I have always been a mover, a dancer. Dad’s LPs were my music, childhood fantasies were my inspiration, the family room my stage. “Mommy I want to be a ballerina!”, was my announcement after my first ballet class. Mom’s ideas were different, having borne two tall daughters, she’d only hoped that dance would help us grow up coordinated, standing straight, with a sense of poise, grace and rhythm. I’m sure she did not expect me to have the willingness to commit to the rigor and discipline of a career in dance. Too late! I got hooked!
My early training began with Jane Borg at the Carrol School of Ballet in Littleton and led to traveling all around the states for dance camps, workshops, and recitals. Most of my early professional performances were with the David Taylor Dance Theatre in Denver. Much as I loved growing up in Colorado, right after high school graduation I bolted for NYC at the first opportunity, and spent the next eight glorious years dancing, learning, and teaching. I instructed my first dance class at the renowned Merce Cunningham Dance Studio, and discovered how much I loved to teach movement.
In a sense, this is what I still do today, but in a far more informed and seasoned expression of this early revelation. I observe how people move, deconstruct and analyze the restrictive influences, and demonstrate how to improve the movement, in order to assist them to work through and out of pain and injury. The body is a remarkable creation which is receptive to healing. It is designed for movement. Dance has taken me all over the globe. Whether visiting other countries while on a tour, or living abroad as artist in residence, this aspect of my life has always been a blessing. Good fortune, and my willingness to live a somewhat nomadic lifestyle allowed me to continue to be active as a dance professional for years after choice or the imposition of injury typically ends a dancer’s career.
But, in 2006 I was abruptly forced to slow way down and come to terms with this dilemma for myself. For years, I had been living with always annoying, occasionally debilitating hip pain, most likely the result of my hard-charging younger career as a performer. But gradually the pain had escalated, and I now had no choice but to face the specter of serious treatment. The observable diagnosis for my condition was, “Femoroacetabular Impingement” (aka “FAI”), a common affliction among dancers, skiers, hockey players, any discipline which requires repeated rigorous repetitive rotation of the hip socket. In my case I had developed obstructive bone spurs which severely inhibited range of motion, and the bone-on-bone conflict was causing the pain. It was clear I needed surgery, whether this would mean a total hip replacement at the ripe old age of 38, or something else, I did not yet know.
What I did know, was that I did not want to be forced to stop moving. While a hip replacement offered a high rate of success, and a relatively short recovery period, the resulting restriction upon load and range of motion would limit my effectiveness at work, and certainly force me to stop dancing. I had always identified myself through my body and the ability to express myself through movement. The mere notion that I might have to surrender this aspect of my life made me very anxious and sad.
I did some research and sought out the most renowned orthopedic specialists to learn about alternatives to joint replacements being tried by professional athletes who were at a similar crossroads. I found that an arthroscopic reconstructive procedure had been developed for the hip, and was being conducted with noted success by Doctor James Phillipon at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic in my home state of Colorado. The procedure was so new and specialized, that there were not even yet a substantial enough number of recovered patients for the procedure to be statistically significant, let alone insurable (as for instance, knee arthroscopies are now so prevalent, they are typically considered to be an insured procedure). However, the glowing testimonials of those professional athletes and dancers who had undergone Phillipon’s treatment, and then committed to a rehab regimen, and achieved a fully functional career recovery, was indeed impressive. This, combined with the promise of relief from chronic pain, without requiring the introduction of artificial components into my body, made it seem to be correct choice for me. My 3 ½ hour surgery revealed a hip socket which looked something like a lunar surface encased in string cheese. As it turned out, Dr. Phillipon’s initial diagnosis had identified only part of the problem. Through the years, the repetition of this bone on bone contact had also significantly damaged the cartilage of the hip socket. Smoothing of the bone surfaces would only be an effective treatment if the soft tissue were also restored.
This discovery necessitated an on-the-spot additional treatment – called a microfracture, in which tiny holes are drilled into the damaged hip socket bone in order to essentially bleed out new lymph fluid, which over time becomes the surface of your new hip socket. Unfortunately, this also meant I would be on crutches and in rehabilitation for an additional 4-6 weeks, beyond the originally estimated 8.
Immediately following the procedure, though still groggy from the anesthesia, I was instructed to get on the exercise bike and get my hip moving. Dr. Phillipon, happy with the results of the procedure, stopped by my room just to underscore the importance of my rehab period. Indeed I had spoken to patients who had undergone the procedure, but who had also short-changed the rehab, with less than optimal outcome. I promised him I would take good care of our new hip.
With the patience of Job, my Mom and wonderful family helped me recover at home for the next two months. Every morning, I was up and on the bike. Each night, while I slept, my leg was slung into CPM (Continuous Passive Motion) machine that automatically put my leg into motion eight hours a day (which made for some funny dreams.) Though it was to be many weeks before the joint would bear the load of my body’s full weight, this constant motion was essential to re-establishing the integrity and structure of the new soft tissue and the joint’s full range of motion.
Looking now at these photographs, I recall that although I was trying to keep up a positive demeanor, inside I was devastated, as though my very identity had been stripped from me. I felt confused and hollow. The years of self-expression through movement were now a mere memory. Even walking more than twenty minutes brought on pain, weakness, and a sinking feeling.
Somehow I did not ever completely surrender to that feeling, and weeks later, when my hip could finally bear my weight again, I determinedly threw the crutches into the garage, put myself on the equipment, and began my own journey of recovery and discovery. It began to dawn on me, “How could I have spent all those years as a dancer and not have developed balanced muscle strength?” I began to discover huge pockets of muscle weakness in my body. The importance of Gluts and Hamstrings took on a whole new meaning for me. I discovered my inner foot, as all those years of relying on my dancer turnout caused my hips to become unbalanced, leading to the bone on bone grinding. A friend told me that my hip surgery would make me a better teacher, and it has, especially to the extent it has helped me to become a more compassionate practitioner. I am more sensitive to what it means to be in pain, and how it conspires with physical limitations to manifest feelings of hopelessness, which can become overwhelming.
At my lowest moment this was my feeling; I had to come to terms that my career was over, and I would probably never dance again. Somehow finding the conviction to push back against this emotion fueled my dedication to stick to my rehab regimen. I continued for more than a year with near compulsive, dogged persistence and discipline.
And I did dance again. Two years later I found myself in rehearsals back in my home state of Colorado preparing for a cultural tour of Beijing, China, during the 2008 Olympics. That first day of rehearsal, I walked into the studio and felt I had truly come full circle. Dancers sweating, learning choreography, pushing our bodies to the limit… a most rewarding homecoming. Our company performed in various venues around the Olympic Village, sharing the stage with three other companies from China. I felt so blessed to be able to move again, pain free.