When Lindsi Dec stepped onstage in a dress rehearsal for Cinderella two years ago, a fast fouetté arabesque ended in a torn calf muscle. It was an all too familiar feeling—18 months earlier, she had suffered the same injury on the other leg. “Now I'm even," she jokes today. More to the point, now she's a principal. After five years as a popular soloist with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Dec, 32, was promoted this past January.
Dec successfully weathered two calf tears that sidelined her for nine and six weeks, respectively, but an injury can be a career-altering moment for a dancer. In addition to making a full physical recovery, a dancer must communicate effectively with the company's artistic staff to avoid career setbacks. Many dancers tend to dodge discussing injuries. They don't want to be perceived as weak or unreliable. “Dancers, like other performer athletes, often are taught from an early age to accept injuries as a part of the job and to perform or compete even if there is mild to moderate pain," says Chicago-based sports psychologist Dr. Steve Julius. After working so long to achieve a professional career, a dancer may be unwilling to sacrifice even a short-term opportunity. In the end, that can hurt a dancer far more—undermining the artistic staff's trust if she becomes reinjured or cannot perform the role adequately.
Open and effusive, being communicative is part of Dec's personality, but it's also a job strategy. She reached out to PNB artistic director Peter Boal with each injury, keeping him updated with her physical therapist's assessments. There were times when she acknowledged uncertain progress. “I had to tell him I only knew day to day," says Dec. “From one day to the next, I couldn't do a pirouette. Then the following day I could." Boal did not hurry Dec. “I never want to push a dancer beyond her comfort level," he says.
No matter how sympathetic the artistic director, there are times when both the dancer and the artistic staff must face tough decisions. Even though Dec was on the mend after her first calf tear, she and Boal agreed that it would be better for her to withdraw from her roles in A Midsummer Night's Dream to focus on her debut as Myrtha in Giselle. When a dancer gets injured, Boal always looks at the particulars of an upcoming performance. “We will discuss specific steps that can be executed or still need to be avoided," he says, “and then we'll discuss which roles are possible." In the end, Dec, who had already earned praise for her neoclassicism, felt that Myrtha stretched her stylistically and artistically, and was among the performances that contributed to her promotion.
Every company director has their criteria for how they measure a dancer's recovery. For Boal, company class is the ultimate testing ground. “Once the dancer can complete grand allégro with confidence, it is only a question of stamina," he says. Some dancers prefer working slowly in company class during recovery, skipping the parts that stress their bodies. Dec opted to take PNB School's open classes while she was coming back. “I didn't want to put pressure on myself to do more than I could."
Dec believes that her openness with Boal, and her efforts to involve him in her recovery decisions, helped to keep her on track at the company. She says her promotion came as a happy shock, but it was the clear path for a dancer with an ever-growing list of talents that now includes knowing how to come back—all the way back—from injury.