Dancer Voices
Passing dance history on to the next generation is a bit like handing down the family jewels, says Wendy Whelan, seen here teaching. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Whelan.

When I was a young dancer in Louisville, Kentucky, my ballet teacher used to speak a lot about Merrill Ashley. She brought neoclassical technique to exquisite new heights under Balanchine, and as a technician, she famously paved the way for today's balletic whiz kids. (Later, when I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to have her as a teacher.) Today, as I travel around the country giving master classes, I often find myself bringing up the names of quintessential American ballerinas, dancers like Merrill. But now, if I mention her name, I can't help but notice my students' eyes widening as they look to each other wondering who exactly this famous ballerina named Merrill is.

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While many dancers hide their injuries, New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan writes about how she took ownership of hers by sharing her recovery on social media.

     

1. #sothishappenedtoday

2. #4hourslater #newlabrum #SOHAPPY

3. #andshesoff #alreadywalking #onestepinfrontoftheother #slowlybutsurely

Denial, confusion and frustration are the words that come to mind when I recall the months I spent trying to figure out how a minor slip in ballet class could have ignited such a physical retaliation within my body. I still wonder: If I’d been standing in a less slippery part of the studio, or if I hadn’t tried to explore the teacher’s correction, maybe I wouldn’t have injured my hip and been forced to endure such a lengthy return to normal.

 

The emotional challenge of dealing with a mysterious injury is often as painful as the physical aspect. When I consider why I turned to social media during my recovery, I think about how very lonely it can be when your vocation has suddenly been crossed off your “to do” list. You are driven out of your practice, and feel lost without answers. My friends were dancing all day and night, and all I wanted to do was be there with them.

 

I tried everything to help the pain: acupuncture, yoga, cranial-sacral therapy, active release therapy. I had X-rays and MRIs. I had injections into my hip. Eventually, one of my doctors discovered I had a complex labral tear. I was told that torn labrums were common among dancers, and that many of my friends who had tears were dancing beautifully, without a lot of pain. But after months of failed attempts at finding relief, I was forced to realize that my tear required surgery. At the recommendations of my physical therapist and orthopedist, I put myself into the hands of Dr. Marc Philippon, the renowned hip surgeon at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado. Dr. Philippon told me he would clean up the tear, as well as the debris floating in my hip that had accumulated as a result, and he would also shave down impingements along the bone that had developed over my lengthy dance career.

  

4. #progress #transverseabdominal #corestrength #narrowing

5. Finally not afraid of me anymore #curiouscat #charleyrose

Since I’d never had surgery before, I began using Facebook as a research tool. I reached out to some friends who’d had the surgery, and through them I was connected with other dancers who told me their stories. I wanted to understand as best as I could from a dancer’s perspective what I was looking at: what their symptoms had been, how long the recovery took, if they had any complications from the surgery, if they felt they’d made a full recovery. I learned that my surgery would require a four- to six-month recovery period—and a tremendous amount of patience. I scheduled it for late August, a week after the premiere of my new duet project, Restless Creature, which meant I had to clear my calendar of any Nutcracker gigs or outside engagements, and miss New York City Ballet’s four-week fall season.

While I was in Colorado for surgery, I posted photos of my experience on Facebook and Instagram for my family and friends to see. Since I’d never had surgery, I took a picture of my hospital wristband to prove that I hadn’t chickened out. One of the nurses took a picture of my first steps on crutches. A friend took a picture during the operation. I wanted to show that I wasn’t afraid anymore, that I was now on the upswing—I had finally begun to heal.

I felt so proud of every new accomplishment: riding a stationary bike, learning to walk with my crutches, gently stretching in ways I couldn’t possibly do before the surgery. The little things became cause for celebration, and I shared them all. I focused my posts on all the good that was finally happening, because to me it felt miraculous.

  

6. Question of the day... #willthelegswalk after #56daysoncrutches

7. #lookma #passe #nohelpnecessary #progress #nextphaseturnout

Through my photos and updates, I took ownership of the process and the progress of my recovery. Each image became a statement of where I had been and the positive direction in which I was heading. It became my healing diary. I watched my bruising subside and my scars heal, and I could take pride in my own regeneration. To be able to see my musculature and pointed toes was comforting; it showed me that even though I was on crutches, there was still a dancer living inside of me. The first time I tried passé was a particular milestone, and I wanted a photo to keep as a reminder that my hip joint was beginning to open up again.

Only later did I absorb the fact that I had a much larger audience. My nearly 6,000 followers on Instagram were also sharing in my healing process—and commenting on it. My posts were hitting close to home for some of them. In comments, young dancers wrote that they’d found out they had labral tears and asked for advice; other dancers had recently gone through the surgery themselves and offered me their wisdom and good wishes. One follower even commented that watching me work through a lengthy recovery was inspiring “and represents the best of what social media has to offer.”

It was a virtual melting pot of well wishes, and although I wasn’t yet back in the studio, I was invigorated to receive such supportive words from total strangers. I have always found that good energy feeds upon itself and magnifies and grows and generates more of the same, and I could feel the power of that “good” developing not only within my photo feed, but within my own healing body as well.

Right: Whelan at lunch with Marcelo Gomes, who was also injured: #brokebutnotbroken

I look forward to the day when I am back to dancing and don’t have quite as much time for social media. But for now, I am grateful for the outpouring of warmth, creativity, humor and support that has fueled me over such an emotionally and physically challenging time.

Wendy Whelan, a principal at New York City Ballet, will be back on stage in her freelance project, Restless Creature, and will appear in NYCB’s spring season.

Magazine
Whelan and Craig Hall in "After the Rain" PC Paul Kolnik

With diamond-like clarity, Wendy Whelan dances a wide variety of starring roles with New York City Ballet. While growing up in Kentucky, she trained at Louisville Ballet Academy. At 13 she came to NYC to study at the School of American Ballet and joined NYCB five years later. Since 1991, when she was named a principal, she has brought her special brand of luster to Balanchine's Agon, Jewels, Mozartiana, Liebeslieder Walzer, Union Jack and many more. She has also made her mark in Robbins' The Cage, Peter Martins' Swan Lake, and Ratmansky's Concerto DSCH. But it is as Christopher Wheeldon's muse that she has proved an utterly beguiling ballerina, imbuing his oddly broken lines with a haunting depth. She created lead roles in his Polyphonia, Liturgy, After the Rain, and The Nightingale and the Rose. A 2007 Dance Magazine Award recipient, Whelan has also performed as a guest artist with The Royal Ballet, the Kirov Ballet, and Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company.

I have always needed to dance; my life has never been without it. I've been a practitioner of the art form since nearly the day I could walk. My mother thought a toddler ballet class would be a great outlet for my excessive energy. It proved to be the perfect creative release and, as she'd hoped, it buffered the rough play I exhibited toward my baby sister. How lucky for me to find, through these lessons, not only a heightened awareness of my body, but also a vocation.

I was about 7 when I saw a real ballet dancer up close. I was waiting to attend my first rehearsal as a mouse in the Louisville Ballet's Nutcracker. I stood in the doorway watching her take company class. Her name was Karen, and she stood out to me for her beautiful arching lines. We eventually became friends. I will never forget her or all the beauty swirling around in that room. The building was an old factory, the dancers were wearing layers of colorful warmers, and the sunlight that showered through the windows covered them in golden warmth. The smell of leather and sweat, the sound of rosin being crushed, the creative wit and humor of the dancers balancing out the quiet intensity of their work—I found it all intoxicating.

I saw then, as I do now, the world of dance as an intimate and sensual place where deep bonds are built through the collaborative effort of making the unnatural seem effortless. Dancers who work together day after day can't help but know each other's mannerisms and weaknesses, vulnerabilities and strengths. We are constantly revealing ourselves to each other through our movement; learning from and teaching each other without even trying. I am inspired by the deep connections I have cultivated with my colleagues through dance.

I have been fortunate to work with some great teachers and choreographers and have gained tremendous insight from them. They always spark my creativity. With them, I make daily discoveries by translating their ideas into my body. I rarely get there in one try, which requires me to look inside myself for answers. I think of this as my daily bread because without this kind of creative exercise I feel empty.

I love to perform, but the process of working toward each performance enriches me just as much. I have always loved class for the purpose of gaining control of my body. Class is the place where I awaken my thought process each day. I love to feed my body ideas, and I get a tremendous thrill when it responds positively to a good one. It's amazing to apply a correction and moments later gain an ability that had previously been challenging. I love rehearsals for the alchemy of a partnership, the unexpected surprises that occur, or the poetry in the unfolding of a step.

Dance has always been my silent partner. We communicate each day and, like every relationship, sometimes struggle to understand each other. Dancing has worked me to the extremes of exhaustion and exhilaration. It has given me anxiety and soothed me from it. It has nursed me through heartache. Dance has asked me to define my individuality and to redefine my notions of beauty. It has made me aware of my ego and the complexities of having one. Dance has shown me the beauty of humility and has helped me develop a capacity for awareness. As dancers we work within an art form that lives and dies in nearly the same instant and, in this sense, offers us powerful lessons in mortality.

Wendy Whelan and Nikolaj Hübbe in Balanchine's Liebeslieder Walzer. Photo by Erin Baiano/Paul Kolnik Studio, Courtesy NYCB, © Balanchine Trust.

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