Pain is a way of life

Or, what happens when dancers get injured.

Greetings from the Book Cave, my friends,

I have spent the last three weeks hacking away at a chapter about ballet injuries. Ask me about metatarsals, or Lisfranc’s joint, or genu recurvatum. I can talk about the acetabulum for hours. I am a LOT of fun at parties.

That chapter is mostly drafted now, and here’s one thing I couldn’t stop thinking about as I was writing it. In the sports and dance medicine literature, where doctors talk to each other about causes and treatments of dance injuries, there’s a curious trend: they tell each other to avoid putting cam boots on their patients. Cam boots, or Controlled Ankle Motion boots, are the velcro-strapped contraption you might wear when you’ve got an injury that can take some weight but that still requires some bracing and can’t yet handle a shoe.

In the literature, doctors warn each other about cam boots, saying outright that they’re not a good form of treatment because dancers will simply take them off and dance on their injury.

“Because noncompliance is high in the dancing profession due to internal and external pressure to return to training and performance, casting is preferred,” one article warns. In other words, the only way to stop a dancer from dancing — the only way to counteract the pressure she feels to return to work — is to make dancing literally impossible. Immobilize her. 

There are lots of reasons why dancers feel “internal and external pressure” to get back into the studio and onto the stage, injury be damned, and I’m exploring those in depth in the book. But one reason might be that pain is a way of life for dancers. It’s not special or remarkable, it’s just there. Every day. Some days are especially bad, and there’s a difference between dancing in pain and dancing hurt. But sacrificing and suffering are inevitable if you want to look, move, and live like a ballet dancer — and that sacrifice is part of the glamour and mystique of the artform. 

As Ellen O’Connell Whittet wrote in this wonderful essay about the inextricable, intimate relationship dancers have with pain, there is no ballet without women’s pain. At least not for now.

Ellen is a writing professor at UC Santa Barbara, and her memoir, What You Become in Flight, is coming out in April. Ellen broke her back in a rehearsal when she was in college, in a pas de deux lift gone wrong.

A few years later, after I had healed enough, I joined a small dance company, but the pain in my back forced me daily to take stock of my own body, its needs and limitations, and to either continue hurting it or to use it to navigate through a world without ballet. Eventually, the culture of ballet was not inclusive enough for me to stay — it wouldn’t work with my limitations, and it required me to sacrifice my time and body in the name of art. Ballet was an austere and unrelenting master to me, one that asked more of me than I could give. I have missed ballet every day since, and yet I am disturbed by what, exactly I’m missing.

It’s a great essay, one that makes me really excited to read her book. The first half is about her life in ballet, and the second half is about rebuilding her life — and her identity — after ballet. You can order it wherever you buy books, or call your local library to ask them to get it for you.

That’s it from me. I wish you a painless week, and see you next time.



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