Lessons Learned From a Long-Term Injury
This guest blog is written by Emily DeMotte, a 17-year-old pre-professional dancer working towards a career in ballet.
In a dancer’s mind, being told to spend time away from their art to to recover from an injury often elicits a reaction akin to frustration and disappointment. When I was told to take 4-6 weeks off from ballet in spring of 2021 to heal from a double ligament tear and microchip fracture in my ankle bone, I initially remained optimistic. Although frustration was inevitable, a few weeks in a walking boot and some physical therapy seemed plausible. As I looked forward to my upcoming summer intensive, I saw the 2 months ahead of me as ample time to recover and return to intensive-ready shape.
Unfortunately, my hypermobile body had other plans, leaving me back in a walking boot on the first day of my summer intensive after re-rolling my recently healed ankle.
Despite my prior weeks of recovery and physical therapy, I flew home 2 days later to be told I had two choices:
spend the next 1-2 months in physical therapy and away from dance strengthening the surrounding muscles of my ankle to compensate for the loss of stability in my torn ligaments, or
undergo a simple surgical procedure to repair the torn ligaments and return to dance following time in a cast and subsequent physical therapy, estimated to be around 6 months to full recovery.
After discussion and guidance from my family and others whose opinions I valued, I opted for the surgery in hopes of a lesser chance of facing problems with my ankle mobility in the future. This began my extended period of time out of ballet.
While I had experienced more minor injuries before, as many dancers have, the length and extent of my ankle injury began a learning experience that has impacted my outlook on the artform of ballet and my journey as a part of it. Here are a few things I’ve learned throughout the process.
In today’s ballet world, it is not uncommon for studios and teachers to require injured students to observe class during their recovery period. Fortunately, I was not required to do so, which led me to spend much of my time out of class away from the studio altogether.
While there is certainly benefit to observing class, as learning through watching peers can enable dancers to find new levels to their own dancing, I found that detaching myself from the studio allowed me to focus on recovering without the pressure of constantly seeing what I was missing in class while I was out. When you spend most of your life immersed in the ballet world everyday, detaching does not necessarily come naturally, and for me involved some mental battles. Isolation from the activity that once took up a majority of my time was a difficult pill to swallow, and this feeling remained a theme persistent throughout my time spent out of the studio.
However, this detachment allowed me to explore interests that I enjoy when I’m not in a leotard and tights, something that was not always easy to devote time to when dancing full time. This also permitted me to shift a greater focus towards my schoolwork as I began my junior year in high school and looked towards my future academically. I was still able to come into the studio occasionally and observe class, but removing the expectation to do so ended up having a positive impact on my mental and physical health throughout my injury.
It takes time
Recovering from an injury is not often a linear process. Setbacks are normal, which I quickly learned as I went through my time in physical therapy and got back into classes.
I began taking my first classes back post-op in October 2021, 5 months after my initial injury and about 2 and half months after my surgery. I started with taking the first 15-30 minutes of class, typically getting through pliés and tendus before fatigue set in. I learned to celebrate small victories as I regained my strength and stamina, eventually working my way up through the rest of barre, simple center work, and finally jumps and turns.
For my body, ankle pain and mobility were only half the battle as I worked to regain strength, finding that the muscles, both big and small, that I had developed over my years in ballet did not all care to stick around without daily use. With time, by January, I was able to take the entirety of technique class in flat shoes with little modification and looked forward to the next step in returning to pointe work.
Throughout, trusting the process was an important notion for me as I attended physical therapy and got back into classes. There were weeks where my ankle felt strong and mobile followed by weeks where it felt stiff and irritated, which demonstrated early on in the process what recovery would be like for my body. But with patience, I saw progress, and eventually felt the groove of class coming back to me and the more unnatural stiffness I had felt before began to fade away. Despite the longer recovery time leading to some frustration and a few missed opportunities, it was ultimately to my benefit to take it at the pace that allowed me to feel more strong and secure coming back.
Listen to your body first
An inevitable caveat to the joy of returning to the studio was my dancer-like perfectionism taking hold. However, the best thing that I could do for myself coming back was to attempt to shift away from this mindset and accept that I was not going to be exactly the same dancer that I was at the time of my injury. By taking preventative actions such as avoiding frequent glances to the mirror, stopping when I felt I was reaching my limits, and even keeping my warmups on during days where it felt necessary, I was able to take at least a small amount of the pressure off of myself to be “good” and focus more on returning at the speed that was best for myself and my body.
While there were definitely setbacks, I was lucky to have supportive teachers who understood the need for me to take it slow. Allowing me to make my own decisions based on recommendations of my doctor, physical therapists, and others in my support team was a valuable component of my recovery.
In essence, you are the most informed person on what you need coming back and it is always worthwhile to listen to your mental and kinesthetic feedback before submitting to the expectations of others who are not directly a part of your recovery process.
What I gained
As with any potential setback, my ankle injury became a learning experience in the art of patience while I navigated recovery. Now, 11 months after my initial injury and 8 months post-op, I have found new enjoyment in my dancing that replaced a pre-injury feeling of burnout, and a new appreciation for my ability to continue in the artform. I also learned that not actively training does not have to mean that you are no longer a dancer, and being a dancer can coexist with other interests outside of the studio. While I couldn’t always see it, the silver lining to my injury was there and coming out on the other side has been a rewarding part of my experience as a dancer.