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By Nancy Wozny
One jump last March drastically changed the next year of Blake Dalton’s life. The dancer was practicing after a performance when an ill-fated landing left him with a ruptured Achilles tendon. “I was just free-styling,” remembers Dalton, now in his 12th season at the Atlanta-based Core Performance Company. “It felt like someone hit my leg with a baseball bat.”
As with many traumatic injuries, surgery proved the best course of action to heal Dalton’s tendon. However surgery involves time and diligence in the rehab process. Although you may leave the hospital with an excellent repair job, don’t expect to leave feeling better. Your body has been through a major physical event, so things feel worse before they improve. Yet there are ways to head into a procedure that can make the recovery smoother. Surgeons recommend that dancers map out their recovery before their surgery, and even prepare physically for the process by strength training. Dalton, heading into the operating theater fully aware of the long haul of rehab in front of him, paced his expectations, minimizing any anxiety.
Patrick McCulloch, MD, an orthopedic surgeon with the Methodist Center for Sports Medicine in Houston, finds that certain surgery outcomes are fairly predictable. “The main determinant is the nature of the injury rather than how long the surgery takes,” says McCulloch, who cares for Houston Ballet’s dancers. But recovery for a dancer means something entirely different than for a regular patient. There’s a significant time factor in regaining full mobility and control.
The choice to go under the knife comes with risks. “It’s not a snap decision. We try to avoid operations if possible,” says Craig Westin, MD, an orthopedist for the Joffrey Ballet at Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Often, however, there’s a sense of relief in the choice to operate, which can help a dancer feel in control of her body. Houston Ballet first soloist Kelly Myernick had hoped to get through the season before shoulder surgery for a labral tear in two places. Myernick took off time from The Nutcracker and gave up performing in the annual gala. “I didn’t think I would have been able to do my best,” she says. “After I made the decision, a weight lifted.”
Knowing what to expect during recovery makes a difference. “It’s best to head in with full knowledge of the nuts and bolts—from pain control immediately afterward to what problems to look for,” says Westin. “It relieves fear of the unknown.” Like most surgeons, Westin puts all of this information in writing.
McCulloch notes there is much a dancer can do before surgery to speed recovery. He recommends they go in as fit as they can possibly be. Studies show that healthy, fit bodies recover quicker. Before surgery, Myernick worked diligently every day on stretching, strengthening, and stablizing exercises with Emery Hill, Houston Ballet’s athletic trainer. “We call it ‘pre-hab,’ ” says McCulloch. “That way, you go into surgery with maximum strength, flexibility, and a solid routine in place.”
Some post-surgical pain comes with the territory. “The three days after were considerably worse than the days after the injury,” says Dalton. “My first few sessions of physical therapy involved very minimal and gentle movements. I really had to focus on being patient.”
The middle recovery period, which many dancers get to faster than civilians, requires some humility. Dancers often become frustrated at this point by how much work remains. Dalton realized he still had a long haul after his surgical boot, which he had been wearing to keep his foot protected, was removed. “I looked down at my leg and saw how atrophied the muscles in my calf had become,” he says. “That was really tough. I had to resign myself once again to how long the recovery process was going to take.”
For Dalton, the breakthroughs came gradually. “I knew I had turned a corner when I could actually get airborne without being afraid I was going to reinjure myself landing,” he recalls.
As a ballet dancer, Myernick has other goals. “It’s not just about regaining strength, but regaining your line, which takes longer,” she says. “I am taking class now but I can’t get my elbow forward enough to make a proper first.”
Three months after his surgery, Dalton performed in Sweden with his boot still on. He’s back in class but not yet at his previous level. The entire process has given him an opportunity to reflect on his dancing. “I may not be the big jump guy anymore,” he says. “I have to ask what else can I do. How can I use this time not just as recovery but as a way to improve myself?” The groundwork Dalton laid before his surgery has made his adjustment more productive. “Just like a performance,” notes Westin, “surgery is all about prep.”
Nancy Wozny writes on dance and health in Houston.
Houston Ballet's Kelly Myernick in rehab. Photo by Jaime Lagdameo, courtesy Houston Ballet.