drama at the ballet anymore. I wanted my body to heal and stop rebelling against me. I wanted to let my mind be free from worry and self-criticism, and so I began moving forward.
One of the principal dancers in the company owned a studio up the road from the company, with her husband. They were a serious team, training beautiful dancers “to be ladies and learn discipline, and whether they become professional dancers or not, be whatever and whoever they want to be” It was a sentiment that my mom always tried to instill in her students and thus I knew I wanted to work with them. I began teaching full time, sharing my love of ballet with these children. They were wonderful students, full of life and they would look at me with big, bright eyes and wanted to hear all about my professional experiences. I was young enough that I could relate to many of the older ones and they trusted me. I saw my younger self in a lot of them. I wanted to cultivate their love for ballet and in many ways, my excitement transferred to their young sentiments quite well.
It was a weird conundrum. I hated not being able to dance and I hated trying to get over some of my bitterness towards the company life. I felt betrayed by it all, especially because I still loved the art of ballet so much. It was a love that I couldn’t turn off and yet I felt like it hated me. The thing that made it all worth it though was at the end of my time there, just before I moved to Chicago.
In the couple of weeks before I moved, I was teaching the older students in their summer intensive. I was given free reign to choreograph and experiment with them in the studio. We worked on choreography and freedom of movement. It was the first time in the over year and a half since I left the company that I let myself truly move with my students. I let the music take over, I improvised, and I let my students follow my antics. It seemed more important to me than drilling choreography and spacing into their brains. Life is always changing and we have to learn to adapt. My adaptations still happen through movement. I reached, I moved, I let my feet articulate the floor. It was a groundedness that I had not felt for a long time.
I never fancied myself an amazing choreographer, and none of what I set on them was amazing, but they thought it was fun and that was enough for me. I just needed that movement. I loved finding a rhythm in my body and trusting it to push me across the floor. Perhaps I was not the best teacher for the few minutes that I would run that choreography with them, because for those few moments I was in my own world. Everything went quiet.
By that point, my life was so different than anything that it had been for years. I was eating normally, I was in a normal relationship, I did not wake up in the morning just hoping that my Achilles tendons would let me point and flex. I was studying while working full time and teaching ballet. I had students that looked up to me and came to me for advice. It was an honor to be entrusted with so many students and to share my love of ballet with them. Little do I think they know though how much they saved me. They brought me back to life and allowed myself to embrace all of the beautiful things about the ballet world. I was able to forget about all of the pain, physical and mental, and all of the self-deprecation I had put myself through over the years. They helped me to remember the deepest part of me that respected the art form, that I loved the struggle for expression, and the sheer joy that could wash over while moving. Those kids brought me back to life and I can now look on that last moment onstage as a beautiful few seconds in time. A moment in the light that I could bask in and remember fondly… grateful that it had even happened at all.