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What Does It Actually Feel Like to Stop Dancing?

Quinn Wharton

Who are you when you no longer do what you've been doing for years?

It is the big question facing anyone who retires. For top ballet dancers, however, the situation is more extreme. They start young, grow up in a rarified atmosphere, mostly see only each other, and become more and more removed from ordinary life. So what is it like to give this all up?

I asked seven former principal dancers from different generations at San Francisco Ballet, including myself, about this challenge.


What made you decide to stop performing?

Sally Bailey, danced with San Francisco Ballet 1947–1967: The idea first came to me on the '65 tour. I was acting as tour manager as well as still dancing. In one town, the local Community Concerts Board invited us to come to a party after the show. When I made the announcement, one of the younger girls asked, "Is it for dancers, or will people be there, too?"

Sally Bailey as Black Swan, 1955, photo by Romaine, S.F.

Dancers or people?

Her remark made me stop to reflect. Had we dancers removed ourselves so far from ordinary life that we'd become a different species? Touring seemed so normal for us. Get on the bus by 8:00 a.m., jiggle along for four hours to the next town, check in at the motel, adjust to a new theater, perform that night, eat lunch at midnight after having had dinner at noon. Even toe shoes seemed normal.

I said to myself, "Perhaps it's time for me to get off the bus."

Around that time, I was appointed assistant ballet mistress and started conducting rehearsals, which I found I did well. The only trouble: I felt myself becoming everyone's mother, always making everybody do their best, what they knew they should be doing, anyway. I sometimes felt like yelling, "Either do it, or don't do it. It's up to you." I was still dancing some, but I was mostly cleaning up everyone else's mess. I saw my life becoming narrower and narrower. An image that came to mind was a once-vibrant fall leaf gradually losing its color and drying up. I didn't want that to be me.

In August I would be 35, the age I had always claimed dancers should stop dancing. I knew, with my body, I could probably dance another five years, but why push it? If I was going to change my life, it would be easier at 35 than 40.

For the first time, I didn't trust my gut feelings. Were they constructive or destructive? Was I throwing everything away or gracefully letting go?

At first I didn't talk to anyone about what I was thinking. I didn't want to tell my family until I'd made up my mind. However, I told my friend Tilly Abbey, who brought me to her family's doctor friend's apartment one night. He asked me to tell him what I had on my mind, so I told him. I also mentioned that I wasn't sure if my thinking was healthy or unhealthy. I remember him saying, "I'm not going to tell you what to do, but I will tell you that your thinking is healthy."

That was all I needed to know.


What does it feel like today, several years after retiring?

Tina LeBlanc, danced with San Francisco Ballet 1992–2009: I was standing backstage during Nutcracker last year, and [artistic director] Helgi Tomasson asked, "Do you miss it?" Yes, very much.

Tina LeBlanc in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, photo by Erik Tomasson

I still miss parts of being a professional dancer terribly. I miss being that self-involved and focused on my own physicality and artistry, being lost in self exploration. I miss how my body felt when it was in peak condition and responding to the commands I gave it. I miss that time before a show when I was readying myself for a show, make-up, warm up, costumes...the ritual. I miss leaving the theater at night when it's empty (I would always walk across the stage and stare out at the empty house). I miss the rush I would get when I would step on stage and feel the exchange of energy with the audience. I miss the feeling of contentment after a good show (which didn't always match the audience's response). And of course, I miss being known. I'm rarely recognized anymore. The fame of a ballet dancer doesn't last much longer than the actual career because there are always dancers coming up who are wonderful and talented. On to the next!

If I could have continued feeling like I was in peak form, I would have, but bodies age. I wanted to retire. I was excited to get to the next phase, but that 27 years as a professional dancer will always be the best part, I think. It is a way of life that not many people get to experience.



What was the first thing you did right after you stopped dancing?

Gina Ness, danced with San Francisco Ballet 1972–1985: I cut my hair! I went to a salon close to Union Square and had it cut very short. I felt this was the symbolic first step of my not being a performing ballet dancer anymore. As I watched my long, thick hair get shorter and shorter, I remember thinking that I was looking more and more like my brother Tony!

Gina Ness as The Rose in Nutcracker

After my final performance I continued to take my daily class. I loved the classes of Yehuda Maor at Dancers Stage. Taking that class had been part of my life since I was very young. I just couldn't drop ballet like a hot potato! I was in great shape when I retired. Then, after about six months, it finally dawned on me that I didn't need to do this anymore.


What was your last performance like?

Anita Paciotti, danced with San Francisco Ballet 1968–1986: It was as Medea in Michael Smuin's ballet of the same name. It was fraught with drama over who should give me my final flowers: Helgi Tomasson (our new director) or Michael (our former director). Helgi did not approve of Michael on the stage. With all sorts of trickery behind the scenes, and unbeknownst to me, Michael wrapped himself up in the downstage curtain and wound up on stage with his bouquet together with Helgi. It was quite a scene.

Anita Paciotti in Giselle, photo by Erik Tomasson

But my favorite memory is something quite different. In a concluding scene, I discovered a "new way" of playing the scene. I didn't plan or expect it. I just felt it. It felt completely right, and how funny, yet how perfect, on that last night. We are always learning!


How did you choose what to do next?

Anton Ness, danced with San Francisco Ballet 1972–1980: The months that followed my retirement were a time of my body healing, yet experiencing new kinds of stress. I had joined the Monday-Friday/8-5 schedule at my father-in-law's printing paper company, beginning in the warehouse. I was filling orders, loading and unloading trucks, driving a forklift. I reveled in nights and weekends free, yet felt a bit lost being low man on the totem pole in the regular workforce. I wondered of my future value and contribution to anything of lasting importance. I was an artist in a strange environment that couldn't allow for that creative expression. Take the order, fill the order, deliver the order. That was now my world.

Tony Nessin Michael Smuin's Pulcinella Variations, photo by Robert Simac

Then the nightmares began. They haunted me on and off for more than a decade. They always begin with my landing, and while going to the theater, suddenly being pressed to perform whilst I explain I'm out of shape, don't remember the choreography, and so on. I'm totally panicked and wake in a cold sweat.

Ten years later, having moved to Seattle—working into the position of territory manager for Unisource Paper—Vivian Little, a former SFB soloist teaching nearby asked if I would participate in her recital. She wanted me to partner her in Paquita. I agreed only if we could dance something less classical in addition. We agreed, and I set a pas de deux to John Barry's score for the movie "Somewhere in Time" combined with Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." This performance was my reconnection with dance, a creative step forward, and a chance, though she was young, for my oldest daughter to see me dance one time.

I slowly returned to my artistic side while still working. I set a Nutcracker for my kids' school and found my way to being a director of a large fine art photography gallery. And after again retiring, I authored a book "Save Our Ballet," about the period during 1974 when SFB was facing bankruptcy. Then I embarked on my own photography, with handcrafted frames and archival mounting of my prints.

After more than three decades, I classify myself as an artist once again, proving the point that we can change our skins as necessary to provide for our family, but also be true to our inner self.


When did you first ask the question, "Who am I if I'm not a dancer?"

Katita Waldo, danced with San Francisco Ballet 1988–2010: That's not a question I have ever asked myself. I have always had a life outside of dance. My husband Marshall Crutcher and I were married in 1989 and we have a son James, who was born in 1999. Marshall founded a media film business and ran it for about 25 years, but is now moving back into classical music and composition.

Katita Waldo in William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, photo by Eric Tomasson

We have lots of friends, most of whom don't dance, so most of our social time is spent without ballet even being mentioned. I like to cook, read, and our family is big on movies (Netflix is HUGE in our house!). Ballet was, and is, what I do for a living, but remains just a part of the picture. I am lucky that I have had a career that I enjoy, but it is only one part of me, so I am exactly the same person as when I danced.



Do you still consider yourself a dancer?

Pierre Vilanoba, danced with San Francisco Ballet 1998–2013: About six years before my retirement, I went back to school to get a bachelor's degree in performing arts, with an emphasis on psychology. During an interview with a psychoanalyst friend for a book I was writing, he shared a story with me about a 70-year-old woman who had been a dancer and was still feeling that she was a dancer. It took me some time to understand what he was trying to make me see.

Pierre Vilanoba in William Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated, photo by Erik Tomasson

The fact is that after spending over 30 years perfecting ballet, the mental set does not go away. It is part of who we are. We behave the way we do because we are dancers. Our minds are working the way they are because we have had this experience. Our perspective is the one of a dancer, or retired dancer, but there is still the dancer part in it.

Today I embrace this part of who I am, and I am trying to develop other parts of who I am, but they will necessarily be influenced by the dancer inside of me.

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Do you have a sprained ankle that won't heal? It's not that rare. Studies have shown that 10 to 30 percent of sprains will have symptoms later. So what is a sprained ankle anyway? It's the most common injury in all of sports and dancing.


Dancing pushes your body to its limit. If you roll over on your ankle when landing from a jump, you can sprain or injure the ligaments on the outer (lateral) side that hold the joint together. This is different from a "strain," which affects your tendons and muscles. An easy way to remember this distinction is this: You sprain your ankle, but you strain your Achilles tendon. The degree of injury varies, depending on the damage to the ligaments. We determine this by a physical exam and X-rays that help us classify the ankle sprain as Grade I (mild), II (moderate), or III (severe). The most serious sprain involves a complete tear of the ligaments with marked instability that often requires surgery. Fortunately, most sprains are Grade I or II and heal in three to six weeks. The exceptions are those that continue to cause trouble. This is the "sprained ankle that won't heal."

In medical circles, residual problems from sprained ankles cause considerable angst, because they can be hard to diagnose and difficult to treat-especially when telltale signs are ignored by stoic dancers. Problems with old sprains tend to fall into three categories: swelling, pain, and instability ("giving way").


Swelling

It's normal for a sprained ankle to swell, sometimes for four to six weeks, or longer. But swelling that persists for more than three months may be a sign of trouble. The lining of the capsule surrounding a joint is called the synovium, and anything inside the joint that irritates the synovium will cause it to secrete fluid. Swelling inside of a joint is often a sign that something is causing irritation. (The swelling that is seen from the outside is a combination of soft tissue swelling around the joint and fluid within the joint itself.) In the ankle there are several reasons for this condition. While these may seem alarming, treatment is possible. But first, let's take a look at the culprits.


Chronic synovitis Sometimes there is damage to the surface of the joint that does not show up on any tests, such as an X-ray or MRI, even though it continues to cause irritation and excess fluid.


A bone chip At the time of injury, a bone chip may have been knocked loose, leaving a "loose body" floating around inside to cause trouble.


An OCD lesion "OCD" in sports medicine stands for osteochondritis dissecans (not obsessive compulsive disorder). The easiest way to think of this is like a cavity in a tooth. It is something that leaves a small hole in the surface on the ankle bone (the talus) with a dead piece of bone in it. An MRI study will usually pick this up.


A bone bruise This is not black and blue. Instead, it feels like an achy pain that is difficult to explain and lasts for months. There is edema, or fluid, within the bones themselves that we can only see on an MRI study. Fortunately, it is rarely serious and gradually fades away.


What can you do? Treatment for chronic swelling, no matter what the cause, usually requires sleeping with the leg elevated on a pillow at night and putting on an elastic ankle support in the morning when you get out of bed. If the swelling is minimal and is slowly going away with no other symptoms, it is OK to dance, but go easy on the jumps and grand plies till all the swelling is gone. However, if it doesn't feel so good then don't do it! An ankle support (no need for metal hinges, etc.) usually feels good at this stage.


It also helps to avoid the saltshaker, which leads to water retention. With diligence, the swelling should go away. However, if the leg is swollen up the shin, something else may be happening, and it needs to be checked out by your doctor. Swelling that does not go away is a sign that something more is wrong. Normal joints do not swell.


Pain

There are several common causes of ankle pain that does not go away:


The sinus tarsi syndrome Lingering inflammation, scar tissue, or a partly torn ligament can occur in the hollow place in the side of the anklebone called the sinus tarsi (sinus in Latin means hollow or sunken and the tarsus is the ankle). This is the most common cause of the sprained ankle that won't heal. While it can be difficult to discern this problem on an X-ray or MRI, a physical exam by a dance medicine specialist can pinpoint the diagnosis by locating the exact area that hurts.


A tarsal coalition Residual pain in the sinus tarsi after the original sprain heals can also be due to an unrecognized tarsal coalition. The ankle has two components: the regular ankle joint that moves up and down, and the subtalar (ST) joint beneath it that moves in and out. Together, they make up the ankle joint complex. Some people are born with limited motion in their ST joint because the bones in this area are joined together where they ought to be separate—a coalition. It can usually be seen on an X-ray or MRI. This condition is present in about five percent of ankles. It usually occurs in one ankle only, rather than both. As with a sprain, it can be mild, moderate, or severe. In dancers, it is usually mild or it would have caused trouble before the sprain. Dancers with mild symptoms can often work around it.


The high ankle sprain This is marked by tenderness in the front of the ankle on the outside. Unlike routine ankle sprains where the main damaged ligaments lie right in the sinus tarsi, this one affects a ligament that is higher up, at the level of the ankle joint itself. This is the so-called "high" ankle sprain, which can be a real bugaboo because it takes two to three times longer to heal than a routine sprain. It may not show up on medical tests, so the diagnosis is usually made on the basis of the physical exam.


Secondary problems Lastly, there are several conditions, such as FHL tendonitis ("dancer's tendonitis") and the os trigonum syndrome that seem to pop up out of nowhere. Dancers often think that the residual pain is part of the healing process when it is actually a separate problem. Later the sprain may heal, but these conditions can continue to be painful and may even require surgery if left unaddressed.


Instability

"My ankle gives way" is probably the second most common leftover problem with ankle sprains after the sinus tarsi syndrome. We doctors see it all the time. Many things can cause this problem. Fortunately most respond to appropriate treatment.


Peroneal weakness There are two peroneal tendons that run parallel down the outside of the ankle; one is short and the other is long. Their major function is to keep the ankle from rolling over and prevent sprains. After an injury they can remain weak, so the ankle is poorly protected from further roll-overs. It's easy at this point to fall into the vicious cycle of "Because it's weak it rolls over and because it rolls over it's weak," which can go on for months. If this is the problem, it is easy to fix. Simply restore the normal peroneal strength with physical therapy. A few months of daily use of a theraband, under the guidance of a physical therapist, will usually strengthen the peroneals. (They gain strength faster if the exercises are done in the full "tendu" position.)

Laxity of the ankle ligaments Grade I sprains do not usually damage the ankle ligaments to any extent, but repeated Grade II or Grade Ill injuries can lead to permanent looseness of the ligaments that hold the anklebones together. This is a difficult situation, because they can be tightened only by surgery. The surgery is quite effective, but the recovery is usually three months or more. So it is nice to avoid it if you can.


Many loose ankles often give way because of a combination of looseness and weakness. These can often be brought up to full strength with physical therapy and then they don't give way anymore. The number one indication for ankle ligament surgery is the failure of rehab to correct the problem.


Pain, swelling and instability

The problems associated with a recurring sprained ankle can co-exist and produce all three symptoms. In this ease the diagnosis is particularly difficult. There is one last problem that might be going on:


Peroneal tendon damage With repeated sprains, the peroneal tendons can develop small longitudinal rents or tears. When this happens, the tendons swell up in the sheathes that surround them and cause achy pains, chronic swelling and weakness that cannot be corrected by exercise. This problem is easy to miss and hard to correct because it usually gets worse in spite of all treatment. Fortunately, this condition also responds well to surgery.

The best way to diagnose these various problems is to see a sports or dance medicine specialist for a history, physical exam, and appropriate studies. Your doctor may request X-rays followed by an MRI, CT and/or bone scan. Physical therapy is usually the first step in the recovery. Do not try to treat yourself! There is an old expression in medicine that says, "Someone who treats themselves has a fool for a physician." Merde!


William G. Hamilton, M.D. is the orthopedic consultant for New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, The School of American Ballet and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Ballet School.

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