6 tips from a dancer on when not to ignore the pain

When I was injured, it felt as if it happened in a single jeté, a single moment. But there were signs that I’d ignored.

Davide Illini | Stocksy United

I settle into studio two and gaze at the historic Ansonia Hotel and the pigeons that perch on its awning. My ballet class starts soon. The dancers stretch and twist their limbs to warm up. The pianist comes in; we rise to our feet.

I look in the mirror and marvel at how much the human body can endure. I ripped a ligament clean through six years ago. A surgeon removed 100 fibers of shredded tissue from my inflamed tendons. When I woke up, I felt certain I would never move my leg again. And I felt more pain than I thought I could endure.

Six years later, I am warming up so I can move through space to music. I can walk and relevé and point my toes. But I will never be the same. I have paid a high price—one that might have been avoided.

I used my hands to lift my leg up each step, gripping the screaming muscles.

Dancers live with pain. Sometimes the pain is hardly noticeable. Sometimes the pain is a dull, mind-numbing ache, a little hammer repeatedly hitting the same few nerve endings surrounding damaged joints. Sometimes the pain is excruciating; they will themselves ignore it so that they can tolerate daily life.

It’s partly because dancers are conditioned to not listen when they feel the first twinges. In my case, I desperately didn’t want it to be anything serious. And while I ignored the signs of wear, my ligament stretched and then ripped clean through.

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The day after the ligament ruptured I had plans to go to The Cloisters, a museum at the top of Manhattan. The Cloisters is like a castle; you ascend a long stone staircase to enter the grounds. I used my hands to lift my leg up each step, gripping the screaming muscles. I lifted it for more than 100 steps. I sat in the medieval garden and whimpered, still refusing to believe I was seriously injured.

Two weeks later I lay on an icy operating room table. When I awoke from anesthesia, I vomited. The surgeon showed me photos. The ligament looked like dental floss frayed at the point of rupture. My muscles glowed red where tendonitis flared.

I tried to extend my legs past 180 degrees, carried by the thrill of battling physics.

Now, six years later, I watch my toddler leap with the rubbery flexion of a cat. Nothing causes her pain. I too used to feel invincible. I slid cold into split positions on frigid winter mornings. When I jumped, I tried to extend my legs past 180 degrees, carried by the thrill of battling physics.

When I was injured, it felt as if it happened in a single jeté, a single moment. But it might have been prevented. I might have listened to my body when it first told me something was wrong. I should have heeded the first early twinges, the first minor pains. I might have taken care of myself the way I would one day care for my baby. How much tender care I would have received at my own loving hands!

Listen—carefully—to your body

We talk a lot about teaching girls to love their bodies. We have harmed generations of women with discussions of weight, height, proportion; we have harmed women with airbrushing and Photoshop and a beauty industry bent on earning money by inventing flaws. We know that loving our bodies means ignoring the nonsense, the falsehoods, and the distortions of social convention that belittle women.

But there is another harm done to women and their bodies: the expectation that we will continue on working, or caring for children, or dancing the pas de deux, through pain and fatigue. We are expected to be both responsible and accommodating—and we expect ourselves to be strong, to weather all strain. To be powerful. We think that by ignoring pain, we are conquering something. But pain is an early-warning system, and we have the tools—medical scans, rest, patience—to mend what may have torn or become displaced.

There is another way to love your body. Listen to it. But listen carefully because pain may start quietly. Once it becomes loud and insistent, the problem is harder to solve.

I have some advice.

When your body hurts, stop. Stop right away. Nothing is more important than resting when you hurt. A stitch in time, as the saying goes.

Call the doctor. If one orthopedist thinks there is no cause for concern, but you’re in pain, find another doctor. Get an x-ray. Get an MRI. Advocate for yourself. You are not an imposition. You are the owner of a body, and you know when it needs maintenance.

Observe your body from the inside. You will start to notice odd habits. I always grip my left thigh when I am standing at the sink. Now I consciously relax the leg and my back doesn’t ache anymore. Take an inventory a few times a day. You’ll discover some peculiar habits of your own.

Don’t think of life as a race. You’d be amazed at how little time goes by on a day or two off. Mind the difference between exercise and damaging repetition.

Don’t think of pain as a weakness. Pain is a super-power. It is telling you that something is wrong. It gives you a chance to seek help. It is easier to sew up a small hole than a gaping wound.

Keep your muscles warm. Wear layers in the cold. Don’t over-stretch. When you soar, remember that you will land. Measure your power not only by the height of your ascension, but by the gentleness of your descent.

Use both ears when you listen. With one ear, listen as you would for a child’s cry. With the other ear, listen joyfully to the music that makes your heart—and your body—sway and jump and dance. But listen. Always listen.

Leslie Kendall Dye
Leslie Kendall Dye
Leslie Kendall Dye is an actor and dancer in New York City. Her writing has appeared at Salon, Vela Magazine, The Rumpus, The Lit Pub, Brain, Child, The Toast, The Washington Post, and other places, but most frequently in her child's sketchbook.

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