It felt like something out of a movie. One week before our studio's yearly benefit concert, my dance friends and I stood awkwardly at a local high school party when the music to our competition-dominating jazz routine came on. Obviously, we had to perform.
Just as we finished with a synchronized strut, my flip-flop slipped out from my foot, twisting my ankle until I heard an unmistakable pop. My foot was broken.
The next six months passed in a blur of teen angst, casts, crutches and physical therapy. I'd once been told that a day off in dance was like a week off in any other sport, and my mind was constantly calculating the deficit.
It turns out that person was wrong. Roughly one year post-injury, I was back onstage performing with better technique than I'd ever had before. My movement was more fluid, my storytelling more truthful and my confidence more evident. A few months later I landed my first professional job with Odyssey Dance Theatre in Salt Lake City, Utah.
My story isn't an anomaly—in fact, according to Selina Shah, MD, sports medicine physician for AXIS Dance Company and Diablo Ballet, injuries tend to make dancers better than they were before.
Take celebrated choreographer Stacey Tookey. She experienced her first major injury at age 17 while representing Canada at the Royal Academy of Dance's Genée Awards. "I was jumping on pointe and I felt my shin bones bend," Tookey says. She had stress fractures in both legs.
"I was told if I took one year off, non–weight-bearing, I might be able to walk without a limp." She spent two months in a wheelchair and had to stay off her legs as much as possible for a year.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't dip into a depression," Tookey says. "I was afraid of how far everyone else was getting ahead. But what I learned from that moment is the power of the body. When you listen to it, it can do miraculous things." One year later, Tookey booked her first job, a position akin to an apprenticeship with Ballet BC.
Katie Graves, Courtesy Tookey
How is it possible for dancers to take months away from their craft yet come back even stronger than before? As it turns out, the benefits of injuries can be as real as they are unexpected.
Increase your versatility
For BalletMet's Jim Nowakowski, taking time off after surgery for a chronic ankle injury, and a subsequent reinjury, allowed him to explore other interests.
"I couldn't remember why I even danced," he says. "It wasn't fun—it was painful. So I decided to refocus my career."
When he was far enough along in his recovery, in March 2015, he auditioned for "So You Think You Can Dance." He placed in the Top 6, and spent two years working commercially before returning to ballet with his current position at BalletMet.
"'SYTYCD' was the perfect way to keep me busy and bring back my spark. It taught me so much about other genres. I grew to love dance again."
Fix technical weaknesses
When dancers come to Dr. Shah's clinic, she looks at their technique above and below their injury. "A lot of times dancers get injured because of imbalances in their muscles," she says. "While acute injuries are usually freak accidents, chronic injuries have to deal with weaknesses in flexibility, etc. I look for the cause found in their dancing so they can correct it and come back stronger."
Strengthen your determination
Tookey, who has dealt with various painful and debilitating injuries throughout her career, says each one has tested her emotional stamina. "My injuries have given me so much resilience, perspective and determination," Tookey says. "They put a fight into my work."
Become a smarter dancer
"I work smart instead of hard now," Nowakowski says. "I prefer to have a solid hour-and-a-half rehearsal rather than three hours of killing myself. I've learned to work efficiently so that I don't get hurt again, and I can last longer in my career."