Frequent blogger Kendal Hartse (Cinderella, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) discusses the importance of proper healing and support when recovering from dance-related injuries.
When I was on the national tour of Cats, I sustained what was nearly a career-ending injury. I was thrilled to be playing Demeter on the road straight out of college. I took my job even a little too seriously, never going out after performances and obsessing over keeping my body safe. I was 21, in amazing shape, and for five months I was able to sustain eight shows a week even through a tour that was all split-weeks (a full eight-show week that spreads time over two or more cities) and one-nighters (going to a new city for one show). Sometimes we'd spend hours on the bus in the mornings and afternoons and pull directly into a theater to do a show in the evening. But five months into the contract, a complicated lift I did every night went horribly wrong.
My usual partner was out, so we had a lift call with the dance captain before the show. Both my new partner and I struggled to perfect the complex sequence where he was required to throw me backward and to catch the small of my back on his shoulder. I then had to swing down into his arms where another dancer grabbed my legs and a third dancer moved underneath my unsupported torso to carry me offstage in a full press, all the way over his head.
I remember with perfect clarity jumping as hard as I could while my partner threw as hard as he could so we wouldn't come up short. This time, we overshot it. I ended up with my legs over his shoulder, my back bending, unsupported, at an extreme angle. Then I bounced. Then I twisted. I knew something was wrong right away, but adrenaline kicked in and I was determined to finish the show. It seemed okay until the finale when I spun to stand on one leg and it buckled underneath me, unable to support my weight. Limping, I called out of the second show and waited to see a doctor in NYC since we were heading into a layoff. And thank god we were.
I brushed it off at first. I was right out of my BFA program, and I wanted to appear strong and professional. I was optimistic and lighthearted about how quickly I was sure to recover. But later, I learned that this injury was potentially catastrophic. My SI joint was badly locked, I had damaged all of the ligaments connecting my spine and pelvis, and worst of all, I had fractured my spine. It was bad. I didn't know how bad until the treatments my doctor suggested didn't work, the physical therapist he had working with me pushed me to do exercises I was in no way ready for, and an idiotic chiropractor gave my broken spine an adjustment. Thanks to poor medical treatment and advice, what I thought was going to be three weeks off from the show turned into three months, then the tour closed, and it would be six months before I could tie my shoes without pain and a full calendar year with physical therapy three times a week before I could take a basic ballet barre. I didn't think I'd ever dance again. And I felt completely alone.
Something we don't talk about enough is the support dancers need when they have been injured. If they're lucky, they have an understanding company, stage managers, and colleagues who get that the thing the injured dancer wants more than anything in the world is to come back to work and start dancing again. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. In mine, I had no union support and had to hire an attorney to represent me to Workers' Compensation. Having just been back on a national tour for the first time since my injury this past year, the contrast between a company with AEA protections and rules and a non-Equity tour is night and day. The debates about the union and tour are not just about wages, but about making sure that actors, singers, and dancers' future careers are protected from these kinds of devastating accidents that can happen in a flash. In dealing with workers' comp while non-union, a series of anonymous claim adjusters handed me off to new adjusters, the longer my injury took to heal. In an attempt to save their company money, they tried to tell me that I couldn't possibly be that hurt. I had to take a bus at 4am to Baltimore to see a quack doctor paid by the insurance company or I would be denied treatment. He measured my calves, asked me to stand on my toes, and filed a report that said I was fine when my spine was literally still fractured and I couldn't bend forward to put on pants. To add further insult to injury, a small group of my cast mates blatantly accused me of lying about my injury to get out of my contract. It was devastating.
This is not new or rare. I have heard countless times the same trope of "it can't be that bad" when a cast member is out of a show with an injury for an extended period of time. I cannot stress enough just how damaging this is. Already feeling isolated by being unable to do the thing they love most, an injured dancer needs to be given permission to take the time to heal at their own pace. To make sure they return to work when they and ONLY they feel comfortable and confident. This will look different for each individual and our job as fellow artists and compassionate people is to give that time.
America as a whole has a problem with a "workaholic" complex. It's weak to call in sick. It's weak to take time off. It's weak to rest when your body or brain need a break. This is damaging in all vocations, but wildly so for an actor or dancer. Being encouraged not to miss shows means actors show up sick, thinking they can "push through" and then that sickness slowly spreads through the cast taking people out. I'm of the firm belief that actors should be encouraged by management to STAY HOME when they're obviously contagious. On that note, management should also never push an injured performer to go on. More than once in my career, I have tried to call out of a show only to be pressured to come in anyway. Because of the severity of the injury I sustained on Cats, I am always firm when I call out, but many younger or less experienced dancers are persuaded and end up endangering themselves and their partners.
Saying no is hard. We all want to be reliable and resilient, someone who can be counted on to deliver. To that end, when you show up to work, show up. If I am at work, I am always giving 100%. Part of what contributes to the myth of "fake injuries" or people not really being sick are the small number of individuals who take advantage of being able to call out or mark when they don't have to. Phoning it in can be seriously damaging to a company.
Know your body and own it. Athletes learn to "play hurt." You won't always be at your physical peak, you can't possibly be at your physical peak every performance 8 shows a week, but there's a difference between "playing hurt" and hurting yourself. Learn your limits. Learn to pace yourself. Learn what you can get away with in your off time. Don't take advantage of your company or put anyone in danger. Safety and health always have to come first. I will call out of a show rather than go on in a situation where I don't feel safe.
Prevention is more than half the battle. While the Broadway and touring communities have access to excellent doctors and physical therapists, non-union dancers and regional companies don't always have the resources for physical therapy or the money for adequate understudies and covers. This is a huge concern when it comes to performers pushing themselves to dance hurt. They have no way of recovering and no one to step in for them if they need time to heal. I would love for there to be more discussions about injury prevention in training programs, as well as more union resources for dancers dealing with injury.
One resource that is sorely lacking is any information on mental health and injury. The isolation and fear a dancer faces when they are forced to take time off from performing or leave a show to heal a serious injury can be crippling. As I previously mentioned, a lack of support or belief in the severity of the injury is part of this problem. Another huge aspect is the fear of re-injury. The mental blocks I had surrounding my injury took even longer to heal than the physical ones. It took years before I was able to dance, partner, and physically perform at my peak once again, and thankfully I was given the opportunity to do so and prove to myself that I could. But it took almost ten years after my initial injury that I finally started to see a mental health professional to unpack some of the damaging and traumatic mental attitudes that were wrought by my injury and the struggle I went through in dealing with it. The incredible healing I have been able to do through this therapy has helped me in my daily life as well as when I'm dancing. Physical therapy and mental therapy should go hand in hand.
I hope that we can continue to have discussions about keeping dancers safe and healthy both mentally and physically. I think it starts with trusting each other and listening when someone tells you they are hurt. Believe a dancer who says they need time to heal. Support dancers who need to call out and trust that they need it or wouldn't be doing it. Most importantly, it starts with dancers valuing their physical and mental health enough to slow down, practice self-care, and keep our bodies healthy enough to have long, thriving careers.