Casting A Shadow – Injuries and Life
“Oh my god, I’m going to get fired!” was the first thought in Kenneth Easter’s mind. “I fell and I remember thinking on the way down, ‘I’m a dancer, I’ve got great legs. I’ll go through my plié. I’ll really absorb the shock.’ I hit the ground and the first thing I heard was this buzzing in my ear, which is a sign of going into shock. I thought ‘Ouch! Wow, that hurt a lot more than I thought.’ I looked down and there was a bone, and it was the size of a grapefruit. I remember thinking ‘I have to start work in a week.’”
The American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer was home on vacation when he experienced his first major injury; a fall of 14 feet from the roof of his cabin. Just a day after, ABT principal Carlos Lopez broke the fifth metatarsal in his foot while taking class in his native Spain. However they happen, injuries are inevitable for a dancer. “Our body is our tool, and it’s very fragile and delicate,” says Easter, who is recovering from two shattered wrists and broken arms stemming from the fall.
Without a doubt such physical hindrances inhibit the body, but how much of an impact does an injury actually have on a dancer’s life?
“It’s hard. There’s a lot of ups and downs and you’re very fragile in that state,” says former New York City Ballet dancer Kristin Sloan, a sufferer of torn cartilage in her hip. “When you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing, your profession kind of identifies you.”
Being forced to take time off from a performing career raises a lot of insecurity. “It was horrifying,” says jazz teacher Suzi Taylor, recalling the news that both her hips had to be replaced three years ago. No stranger to injuries, she had previously dealt with a torn hamstring, six ankle sprains, two ankle operations, tendinitis in both knees, and a partially dislocated shoulder.
“One concern was obviously my livelihood. [Dancing is] what I’ve done my whole life. I don’t know how to do anything else, and I have a child to support,” she says. “It’s also something that’s kind of been my source of sanity my entire life.” Every recovery seemed optimistic except one; the torn hamstring. Onstage, battling exhaustion, a penché tore not only muscles and nerves, but also her heart’s passion. “It was a long road home,” she says. “I’ll admit I was in a severe depression over that one.”
The fear of not being able to return to dance was unthinkable. “Devastating is kind of a mild term. Of course every doctor was saying, ‘There’s no way you can dance anymore.’ But I’ve had so many injuries. It’s kind of comical. I’ve been dancing for 30 years so it’s expected,” says Taylor, amused in retrospect.
Even the brightest of stars, some just launching their careers, are darkened by the prospect of surgery. “I cried in the doctor’s office,” says Lacey Schwimmer, who tackled arthroscopic surgery on her torn meniscus while on tour with So You Think You Can Dance. “I don’t think anyone wants to hear they have to have surgery, and at this time in my life, being on tour, ‘surgery’ is not something you want to hear.” The first week she was hurt, she was only performing a few of the group numbers and her solo, but she still “begged and begged and begged to do more.” The big dances were some of her favorites.
Luckily the operation didn’t appear to be too severe, with only a three to six week recovery period. “The doctor said it’s a simple but scary surgery, and I’ll be back dancing better than before,” says Schwimmer. Many others on the tour struggle with injuries as well. “I didn’t realize how breakable our bodies are until this happened. Some people just sit in a straddle for five minutes and that’s it, but it’s so important to warm up.”
After the initial smack of reality, dancers have to find a way to cope with their limitations. When the cast for his metatarsal was removed after a month, Lopez didn’t waste time getting the rest of his body in shape. “To get back from an injury is like a full time job,” he says, listing off his intense routine of therapy, swimming, and Pilates.
For those that are further incapacitated there are other ways to pass the time not spent in the studio. “To have the art that you do taken away, when you can’t physically do it, is crazy,” says Sloan. She decided to take up drumming as a new creative outlet. “It was a mixture of loving music so much and also hitting things, which isn’t a bad thing when you’re kind of frustrated,” she laughs.
Her hip problems also bred a new career. She created the communal blog The Winger while recovering in 2005, and she founded THE (INTER)-MISSION, a private social network for dancers, in October 2007. Her efforts outside of the studio led to her retirement from dancing to accept the position of New Media Director at New York City Ballet last November. “I decided I could do more for the company in my new capacity than as a dancer with hip issues,” she says.
Such a widening of perspective is a positive byproduct of injuries. Some, like Easter, turn to teaching. Others find varied interests outside ballet. “One of the things that I learned when I was out for a long time was that you need to have friends outside of the ballet world,” says Lopez. Before her knee prevented it, Schwimmer was in almost every other number on the tour, but now, she says, “I get to see everyone perform and experience it in a different way. It’s sad to see everyone out there having a good time but I’m enjoying myself.”
Despite their temporary loss of ability for creative expression, the injured try to stay positive. “To get back from an injury is like getting ready for the next show,” says Lopez. “At the end of the day you’re investing in your body. That’s what you have. This career is not that long as a performer. I think if I can invest as much as I can right now, then I have time later to recover from the damage that we’re doing all these years.” Dancers face these inherent problems daily, but like life, the show must go on.
Taylor Gordon –
“Oh my god, I’m going to get fired!”
I was really shocked by the staff of ABT. They treat everyone differently, and I’ve never really had an issue with the company. I’ve always been there. I’ve always done my job. I’ve always been ready. They come to expect certain behaviors of people. And when this happened to me, because it’s a company of so many dancers, I kind of was expecting them to just brush me to the side.
The staff all called me personally and said, ‘This will not have an effect on you artistically. We want you back as soon as you can get back.’ They sent flowers and balloons and stuffed animals. That really got me emotional the first two or three weeks after the surgery because I never expected it. I was getting calls from people that I never would have thought would call me. I don’t know where they got my number but that was really awesome. It really helped, knowing that I really have a second family here and it wasn’t just about, ‘I hope my career is going to be fine and I hope I can continue my life.’ Sometimes you don’t know how much people really care until you’re in a tough situation and find out that the people I thought were just coworkers and acquaintances took time out of their busy New York schedules to go somewhere and find my number and call and say they’re thinking of me…that really moved me.
Kenny Easter, interviewed by Taylor Gordon* American Ballet Theatre - abt.org
Taylor Gordon trained at Boston Ballet School before moving away from home at age fourteen to attend the boarding academic program at The Rock School of Pennsylvania Ballet on scholarship. After graduating high school at sixteen and discovering her love of writing, she moved to NYC to continue dancing at Ballet Academy East and to study Communication Arts at Marymount Manhattan College, where she was the features Editor of the school paper, The Monitor. She graduated magna cum laude at age nineteen in January 2008 with a head start in pursuing a Master’s Degree in Magazine Publishing at Pace University, on top of dancing professionally. She has performed as a student with Boston Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, and professionally with the Albano Ballet Company. Seizing every opportunity while juggling a dance career and college, she has interned at various magazines, most recently the New Yorker, and has written for a number of publications and websites. She enjoys giving a voice to an otherwise non-verbal art form through her writing. Taylor started writing as a regular contributor for movmnt magazine in Spring 08 with a crossed portraits of professional dancers going through injuries and life.