It always amazes me to say this, but I’ve been dancing and teaching for over 30 years now. I teach 24 classes a week. I teach 9 classes at the University, 4 classes at the Community College, once a week for the local professional modern company and 10 classes a week for the studio I co-own as well as help run the rehearsals and choreograph for our many productions; we just finished mounting our Nutcracker production. Through all of it, I have never had a major injury. That is, until about a month and a half ago.
About a month ago, I started to get cramps in my right arch. I’m all about injury prevention. I tell all my students that their body is their instrument and they must take the upmost care of it and I try to practice what I preach. I try to eat well, drink lots of water, get enough sleep, work ahead to avoid stress and I stay on top of my aches and pains. I started drinking more water, ate my bananas for potassium and rolled my foot on my foot roller and iced. The next day, the pain started to move up into my ankle. I thought it was odd, but then I thought, ‘Probably just a touch of tendonitis. It is Nutcracker season after all and I’d been on my feet a lot.’ So, as I ate my dinner with my business partner that night, I propped my foot up on her desk and iced really well. I rolled out my calf on my foam roller when I got home and took some Ibuprofen. The next morning, I couldn’t walk. My calf was swollen; it hurt to put weight on it. I could barely press the accelerator or break when driving. I went off to teach my first class while my husband called around to an orthopedist trying to get me an appointment which somehow he managed to do that very day.
The orthopedist asked me many questions including the most asinine, ‘On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is the pain?’ I hate this question. My pain tolerance, like most dancers, is extremely high and I never know what to say when asked this question. If it gives you any indication, when I was 16 years old I had a bad bout with kidney stones and when I was asked that question, I thought I was going to die, but I said 8. I mean, it can always be worse, right? I told the doctor this and he laughed and said, ‘If you have what I think you have, it’s a 10.’
The diagnosis was posterior tibial stress syndrome. It’s an overuse injury. The tendons, ligaments and muscles get pulled downward in order to accommodate the new placement of the arch which causes swelling and pain and things can get so tight that a stress fracture can result. Thank goodness I went to the doctor right away and avoided this major complication, my x-ray was clear.
The doctor told me that I needed to cut way back on my demonstrating, to go at 50% for a while. He also said that he’d like to put me in a boot to make me stay off the injury. We ended up compromising with a brace and me walking with a cane, that’s right a cane, for 4 to 6 weeks.
My physical state was not very good as is described above. I was in immense pain which eventually went up to my calf and hamstrings into my back. I was 35 and walking with a cane.
The good news is that I did what the doctor said, stayed off of it and walked with a cane for a month. After that, I started physical therapy with an amazing woman who specializes in dance injury. I had been sending dancers to her for years because of her amazing results, but had never had to avail myself of her services personally. She told me that I didn’t have a true fallen arch, but that my tendonitis was severe. She started me on reformer exercises, theraband exercises, gyro tonics and used massage, dry needling (an acupuncture technique that work miracles) and cold laser. It didn’t take too long before I was feeling so much better. Almost two months later and I feel almost as good as new. Carol Fisher, you are a god send!
This is what shocked me the most about being injured. Never having a major injury myself, I never realized what huge components the psychological, mental and emotional were when it came to an injury. Minoring in psych in college, I look back at it and realize that I was most definitely going through the grieving process.
Number one, my feet are my thing. For me, teaching is all about the students, but I would lie if I said that I didn’t get a rush when I stand up in front of new students and demonstrate a tendue combination for the first time and hear the gasps in the back saying, ‘Oh my God, look at her feet!’ I felt it would never really be the same.
Number two, did I mention, I was a 35 year old walking with a cane?!!!
I started eating my feelings. The funny thing is, the entire time, I knew that’s what I was doing, but I couldn’t stop myself. The woman who never eats fast food went a bit crazy. I mean I hadn’t had cheese fries from Steak and Shake since college. But why?! They are so good! I even sent my husband out for ingredients, propped myself up at the kitchen counter and made pot de crème…I mean, I didn’t feel well, I totally earned some good chocolate pudding. I really wish I had stopped at one batch.
I found myself coming home and going right to sleep. In fact, I would almost cry when the alarm would go off in the mornings. It’s depressing to get out of bed when it hurts to put your feet on the floor.
Apparently, talking to a good friend of mine, none of this is unusual. She told me with her first injury, she stayed in bed all day crying and eating to the point where she gained 25 pounds.
I think I was most surprised who was supportive of my injury and who was not. Some of it was what I expected and some of it was not.
Family: My husband, as always, was my rock. He called around for the orthopedist for me while I went to work and then took the afternoon off work to drive me to my first doctor’s appointment. My husband is about the most thoughtful man in the world. He’s always bringing me dinner and coffee to the studio when I work late, cooks with me, tries to fill my gas tank when he gets the chance and does the grocery shopping on Saturdays while I’m rehearsing all day so we don’t have to do it on Sunday, my only day off. He took on even more, cleaning the house, doing all the laundry and driving me when he could. He even went to four different drug stores trying to find me the coolest cane possible, which turned out to be dark purple. His fabulous cocktail making skills were also a major asset…maybe too much so.
My 87 year old grandmother offered to fly in and stay as long as I needed her to and drive me around and do some laundry and light cleaning and cooking.
Friends: My business partners who are also my friends were amazing. One of them found subs when I needed them with no questions asked, she sent me inspirational messages and showed me many other kindnesses. My other partner offered to come to my college jobs with me to demonstrate if I needed it for a week or two. One of my best friends offered to drive me around and run errands and actually came to the studio to ask me what I needed and if she could do anything to help. Another met me for lunch to lift my spirits.
Bosses and Colleagues: My colleagues showed concern for my condition, it’s not like you can get away from the question, ‘What happened to you?’ when you’re a dance teacher walking around with a cane. Some offered to cover classes, other gave advice and others just told me how sorry they were. I got emails and messages which helped.
I had several friends and colleagues that had had the same injury. One of them is still dancing and two are still teaching every day. Hearing from them, to me, was the most important. They told me that once the pain was gone, the condition shouldn’t affect anything really as long as I did some physical therapy and took care of it now. The ones who taught, mentioned demonstrating things once or twice instead of 20 times and sitting down more during class. It was a relief to know that it didn’t last forever and that someday soon, I’d be back to my old self again or nearly so anyway.
Of course, I sent an email to my bosses as soon as I got the diagnosis. I didn’t want them to have a shock when they saw me walking around with a cane.
One of them came to my classroom, hugged me and asked me what she could do. Did I need her to meet me at my car to help me in with my things? The elevator doesn’t go the floor where my studio is, so could she move me down to the other studio where the elevator does go? Did I need a demonstrator to help me? She said and did all the right things and it made me feel valued, safe and very grateful.
My Students: As always, I found the most solace in my students, many of whom got tears in their eyes when they saw me walking around with a cane. The older dancers demonstrated and/or subbed for my studio classes, one even coming with me to my college classes during a day off from school. That’s right, instead of sleeping in on her day off of school, a teenaged girl chose to get up and help me teach an 8:30 class. Another older dancer helped me with all my younger kid rehearsals for Nutcracker, taking notes, demonstrating the corrections and basically helping me with crowd control. Another dancer of mine who is auditioning for professional companies this season came several times to help me with my college beginning ballet classes stating, ‘Well, I need classes anyway. If I can help you, we both win.’ One of my college kids came to me right after the injury happened and told me, ‘I know I’m just a beginner, but I want to help you. If you can tell me the step you want to teach a few days before, I can try to look it up and learn it and demonstrate it to the best of my ability.’ Others just gave me their kind words, asked if they could bedazzle my cane, continually asked how I was doing and literally jumped up and down when they saw me walking without a cane the other day. One of my former college students told me, ‘You’re the strongest woman I know, Miss Erin. I know you’re going to be just fine.’ The little ones drew me pictures and gave me lots of hugs. Things like that meant so much, it was overwhelming and I really believe helped me immensely in my recovery.
What I Learned
This whole experience has taught me a great deal. Number one, I learned to be more sympathetic to my injured students. I now realize the injury is just a small part of what they’re going through and that a kind word and a hug can make all the difference to their emotional and mental well-being.
Number two, I learned to be a better boss to my own employees. Giving support when needed and following through is important. Telling them my concerns is also important, but the way I present those concerns can make all the difference. Making them know they are valued and that if they need a little help from time to time that it is okay as long as it doesn’t become chronic and affect the overall learning going on in the classroom.
Number three, I learned to be a better teacher. To give a voice to my own greatest fear about this injury, I was concerned for my students’ ability to learn from me. Was my teaching career as I knew it to come to an end? It scared me, but it also made me determined to prove to myself that I was such an excellent teacher, that my being able to demonstrate full out wasn’t nearly as important as the knowledge I had to impart to my students.
One of the teachers who had gone through this injury, told me to sit more during class. I told her that I hated to do that and it made me feel lazy. She laughed and said, ‘That’s more about you than it is about your students. It doesn’t matter how it makes you feel, the truth is you see more when you sit. You’ll be so surprised. I used to feel the same way as you did, but now I realize that when I walk around, I have my back to half of the class half of the time. That doesn’t happen when you sit.’ You know what, she’s absolutely right. I did take her advice and move my chair around throughout class though from the front to the sides to the back. It gives you a different perspective and you do see more.
By only showing a combination once or twice, especially in jazz class, it made my students pick up more quickly and accurately. The first day of class after my injury, I got up showed a combination once and sat back down. All the students looked horrified. I usually dance with them quite a bit, after all, I told myself, they are beginners. They asked me to demonstrate the combination again. I did and sat back down. I was so afraid they were going to tell me that this just wasn’t going to work for them when one of them said, ‘Wow, this is going to be very good for us.’ The exact opposite of what I anticipated. Again, I found out to my shock that this was more about me feeling like I was really physically teaching rather than doing something that actually improved their learning and perhaps demonstrating so much was actually hindering their ability to pick up choreography more quickly.
Furthermore, because I couldn’t demonstrate as much, I had to find students who were doing it well and let them demonstrate for me. I thought it would be irritating to them, but to my astonishment yet again, they seemed to love it. It gave them confidence to be asked to demonstrate because they were doing it well and it made the other dancers work harder so that they might be asked to demonstrate too.
For ballet, I have had to use a lot of ‘ballet sign language’ and had to talk and explain in much greater detail. One of my students asked if I could continue to do this even after I was feeling better. When I asked him why, he replied, ‘I think I was depending on you doing it with us too much, but then I was afraid of getting another teacher who wasn’t as nice or as patient and wouldn’t be willing to do that. I think now I’ll be able to take classes over break because I feel more prepared for a teacher that won’t do as much for me.’ Another agreed and said, ‘Yes and I bet I learned my ballet vocabulary so much better because you’ve had to only say it and not show it too.’
Now for a message to my students: If you’re injured, take care of yourself not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. Keep your sense of humor and persevere. Coming back from an injury is hard work and it’s a process. Get by with a little help from your friends. Never settle for anything other than a fantastic partner in life who will love and support you no matter what comes your way and for whom you’d do the same. Find new skills, forge new paths, but never forget who you are, a dancer. I am a teacher, that is who I am and that is who I will always be. My students truly amaze me and I found in them true blessings.