Jennifer Nichols was rehearsing barefoot this winter when she got a split in the bottom of her foot. An independent choreographer, she was preparing a self-made solo to be performed as part of a new music show in Toronto, and the studio's Marley floor was usually used by winter boot–wearing musicians.
A split may not seem like a big deal. But this one led to a serious infection that would land Nichols in hospital and almost end her performing career.
Nichols performing the piece, Lilt
By the time the show came, Nichols was barely able to put weight on her foot. But she performed the premiere as planned, "on an insane cocktail of drugs and in excruciating pain," she says.
The next day, she ended up in the emergency room, hooked up to an IV drip of strong antibiotics and bed-ridden for more than a week. A surgeon eventually had to cut into her foot to drain the abscess. Its infection had spread to her ankle and lower calf, and threatened to corrode the bones of her second, third and fourth metatarsal.
"My body couldn't get rid of the infection because it was not accessible by antibiotics, trapped in the abscess in a very tight spot under a thick callus from decades of dancing," she says.
Nichols runs her own Extension Room dance-fitness studio and performs part-time with Opera Atelier's baroque dance ensemble
"I am very lucky, but I have also been challenged in an extreme way," says Nichols. She is slowly healing but now worries about how the resulting scar tissue will affect her dancing.
Wanting to warn other dancers of the perils of unwashed floors, Nichols offers up what she's learned about safely dancing barefoot:
1. Take extra care to clean your feet the moment you finish rehearsal when dancing barefoot.
2. If you have developed any splits or blisters, clean with an antiseptic, not just water.
3. Tape your feet before rehearsing if you have splits or are prone to them.
4. Examine the state of the floor before rehearsing, particularly if it's a room not typically used for dance. If it looks in need of a cleaning, do not hesitate to ask the rehearsal director, stage management or any member of the production team to have it cleaned. Be gracious about it, but do insist.
5. Pay attention to your body. Look for these telltale signs to know if you have developed an infection:
- increasing pain throughout the whole area, not just localized to the spot of the split or blister
- redness, especially redness which is spreading or developing into a line
- fever, headache
- pus oozing from the area
- heat in the area
- swollen glands near the area or in the corresponding limb
- worsening symptoms
6. Go directly to a doctor, not a physiotherapist or massage therapist. See someone who can perform tests to confirm whether there is an infection.
7. If your symptoms do not improve, get a second opinion. "I had to seek out five opinions before my abscess was properly diagnosed!" says Nichols.
8. If a doctor prescribes antibiotics and after a few days your symptoms are worsening, insist on an ultrasound or a CT scan to rule out an abscess.
9. Never forget that your body is your most important tool. Do not take any concerns you may have about something that seems amiss lightly. Advocate for yourself.