From a young age, the idea of ‘dancing through pain’, is somehow subconsciously installed into dancers’ minds. This is a whole other level of FOMO (fear of missing out). From personal experiences, I have come recognize the irrationals fears that we, as dancers, tend to have when our bodies are signaling us to slow down or stop: “I am going to disappoint everyone”, “I am never going to get such an amazing opportunity again”, “they will think I am weak”, “I can’t give up this role for another dancer”. More often than not, dancers are dancing onstage with the pressure and adrenaline as their main source of painkiller and ignoring their own body’s warning signals. And more often than not, the body gets tired of being ignored; enough is enough.
James Stephens, battled and danced with knee pain for 6 years. Patella-tendonitis accompanied him through the course of six years (first on his right knee, and later also on his left) and with extensive possibilities of non-invasive treatment, he was able to somewhat manage the pain and to push through it. Unfortunately, after hours of physiotherapy, a questionable amount of painkillers, painful cortisone injections and expensive shock-wave and PRP therapy; the pain always came back. The final option was to follow a three- month rehabilitation protocol, whilst taking time off dancing.
“I was always convinced that I would recover and that surgery was a very unlikely last resort.”
After three months of following a very strategic exercise and therapy programme, his doctor used an MRI to indicate whether there was any improvement.
“His reaction was not the reaction I was looking for. As the Doctor was analyzing my scan results, I was analyzing his facial expression. I immediately knew that I wasn’t getting good news.”
After several ‘second-opinions’, it became clear that surgery was inevitable. And just to spice things up; both knees would need to undergo the knife.
“I was given two options: surgery on one knee and one year later, the same on the left or suffer and do both knees at the same time. I decided to suffer.”
The next two months leading up to his surgery date, meant no exercising and only careful walking whilst dealing with the nervous anticipation of surgery. Being away from the stage and the studio, is a difficult reality for any dancer to come to terms with and it’s a potential reality that we hold ourselves somewhat oblivious to, until the time comes for us to deal with the challenge. Every dancer will approach their adversity in a different way and it’s their decision to how they will make use of the experience.
One would assume that the main goal of recovery from such a surgery, would be to dance again. However, the risks that came with James’ surgery, were not only threatening the possibility of dancing again, but also the possibility to ever have a normal everyday life.
“My main aim wasn’t necessarily to dance again; I just wanted to be ‘normal’ again. The pain was seriously affecting my everyday life. Sitting down to have coffee with friends, going for a walk, or sitting in a Cinema, were the little things that I could no longer enjoy without constant pain. This whole experience made me realize how important my health is – I come first, and then the dancer.”
It’s hard for anyone to imagine what it must be like to wake up from a surgery, with both legs being pretty much useless. As dancers, we tend to identify ourselves together with our art but once we are stripped from our physical capabilities, we are somehow vulnerably left in an empty space. However, the cliched “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”, plays out very well in such circumstances.
“I tried to keep my focus on the present moment and enjoy what I can during my time off. I tried not to focus on what I couldn’t do, but rather what I could. I finally had the opportunities to meet new people with different interests and perspectives.
Social life, for example. Taking time off from dance, also means time spent away from one’s closest friends; dance colleagues. This can be the best time to connect with people away from the ‘dance-bubble’, sharing different interests, opinions and perspectives.
What was one of the hardest physical challenges during your recovery?
Learning to walk again! I spent almost 24 year walking everyday, yet it only took less than 24 hours to unlearn this basic movement. I had to start carefully walking only 10 hours after the surgery, yet my legs felt as if it had been 10 years. I seemed to have forgotten what it ‘naturally’ should feel like and my brain began overthinking and analyzing the movement. It took me a very long time before my gait (walk) felt and looked normal.
Going up and down stairs was an even bigger challenge and in the beginning it was very painful, so I tried to avoid stairs at all costs. Eventually, I had to simply face the inevitable fact that I cannot ‘run-away’ from stairs and that I looked noticeably awkward and uncomfortable with such a mundane obstacle. Till today, stairs are my nemesis.
What helped you the most during your recovery?
For me, it helped to not keep focusing on the negative side of my situation. Of course I took everything very seriously, but I didn’t take myself seriously. I always tried to find the ‘light’ and enjoyed jokes being made at my expense. I surrounded myself with people who knew that I needed to keep smiling to stay motivated and to try to live a ‘normal life’ as much as possible.
I remember being invited to a friend’s birthday party and I was persuaded to join, regardless of the fact that I could barely walk. My friends took such amazing care of me and before I knew it, I was sitting on a chair in the middle of a club, with my friends dancing around me , acting like a human shield. This was such a surreal moment, but definitely a night that I will never forget.
What’s your ‘moral of the story’?
Firstly, don’t be afraid to take the time off that you need. At the end of the day, it is your health that you are gambling with as well as your future career. Do the time earlier rather than later; the sentence time just gets longer the longer you wait and more you are inevitably putting your career at stake.
Secondly, take the experience in the most positive way possible and use the time to learn more about yourself and how to take care of your body. Whether you are a dancer or an athlete, there is more to life than these professions that we somehow identify ourselves with.
During the recovery period, of course it is essential to focus and prioritize your goals, but it’s also important to allow the time to explore different aspects of yourself and realize that there are also very special moments that happen off stage.
And finally, try to avoid having a double knee surgery.