Living Again, Through Dance
“A dancer dies twice”, Martha Graham said, “once when they stop dancing, and this death is more painful”.
If that’s the truth, I was born first on May 7, 1987 and a second time when I turned four years old and my parents gave me a pink tutu and lessons at Paulette’s Ballet Studio in Newton, MA. I remember my first wobbling steps into that life: learning my ronde de jambe à terre on a big paper “D”, watching in awe as the bigger girls took their class, and performing in a recital dressed as a clown in a very itchy costume that I adored anyway because of its rainbow tutu. It was a life I loved, filled with classes and friends at Boston Ballet School, and endless performances of the Nutcracker – with a stint as Clara one season. I could see a future in that life.
Midway through that life, at 13 years old, I began experiencing swelling and pain in the fingers of my right hand and was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (then called juvenile rheumatoid arthritis). I became sick quickly and as the disease spread to most of my joints I could barely walk, but I continued to stand at the barre every day, struggling to hold my arms in the proper positions.
Some days, all I could do was stand still and will myself to stay upright.
A combination of medications eventually allowed me to return to dancing the way I was used to. By the time I was in high school, I danced six days a week outside of school, and because I went to a performing arts high school, I danced in school too. Throughout those years, I attended camps at San Francisco Ballet School, The School at Jacob’s Pillow, and a program in Italy with former Boston Ballet Artistic Director Anna Marie Holmes.
There were times when arthritis interfered, but it never stopped me, until a surgery to repair a labral tear in my hip revealed extensive damage to the joint. I was advised I would need a hip replacement by age 40 if I continued to dance. I brushed this off because at 17 years old, who can imagine 40? Due to the surgery, I was unable to dance most of my senior year of high school, and had to cancel my auditions for Julliard and Indiana University. Disappointed but largely undeterred, I made the decision to spend the next year recuperating, training intensively, and auditioning for professional ballet companies.
The recuperation never came. My pediatric rheumatologist pushed me to quit dancing and it eventually became apparent to me that my body would not allow me to dance professionally. I didn’t know how to be a dancer without pursuing it as a profession, so I stopped completely.
If I wasn’t a dancer, who was I?
Martha Graham’s statement may sound dramatic, but I found it to be true. A part of me did die when I took off my pointe shoes. If I wasn’t a dancer, who was I? I was lonely and listless. I avoided going to performances because it would depress me. I moved forward with other ventures, like college, but I moved into these new experiences with a hole in my heart.
Eventually I had that hip replacement, but I didn’t dare hope it would allow me to dance. That the restrictions that went with my shiny new hip included “no rotation, no 90 degree angles, and no running unless you’re being chased” was enough to dissuade me from even thinking about it. My illness and my limitations became my identity and I searched for a community that showed me how to be this “sick person”.
What I found was a vibrant community of people who push to do the things they love. They run Spartan races and do triathlons, they climb mountains, they take care of their families. They use their voices to advocate for people living with chronic illness and chronic pain. They are athletes, they are artists, they are thinkers and doers, readers and writers. They struggle and they persevere.
I went online to learn to be sick; what I learned instead was how to live.
An idea began germinating in my mind, nagging at me every so often. I ignored it as long as I could, dismissing it as a certain disaster given the restrictions on my hip. I began going to Pilates and riding a stationary bike, telling myself it was just to improve my strength and stamina, both of which had severely deteriorated. On January 1, 2016, I made a resolution: I would start dancing again. I told no one, but I began to live again.
After some months of gently readying my body, I emailed a studio, and described in detail my past injuries and current state of health, half hoping they would tell me this was a bad idea. “Come on in”, they said. I put it off further, waiting to have my 5 year follow up at orthopedics. Finally, I went to see Alvin Ailey as the company came through Boston. A high school classmate, a beautiful dancer whom I have always admired, is a company member. I waited at the stage door to say hello, and as we caught up I mentioned I no longer danced, but was toying with the idea of returning. “Do it”, she said. That was really the last bit of encouragement I needed.
I nervously purchased a pair of ballet slippers. “What are these?”, asked Mike, as he held them in air. “I swear, I’m just holding them for a friend”, I replied as I grabbed them and began sewing on the elastics. “Then I’m dropping them off at the studio tomorrow morning, and then I might bring them back, and keep them, and continue wearing them.” Smooth, I know, but I think he saw through it. He’s pretty smart.
When I finally got back into a studio, it wasn’t easy. In fact, it was far harder than it had ever been. My body is different than it was when I was last dancing. My hip replacement lengthened my left leg and changed the shape of that side of my body. The muscles on that side are significantly weaker. My knees didn’t feel strong enough for a grande plié. None of that mattered.
When the piano started playing, I felt reborn.
I’m working towards taking a full class. I don’t know if I will ever perform again. I am considering it, but I am proceeding very cautiously. For now, I’m happy enough to be myself again – the girl standing at the barre, staying upright against all odds.