When Your Body Decides to be Done with Ballet
Susie Boyland, contributing writer
If you are heavily dedicated to ballet, it becomes your life and a major part of your identity. Whether you dance purely for fun or as your career, ballet consumes your every thought and many hours of your day, every day for years on end. It keeps you in great physical shape and there’s no need to go to “the gym” like most “normal” people. However, at some point, whether it be at age 15 or 90, everyone’s body decides that it will no longer put up with the physical demands that ballet places on it and somehow we have to figure out how to deal with that.
At the beginning of last year I was devastated to hear that I either needed to have hip surgery or stop dancing. Dance was never my career, but nevertheless it was (and is) a big part of my identity. A few months later I was told that actually I needed to have hip surgery AND stop dancing; it was no longer an either-or, it was both. It’s been 8 months since my surgery and I have yet to figure out how to process this. I’m still recovering physically and I’m also in denial that I will never again do another grande jeté – my favorite step. The surgery went well, but my body still seems to be complaining and my surgeon advised against returning to ballet unless I want to be sure of having a hip replacement in my future. I haven’t taken a dance class in months, but in my mind it feels like it’s just an extended “break” until I can go back, like it has been in the past. I have taken long breaks due to injury before – in fact I think my longest break from ballet before now was 9 months – but I always knew that at some point I would be able to return and eventually get back to full strength. This time, that isn’t the case. I can’t go back, at least not fully. How are you supposed to deal when you’ve taken your last class and at the time you didn’t even know it?
Former PNB principal dancer Carla Körbes stated before her retirement that perhaps she could have kept dancing at 80% but it wasn’t worth it to her because she needed to dance at 100% in order for it to be fulfilling. I fully understand that. In ballet, holding back is not really an option. Either you go all out or you don’t do it at all. Modifying steps in class due to an injury is not fun and I can’t imagine having to do that for the rest of my life. I don’t want to go through every class having to think things like, “If I do this step, will I be in pain for days after? Will I need surgery again if I do this combination full-out?” Ballet is about pushing limits and going to the extreme so if you can’t allow your body to do that anymore, it just doesn’t feel right. Pushing the limits of the human body’s capacity is part of what makes ballet so intriguing. Unfortunately, this aspect of ballet is also what over time erodes our bodies to the point that we can no longer do what we used to be able to do.
I don’t think there is really any one way in particular to deal with the difficulty of not being able to do ballet anymore. The one thing you can be sure of though is that you know you are able to feel a strong passion for something. Just like after a breakup or a death of a loved one, you will recover and you will find your passion again, though this time it will be for something else. Perhaps it will be ballet-related, or perhaps it’ll be something else entirely. Regardless, you can take comfort in the thought that you have the ability to feel so strongly about something. Some people don’t have this ability.
Along with the ability to feel passion, ballet dancers have certain other qualities instilled in them that will allow them to excel in any field: determination, persistence, commitment, and an extremely strong work ethic, just to name a few. Dancers know how to push through pain, conquer the seemingly impossible, and make something incredibly difficult look polished and effortless.
So, when you’re faced with the reality of having to stop dancing, first take some time to grieve – it is, after all, essentially a death. But this death is different than most in that it presents along with it a chance for a new beginning. Once you get through the fog and confusion of figuring out how to move on, you’ll find that the world is full of wonderful new opportunities to explore. I’m still working on finding a new form of physical activity that I both enjoy and my body lets me do, but in the meantime I am pouring my heart and soul into my new passion: photography. I especially love photographing gymnastics competitions and someday hope to have the opportunity to photograph dancers. The same passion and energy that I felt for ballet is starting to present itself to me in photography. Also, I’ve found that after ballet, almost everything else seems relatively easy!
I can’t bring myself to say “I used to be a dancer” rather than “I am dancer” and I don’t know if I ever will. Using the past tense makes it more real and I’m not ready for that, despite the fact that I’m discovering new interests. Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney recently did an interview where she talked about how hard it was to have to stop doing the activity that used to be her entire life. She stated that she didn’t want to use the word “retire,” as so many gymnasts and dancers often do when they hang-up their leotards and pointe shoes. This is the same way I feel about using the past tense, i.e. “I used to dance.” In my opinion, once a dancer, always a dancer. McKayla Maroney will always be a gymnast and I will always be a dancer, even if the only dancing I do is in my head.
Read Susie’s other article about careers after ballet by clicking here