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No Pain

Somewhere in the last few bars of the Bluebird coda from "The Sleeping Beauty," I felt my foot give way. I can’t remember exactly what step it was, but I knew instantly something was wrong. I almost managed to get to the end of the rehearsal, but the foot had completely locked up. Overwhelmed by a mixture of shock, pain and embarrassment, I needed to be out of view. As I limped to the seclusion of the corridor outside the busy rehearsal studio, all I could hear was white noise. Our company ballet master and my dance partner joined me moments later and, although I appreciated their support, no words came out. The intensity of months of hard work washed over me as I knew deep down, my year was over. I cried.

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Sadly, this kind of experience is all but universal amongst dancers working around the world. Each day, we sweat it out for hours seeking to build our technical skill and artistic interpretation, but sometimes you can push too far, potentially resulting in injury. Challenging your physicality for the love of your art form is immensely satisfying, but it's certainly not without risk.

With our bodies as instruments of our work, dancers become experts at self assessment of physical state. Years of training and focus create a highly tuned internal feedback system, that's sometimes an inconvenience when you just want to forget your limitations and dance your heart out. From the moment you wake up, you're immediately aware of your aches and pains, their location and severity, and how this will affect the day ahead.

Chris Rodgers-Wilson and Jessica Wood, dancers of the Australian Ballet. Photograph by Taylor-Ferne Morris

Although this system is finely tuned, it is not infallible, tested as it is by constant change. Just as steadily as you hone your skills and experience, your body ages. Personal circumstances affect your confidence. Working conditions fluctuate from a comfortable studio in your company building, to unfamiliar theatres with different flooring as you tour. Repertoire is constantly shifting from classics performed annually to the complete unknown of a newly-commissioned work. Different styles of dance push your body to extremes in different ways. The weather can affect how limber you feel, and fatigue, accumulated over long periods, increases your physical vulnerability.

Injuries are not always sudden. They often begin with a niggling pain, and although many dissipate, they can just as easily increase to the point where you can no longer continue to dance. Deciding the moment at which to ‘call it’ and take yourself out is an agonizing choice to make. On one hand, you have the irrefutable reality that you need time to heal. On the other, the unshakable will to continue in order to make a special performance, an important debut, perform a favourite role. All the while, you are powerfully aware that this career is short, making any missed opportunities potentially crushing.

My most recent injury was a surprise. I had had a heavy few months of performances, but I was coping relatively well. So, it came as a shock. From flying high a moment before, I was now faced with crutches for the foreseeable future. A mixture of denial, anger, and grief set in. I could sense my whole being, both mentally and physically, in a state of uncertainty as to how to move on.

Acceptance is the only way forward. It naturally kickstarts the healing process, which in turn provides some welcome relief in a very stressful time. A distinct change of pace is also necessary. Doctor and physiotherapy appointments are followed by scans and hopefully, a clear diagnosis. This can induce another strange mix of emotions. You are anxious about how long you may be on the bench, but also crave clarity as to how to move forward with your rehabilitation.

Ideally, with the help of a body conditioning and rehabilitation coach, a new set of daily goals are set out. Instead of the familiar start to the day at the barre, my focus became intently observing my foot, as I learnt to reactivate the tiny muscles that had became inhibited from the trauma and pain of the injury. I also started a tailored injury-friendly fitness routine that became a saving grace, breaking up the depressing inactivity that comes with being on crutches.

In rehabilitation, the daily self assessment continues, and more intensely, in that without dancing there is a sizeable void in your schedule. I’ve found this tends to heighten your physical sensation and mental sensitivity, given that your focus naturally is fixed on your injury. It is often with dread and anticipation that you test your movements, desperately hoping for some change in your pain level. During this time, your livelihood is held in the balance of a few words delivered by the medical team. ‘No progressions this week’ or ‘take it back a notch until your pain settles’ can send you into a spiral of depression. That may sound dramatic, but it's fuelled by the depth of passion and strength of connection that dancers feel for their life’s work.

In these times, the value of keeping things simple can’t be overstated. Simplifying your goals and focusing on the things you can control helps you move forward, even if it means taking it right back to simple breathing exercises to calm your mental state. Finding the patience for this can be very difficult, and I’ve regularly had to ask myself ‘what kind of mental state do I need to achieve to work most effectively?’ An often unspoken course of action is to seek help from a mental health professional. What I have found most important is to find someone with whom you feel a genuine rapport and connection; there has to be trust in the process for it to work. The power of mindfulness, visualisation and verbal therapy is often an untapped resource amongst dancers more attuned to expressing themselves physically, but one well worth exploring.

An often unspoken course of action is to seek help from a mental health professional. What I have found most important is to find someone with whom you feel a genuine rapport and connection; there has to be trust in the process for it to work.

Rehabilitation can also allow some time to take a step back and broaden your horizons in a positive way. Many use the time to learn a new skill, or in my case now, to take up a pen (or a laptop!) and reflect on your experiences. Perhaps more significantly, there is the opportunity to spend more time with friends and family; time that is often devoured by a heavy performance schedule. The perspective that can come from these experiences outside the studio can prove to be invaluable. After some time away from my usual schedule, I have felt rejuvenated, with more clarity about what I value as a person and artist, which I hope will inform my dancing. Watching the greatest of experienced artists is revealing, in that life off stage can enrich ones performance in the most beautifully human way.

With patience, the monotony of rehabilitation can also become somewhat meditative. However, then comes the challenge of stepping back into the studio for the first time. Returning to the barre. Working one-on-one can be confronting and not without discomfort and frustration. A lengthy time spent avoiding pain results in compensatory habits. I’ve spent hours with my rehab coach subtly correcting my pelvis alignment and reminding me to stand evenly on both legs, whereas I instinctively want to dance away from my sore foot. It is crucial to trust in this person guiding you and in the process, even when it feels strange and new. Moments of breakthrough, remastering even the simplest of steps, become a powerful source of encouragement and rebuilding of confidence. This is an opportunity to not only heal through movement, but to improve your technique on a holistic level.

Chris Rodgers-Wilson. Photograph by Taylor-Ferne Morris

Gradually, you move from barre exercises to centre, where once again frustration and impatience can be overwhelming. Executing the most simple movements can send you reeling like Bambi on ice. I find the loss of coordination intensifies my self consciousness and my mind becomes riddled with fierce self criticism. It is a a true test of resilience to stay strong. It can be lonely road, the rest of the company seemingly in fast forward on another wavelength, whilst you’re in secluded slow motion repeating the most basic of movements with difficulty. It is a slow process, but as time passes it becomes easier to see the incremental progress you’ve made, even with the multiple bumps in the road. Its also important to look to your colleagues for support, many of whom have set the most inspiring of examples in their own journeys through injury.

Eventually, you have to take what you’ve learnt from your teachers and restore the trust within yourself to find the confidence and independence to go solo. Rather than always relying on verbal cues from others, your body begins to respond independently. Letting the music guide your mind and movement, is incredibly powerful in finding your rhythm to dance freely again. It becomes evident that the long hours you’ve spent with your coach are a gift, and it is with a profound sense of gratitude that you find yourself really dancing once more. Returning to company class and rehearsal is nerve racking, but the momentum you have built carries you as you glimpse light at the end of the tunnel.

Knowing when to push and when to slow down is a constant learning curve throughout a career in dance. There is no one failsafe way, and an injury and rehabilitation can be enlightening in unlocking a new path forward and arming you with a stronger resolve and new found sense of appreciation for your dancing. It is invigorating and arduous in equal measure, making the moment you step out on stage again all the more wonderful. The culmination of weeks and months of hard work has brought you to this moment; the ultimate opportunity to express yourself through your unique dancing, to beautiful music, watched by an audience ready to be swept away with you. These moments are what feed an artist, steering them through difficult times of injury towards even greater heights.

Chris Rodgers-Wilson

Soloist with the Australian ballet, Chris Rodgers-Wilson trained at the Royal Ballet School, and danced with Birmingham Royal Ballet. In 2013 he was awarded the Telstra Dancer of the year award, and he was promoted to soloist in 2015. He currently lives in Melbourne and enjoys writing, photography and spending time outdoors with family and friends.



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