by Kirstin Tucker
On June 5, 2017, I was in an audition dancing for my life. I was having so much fun and giving it all I had. It was one of those rare auditions where you feel like you’re really nailing it. Then it happened. I saw the whole thing in the mirror as if it was in slow motion. I went to take my next step, and my knee decided to go the other direction, and with the next step, I was down and the tears began to flow because I knew something was really wrong. Strangely, I was in no pain. Two of the guys that were auditioning with me carried me out of the room. A friend ran across the street from Pearl Studios and got me REAL ice, not those little ice packs they keep there that do nothing. Other friends helped get my leg propped up, tied the ice to my knee with their clothing, and encouraged me. (To everyone in that audition room, my friends and those I didn’t know, thank you. You were all so wonderful and supportive!) I guess I was in denial about the severity of what had just happened, because I asked if I could still come back in and sing! The second I stood up, however, my knee shot backwards, I was unable to put any weight on it at all without it giving way, and the truth sunk in. Luckily I was able, with help from a loyal friend, to get in to see my doctor that day. With one small pull of my leg, he immediately scheduled an MRI. I had completely torn my ACL.
After getting the news and calling my family, and regaining at least some composure, I had to call my stage managers for A Bronx Tale. They were so wonderful and empathetic. They said of course I could take a medical leave and we would get it all worked out. An ACL recovery is a minimum of six months, so, keeping a positive attitude about the life of the show and my ability to rehab in that time, we set my date to come back to the show for January 4, 2018. I turned my attention to what I needed to do to get better. Living alone in a 3rd floor walk-up wasn’t gonna cut it post-surgery. I was going to need to sublet my apartment, get help from family, and to find a surgeon that understood dancers. It was a busy week, but everything fell into place, and I was off to Texas to have surgery, rehab, and to recover with my family.
Now I’m not going to lie and say that it was an easy road. I had surgery on June 23, 2017. Three days later, I started physical therapy. It was the most humbling experience I’ve ever had. As dancers, we are so used to being able to do anything with our bodies. Kick our faces, bend over backwards. You name it. And here I was laying on the physical therapist’s table, unable to pick up my leg to do a single leg raise. It’s in moments like that you have to make a decision. Who is gonna be in control? Your unfaithful body, or the mind that got you to Broadway in the first place? I decided to attack physical therapy. My new job was to do my exercises and listen to my doctors to do all I could to heal. My return date of January 4, 2018 became my focus. I was determined. After the first very hard week, things started to pick up. You get better quickly right away, and being able to just balance on one leg is a huge accomplishment. Then the plateaus hit. I had many, many moments that I would just stop and cry because I felt like I was never going to be able to get through it. But I would keep trying, and the next day, everything was (usually) easier again.
Injuries for me are more mentally challenging than physically challenging. Around the end of November, I really started getting in my head. I had to let work know by December 5th if I was coming back on time, and to be honest, I was freaking out. My PT kept telling me that I would be just fine, but I didn’t believe him. Things were still hard, and I was unable to do a plié on my bad leg. How on earth would I be able to dance so soon? Well, let me tell you, trust your physical therapists! They will get you through it. We worked together and pushed on and pushed harder to get me to where I needed to be. And guess what! We did it! I started working on show choreography at physical therapy my last month, and even got my PT to dance with me! I graduated from PT at the end of December after passing the crazy strenuous test that you have to get 95% on for the surgeon to release you. I got 99%. I am eternally grateful and have a whole new respect for Physical Therapists.
On January 4, 2018, I had my first show back from my medical leave. Right on schedule, seven months to the day from my last show. I was incredibly nervous before and during that first show. I couldn’t help but cry my way through the finale. I WAS BACK! It was so wonderful to be back on stage with my family from A Bronx Tale. They were the most supportive and loving group of people to me throughout my recovery, and it was amazing to be back with them. I felt right back at home with this incredible cast.
I am a person of faith, and I believe that things work out the way they are supposed to. As hard as this injury was, I’m still grateful it happened. Good things can and do come from life’s unfortunate events. The day of my surgery, my replacement made her Broadway debut. How awesome is that?! I was able to spend seven months with my family and even have Thanksgiving AND Christmas with them! When does an actor get to do that? I got to really know my two nephews and my niece and have created incredible bonds with them that I would never have without the chance to spend that time with them.
Importantly, I found new passions in life during this process, like wanting to be able to work with dancers on injury prevention, something I’ve found absent in a dancer’s training. I got my personal training certification this spring to work towards the ability to save others from injuries like mine. This injury has made me even more grateful for the body I have been given. It’s a miracle to walk every day, let alone dance. I am stronger now than I was before. I thank God that I can use my body and my new knee to be back doing what I love to do eight shows a week.
As a dancer, an injury can feel like the end of the world. It’s not. It is an opportunity. Work hard and surround yourself with people you love, and I promise, you will get through it. And as Ari’el Stachel said recently in his Tony Award acceptance speech, “sometimes your greatest obstacle becomes your purpose.”