Tag Archives: dance injury

La Douleur Exquise

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about lost potential.

I know that I have a long professional career ahead of me. I know that I’m extremely lucky to not only call myself a writer, but to do so for a living. Am I writing New York Times bestselling novels like some of my friends? No. But there’s no expiration date on writing. I can keep at it and keep working to get better. Someday I might even write something important. It’s not happening now, but it could happen. There’s an actual shot. So this isn’t about that.

It’s been 10 years since I’ve been able to say, “I’m a professional dancer.” I stepped right up to the line. I even stepped over it. I started with crap jobs, as any aspiring artist does, but I landed with a great company about to go on tour. (That company is now kicking ass all over the globe.)

performing at Jacob's Pillow with Deca
performing at Jacob’s Pillow with Deca

I don’t know how far I would have made it if I weren’t injured. It’s very possible I wouldn’t have. But I didn’t only pour my career aspirations into my dance dream. I became it. I’ve tried to bury the old me. I told myself that person was gone. The problem is, she’s not. She’s still there inside of me, itching to get out. And there’s nothing I can do about it.

How many times have you watched a superhero origin story where the antagonist says something like, “I always thought I was destined to do more. To be something. To make a difference. Now I can.” What would happen if that very ordinary person with extraordinary dreams never happened upon his super powers? Where would all of that energy go?

Sometimes you gotta take a few crappy jobs to get to the good ones. Filming a pilot for superhero crime-fighting dancing cats called The City Kitties.
Sometimes you gotta take a few crappy jobs to get to the good ones. Filming a pilot for superhero crime-fighting dancing cats called The City Kitties.

I can tell you.

It festers just under the surface, manifesting itself as a constant desire to jump out of your own skin. It makes you restless and then listless and then restless again. It forces you to keep searching for the next thing and the next and the next. It causes you to pace in your cube like a coyote in heat, fingers fluttering, lips twitching, shoulders rolling. You pace, you pace, you pace. Then you sit back down because there’s nothing you can do about it.

You’ve lost the ability to [insert great thing] but you still feel the pull, like a phantom leg. Or maybe you never really had the ability in the first place. It doesn’t matter. What matters is you had a dream and it was never realized, and it never can be. You have to reckon with that. There’s no amount of positive thinking and chutzpah that can change that fact. And it hurts. It really, really hurts.

La douleur exquise. It’s a French phrase made famous by Sex and the City that means “the heart-wrenching pain of wanting someone you can’t have.” The literal translation: the exquisite pain.

I have loved dance since I knew what love was. Dance may have even loved me back. But I couldn’t have it.

Dance even took me to China.
Dance even took me to China.

Since my injury, I’ve tried to dance, even just for fun. I’ve puttered around in my house to some music. I’ve stood at the counter and attempted ballet barre exercises. I’ve put on my pointe shoes and tap shoes. I’ve busted out a clumsy six-step, just to see if I remembered how. I remember how. I just can’t get my body to obey. I’m slow and heavy and if I push, my injury pushes back. The pain puts me back in my place. But my brain…my brain remembers.

It reminds me that I stood in the shadow of dance giants, miming the graceful fluidity of Theresa Nguyen, the raw talent of Tony Bougiouris, or the power of Lauren Masiello, future professional dancers I trained with in my studio days.

That I took classes with masters like Gus Giordano and Desmond Richardson and Ray Leeper and Mia Michaels, who taught me how to harness emotion into movement, to understand how to make a performance dynamic.

That I interviewed dance legends Debbie Allen, Gregory Hines, and Patrick Swayze, hip-hop pioneers Rokafella and Popin’ Pete, prolific choreographers Wade Robson, Mandy Moore, Tabitha and Napoleon—getting inside the minds of greatness, learning what it takes to take it to the next level.

It reminds me of the competition dancers, the audition buddies,  the dance teams, the teachers, the dance moms, the dancewear makers, the studio owners, the dance photographers, the shoe fitters, the Broadway dancers, music video dancers, street dancers, reality TV dancers, dance writers and historians, choreographers, college dance majors, judges, entrepreneurs, agents, publishers, producers, artistic directors, dance therapists, folk dancers, swing dancers, jazz dancers, contemporary dancers, tappers, ballerinas, b-boys, stompers, krumpers, poppers, steppers.

Ask me about any of them and I can tell you. I knew them all.

Sometimes you get to be in the dance magazine before you start working for the dance magazine.
Sometimes you get to be in the dance magazine before you start working for the dance magazine.

I stood in the shadow of dance giants and felt I could someday measure up. I knew I had an uphill battle, but I couldn’t be stopped. Until I could. And now, 10 years later, that energy still bubbles under the surface, desperate to be released. I’m in a constant state of potential energy, building and building, but never transforming. I’m still climbing that hill, but there’s no crest in sight.

There comes a time in everyone’s life who has fallen short of their dreams to admit that they can’t achieve them. I know, and have known for a long time, that I will never dance (that way) again. It’s painful to admit that. It’s painful to fully realize. It’s painful to let go.

But at least it’s an exquisite pain.

Dancing With My Son

Ever since my four-year-old son laid eyes on the Chandelier video, he’s been improv dancing in our living room trying to recreate the steps. He stands up on the couch, throws his hands out wide, and launches backwards. He runs over to the curtains and gathers them in his arms. He’s imitating the choreography performed by the talented Maddie Ziegler, plus adding a few extra kicks and rolls on the ground for good measure.

Watching him move around the room with total abandon, looking at the joy in his eyes, I know exactly how he feels. Maybe he’s just being a kid dancing around, as kids do. Or maybe he’s got the fire and just HAS to move—which is how I feel 24 hours a day, 7 days a week STILL, even though my body won’t let me.

Sometimes I can’t help myself and I get up off the couch to join him. We hold hands and twirl around in a circle. I reach my arms up to the ceiling and out to him, and he instinctually follows, running into my arms or circling around my legs making movements of his own. We take each others cues, leading and following, gently guiding one another through the song. Sometimes we collapse into fits of laughter. Sometimes we end the dance emotionally, clinging to one another as if we’ll never experience this moment again.

And that’s my big fear. Because it’s been years since I’ve experienced the joy of dance at my peak, when my body would listen to my mind’s commands, when it gave way to the downbeat, when I felt comfortable enough to not only follow steps with precise accuracy but also add my own style, to flow through the movements, extend them out to the last drop of the last note.

Now I hear a powerful song and I’m practically crawling out of my skin to dance to it the way I imagine, the way I once could. Sometimes I try, but I inevitably end up laying down on the ground, stretching, stretching, breathing through the pain. I want to scream, “It’s not fair!” but how can I when I was blessed with the ability to dance in the first place? When so many people never experience that joy at all? Aren’t I lucky to have even had those moments?

When I was 16 years old, I was preparing to dance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for the Jazz Dance World Congress. I was more nervous than I’d ever been at any dance competition—and this was just a performance. But the ornate ceiling and the rows and rows of red velour seats stretched out before me, and I felt my heart beating in my eardrums. As the music started and the lights came up, I rose up out of my body and moved. There were nine other dancers on stage, but we danced as one, and as we flew across the stage, we floated with a power that made everything easy. The effort was gone and only the dancing remained. That was the purest joy I’ve ever felt in my life.

Until my son came into this world.lucas

Now I watch him dance and part of me wants to warn him: “It’ll break your heart, Lucas.” But as I see him spin and throw his head back and giggle, I think to myself, “I can’t take that away from him, if that’s what he wants.” (Who knows what he wants, he’s only four. But I can’t discount the possibility.) So for now, I dance with him. I dance until the pain becomes too much and he yanks at my arm and asks me to dance some more. I lay down on the ground to stretch, smile up at him, and say:

“I’m sorry, Lucas. Mama can’t dance anymore. It’s your turn.”

On Living With Chronic Back Pain

I shift in my chair uncomfortably. I’ve been staring at my computer screen for the last two hours and I’ve written and deleted and rewritten a passage that I’m still not satisfied with. Something is gnawing at me.

I crack my neck. Left, right, left again. Crunch, crunch, crunch. I roll my shoulders once, twice, three times. The gnawing persists. I tuck my left leg under my butt and purposefully hunch forward.

Another hour passes and I’ve moved on to work on a post for my company’s tech blog. Eight tabs are open in Chrome and the post is looking more hyperlinked than a Wiki page. I stand up and hop around lightly in my office. A familiar tingling has started down my right leg, and two of my toes feel as though they’re frozen over. I bring my left knee up to my stomach, then my right knee. I crack my neck. Left, right, left again.

pillsBack in my seat. Where was I? It takes a minute to reorient myself to my research. I shift on my haunches and stare at the clock. Is it time to take my pills yet? Not yet. You take those just before noon, with your lunch. I curse my former dance career for the first time of the day—the millionth time over the last nine years since I slammed into the floor during rehearsal and herniated my disc.

Some days are better than others. Some days, I’m laying on the floor in my living room with my feet on the couch and a softball under my spine, pressing on the muscles that have contracted themselves around my vertebrae. Other days the pain is red hot, flowing through my nerves like molten magma, flooding my brain with a miasma of distress.

But most days are like today—an exhausting exercise in discomfort. A series of neck rolls and twists and shifts and distractions. An undercurrent of fatigue and frustration. A dull, constant companion that, despite my efforts, I’m unable to shake.

If I’m sounding melodramatic, it’s because I’m meeting with my orthopedic physician on Thursday, and that never goes well. In the nine years since that fateful rehearsal that ended my dance career, I’ve seen a dozen doctors who’ve diagnosed me with sacroiliitis, facet syndrome, sciatica, and, wait for it, “just some pulled muscles.” I finally received a proper diagnosis of “lumbar disc herniation and disc degeneration” three years ago. Prior to that, I had gone to physical therapy twice, seen a chiropractor, gone through traction, been injected with cortisone shots, received epidural steroid injections, gotten deep tissue massages, went to reflexology, been prescribed anti-depressants (for the pain and for the misery caused by the pain), took anti-inflammatories, and finally landed on pain killers when, after everything else failed, my doctor just shrugged his shoulders, tossed the pills at me, and said, “There’s really not much we can do except manage the pain.”

Every time I go to the doctor about my chronic back pain I end up in tears. In one of my more recent visits, while newly pregnant with Lucas and wondering what I could do to “manage the pain” while refusing pain killers, my doctor wrote down the name of a book and told me to read it. The book contained step-by-step instructions for various back stretches.

A book.

So for this visit, I’m not expecting much. I’m steeling myself for his less-than-sympathetic advice, and for his likely suggestion to keep doing the same old shit I’ve been doing that has barely made a difference over nearly a decade. I’m hoping, after he runs all the requisite tests necessary to bleed my health insurance dry, he’ll sign me up for another epidural steroid injection—this time in the right location. (A previous doctor gave me an epidural injection in a different area of the spine based on an educated guess, having misread my MRI and having completely missed the herniated disc between L5 and S1. It did not go well.)

I’m not sure why I want this injection when I’m pretty sure it’s not going to work. Maybe I need to show myself that I’m still trying. Maybe I’m sick of staring at the clock and waiting, waiting, waiting until it’s appropriate-time-for-pills-o-clock. Maybe I’m disheartened that the effects of the pills seem to be waning, and I’m wondering how many of these things I’m going to have to pop in 30 years to make a dent in my pain.

Maybe I just want to make it through one day without squirming in my chair.