Ballet dancers have nearly 100 percent injury rates. From minor sprained ankles to major bone breaks, nearly everyone faces time away from the stage sooner or later. The good news? Recovering from an injury doesn’t have to be a career setback. It can actually make you stronger, as these dancers discovered when they coped with the long, difficult journey back to the stage.

 

Stella Abrera
American Ballet Theatre soloist


The beginning of my 13th season with American Ballet Theatre marked an exciting time for me artistically. The cherry on top: I was slated to perform my first Giselle during the company’s spring Metropolitan Opera House season in New York. Needless to say, I was loving life. Then everything came to a screeching halt.

 

What began as a simple ache in my left calf quickly deteriorated into debilitating pain. Within a few weeks, I could barely walk, let alone dance. The injury proved to be an overstretched sciatic nerve in my back, but since the pain was in my calf, it went undiagnosed for months.

 

At first, I kept trying to work through it. I gave up performances reluctantly, little by little, but fought until the bitter end for my Giselle. I surrendered only after the doctors realized that there was nothing they could do for me. “The nerve will just need time to heal,” they said. “Maybe a year and a half.” Walking into the artistic office to relinquish my debut was devastating. It marked both the end of one struggle and the beginning of another—the long road back to health.

 

Over the next 12 months, my injury became the center of my world. I started to wonder if I would ever walk again without pain. And I had hundreds of setbacks. There were times when my calf would flare up just from spending too long standing in my apartment and I would need to spend the next three days in bed flat on my back. At my lowest point, grandmas in walkers would pass me on the sidewalk as I shuffled along. Unless I was bedridden, I was diligent about my daily trips to ABT for physical therapy. When seeing the healthy dancers and hearing the music got too intense, I started going to Westside Dance Physical Therapy for a mental reprieve.

 

Thankfully, I had an amazing support system. My family was wonderful, and as soon as I could, I went to Amsterdam to be with my husband, Sascha Radetsky, who was dancing for Dutch National Ballet at the time. I was completely down in the dumps, but being around Sascha made me feel better. Since he’s had three ankle surgeries, he could commiserate, and,­ more importantly, he was a great listener.

 

When a year had passed, I decided it was time to try dancing again. Back in New York, Craig Salstien, ABT soloist and company teacher, guided me. He taught me a private class every day. Technically we went back to square one—he micromanaged my every movement. Even though progress went at a snail’s pace, it worked. In three months, I was back taking company class, and soon after, I eased into rehearsal. Working with Craig, coupled with getting four cortisone shots in my back, had me dancing again.

 

Supposedly, I am healed now. I’ll still get a buzzing feeling in my foot every once in a while or my calf will ache a little, but the sensations are just a shadow of the original pain. Before, I had faith in my body to simply do the movement; now I’m more analytical. My moments of abandon now give me greater joy. It may sound clichéd, but I appreciate dancing more now that I know it can be taken away from me at any moment.

 

My first show back I performed one of the Odalisques in Le Corsaire. It gave me a sense of achievement that’s hard to describe. I was so overwhelmed with emotion because I realized I hadn’t let the injury defeat me. While a year-plus might not seem long, when you don’t know if you’re going to heal, it’s an eternity. I know now that, more than anything else, I want to dance. My spirit has been steeled.    
—As told to Kate Lydon


Megan LeCrone
New York City Ballet corps member


For some dancers it might be torture, but watching company performances and rehearsals kept me sane while I was out with a torn FHL tendon. I’ve danced my whole life; I couldn’t be away from it. Sometimes I’d feel angry and frustrated, but that made me more diligent with my physical therapy and more driven to stay in shape. And when you’re always dancing you rarely watch from the audience, so I made a point of sitting high up to see the architecture of the ballets. That taught me a lot: The dancers I loved most had no tension in their bodies and their faces were open. Every time I watched someone dance, I remembered what it felt like to perform, and recovery became my life.





 

Unfortunately, my injuries kept coming. It was the end of my first year as an NYCB company member when I first felt a debilitating pain in my right ankle and foot that turned out to be a tear in my FHL tendon. Coming back from surgery took eight months, but I felt like I had a new foot! I danced in the 2004/2005 season, but then I needed the same surgery on my left foot. Barely a year later I had a bone spur removed from that foot, too.

 

The first time I came back, it didn’t seem like that big a challenge. I felt stronger, and was dancing better than ever. The company even gave me some nice roles, making me feel like I had lost less ground. But the injury cycle continued and staying positive became hard. I don’t give up easily, but I felt impatient. Every day I was thankful to still be in the com­pany, but I worried I might be thought of as the girl who was always injured.

 

With each setback, though, I realized I had become a little stronger emotionally and physically. Now when I’m onstage, I don’t worry about little things. I put everything I have into each performance. My injuries put my life into perspective. I know the pain of not being able to dance, so I try to dance each time as if it were my last day.    
—As told to Jen Peters

 

Chandra Kuykendall
Colorado Ballet principal


I always dreamed of dancing Odette/Odile. Then Swan Lake was scheduled for the fall of my 10th season. But during the Nutcracker run the winter before, my knee started buckling. I had noticed knee pain before but wrote it off and danced through it. During our January layoff I rested, hoping it would get better. It didn’t, and I started to worry. I went in for an MRI, but the images showed nothing, so I kept dancing.

 

But the pain didn’t go away. By March I made the difficult decision to have exploratory surgery. The doctors didn’t know what they would find. I’ve never had a major injury before, so I felt scared. Would I regain full mobility in my knee? Would I miss Swan Lake?

 

The surgery lasted only 18 minutes. They found a small tear in the medial meniscus—a little flap that was successfully removed—as well arthritis on the bottom of my femur bone. They did a chondroplasty for the arthritis, a procedure which roughs up the bone to promote tissue growth. They told me I would have 100 percent recovery.  I made up my mind to come back in time to dance my dream role. I had six months to get into the best shape of my career. I was hard on myself. I wanted progress fast, but the chondroplasty made my recovery take longer. I did physical therapy three times a week, plus Pilates, walking, massage, acupuncture and icing. My husband, Rob, is also a dancer and he helped every step of the way. Another girl in the company had the same surgery on the same day, so it was helpful to talk to her. But I had difficult days when she was able to do more than me, and I felt her recovery was going faster than mine.

 

The company was off during my first four months out, so I gave myself a modified barre after three months and kept gradually adding on. I felt like I was learning to dance again. As we got closer to Swan Lake, I put more pressure on myself than anyone else did. My mind was absolutely set on getting onstage. I pushed too hard sometimes and the next day my knee pain would flare up and my leg muscles would become tight from compensating. Even through the pain, I never doubted that I would be able to get back in time. And I did. I performed Odette/Odile and didn’t miss a single performance. It was really tough some days, but there were performances when I actually forgot I’d had surgery I was so thrilled and thankful to be dancing. —As told to JP

Training
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As summer intensive audition season starts up, I've been reminiscing about my own experience as a young dancer—way back in 1993—and how challenging it was to navigate. In fact, I think it's safe to say that my first summer program audition was a complete disaster.

I was almost 16—a little late by some standards—and was still pretty clueless as to how I compared to others outside my hometown. That weighed heavily on my mind as my parents and I made the hour-long drive to Milwaukee. The audition was for a school in Pennsylvania, and as I scanned the big-city studio, my mind slipped into exaggerated teenage self-consciousness. Dancers lined the barres stretching, showing off their flexibility as if doing some sort of war ritual. Many were chatting in groups, wearing trendy warm-up jumpers and donning perfectly shellacked buns. I tried to act like I knew what I was doing, but inside I was a wreck.

The teacher clapped his hands together to begin class. He was fast-paced, no-nonsense and not one for smiles. During pliés, he stopped in front of me with his clipboard as I emerged from a cambré back. He looked me up and down, frowned and kept going. I, of course, freaked out—what did that mean? I still had an entire hour and a half left of class to prove I was still capable, but instead I completely lost my concentration. I just couldn't shake that frown. I forgot combinations and even started with the wrong foot in front a few times in center. By jumps, the adjudicators had stopped watching me altogether. Needless to say, I spent the majority of the ride home trying not to cry.

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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popular
via YouTube

It's finally the weekend, and we're celebrating the best way we know how—a new ballet video. Juliet Doherty (who trained with San Francisco Ballet and Master Ballet Academy, and is set to star in the dance film, On Pointe), teamed up with Cartoon Network for her latest project.

"Cartoon Network contacted me about their show, Steven Universe, which was coming out with a new vinyl album of the soundtrack of the show," Doherty shared with Pointe. "They told me about one of the show's main characters named, Pearl, who is a strong-willed character but has the grace inspired by a ballerina."

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Videos
Mr. Jeremy FIsher, from Sir Frederick Ashton's "The Tales of Beatrix Potter."

Animal roles might not typically be what dancers dream of performing…but they're oh-so-fun to watch. You can't help falling under their spell (and perhaps aspiring to dance one someday). Here's a round-up of some of our favorite furry and feathered roles.

Bunny Hop

Run. Dance in a circle. Pretend to be a rabbit. It might sound like a creative movement combo, but don't let that fool you. The role of Peter Rabbit in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Tales of Beatrix Potter requires fierce technique—not to mention the ability to project personality while wearing an animal head and fur suit.


Four-Legged Interlude

Who do you turn to for halftime entertainment during a quartet of fairy variations? Dancing lizards, mice and a frog of course! This charming quintet of creatures light up the stage in David Bintley's Cinderella.

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Your Career
Photo Courtesy Barry Kerollis.

I was probably about 15 years old when the director of my local dance school, seeing my drive and ambition, asked me to work as a teaching assistant for one of the main ballet instructors. She asked to meet with me to discuss the details of my new job. She explained what my role was in the studio, expectations of me in the position and more. But as we approached the end of my meeting, I wasn't expecting the conversation to take the serious turn that it did.

"Now, Barry, I need you to be very, very careful about how you work with these young girls. Kids are sensitive and, especially considering that you are a man, if you correct them in a way that can be viewed as sexual by either a student or a parent, even if you didn't do anything, you could be jeopardizing your future as a teacher and in this field." The look on my face must have been utter shock; the prospect of losing my job or getting sued over sharing my artform had never crossed my mind. This forever changed my perspective on being a dance educator, and I still find myself overly cautious about the way that I work with my students today.

Unless you've been hiding underneath a holiday blanket, it has become abundantly clear that we are undergoing a massive cultural shift here in the States. It started in the entertainment industry, then shifted to major corporations. Sexual misconduct in the form of harassment and assault that had been swept under the rug for years is bubbling to the surface. Things began to boil quite quickly, and those interested in our performing-arts world were speculating that something was going to be brought up in our tight-knit community, especially considering the hands-on approach that teachers have with students, dancers have with other dancers and artistic staff has while coaching employees. I had to sit on my own hands for over a month, after I was given a heads-up that a major news publication was working on an exposé about Peter Martins and his many alleged abuses (which had been quietly circulating around our dance community for years).

Keep reading at dance-teacher.com.

Summer Study Advice
Erica Lall and Shaakir Muhammad in class at American Ballet Theatre's 2013 New York Summer Intensive. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

This story originally appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Pointe.

When Pacific Northwest Ballet School student Madison Abeo was accepted into San Francisco Ballet School's summer session on a partial scholarship, she was thrilled. But then she added up the remaining cost for the program and realized she didn't have the funds. “I really wanted to go," she says, “but we just couldn't make the other half of it work."

Ballet training is expensive. For many families, a trip to a dream summer intensive simply isn't in the budget. SFB was $2,500 out of Abeo's reach. But she was determined. At the suggestion of her aunt, Abeo created a Facebook fan page where she asked for opportunities to babysit or perform odd jobs, and included a link to a PayPal account where friends and family could make donations. Two local dancewear businesses, Vala Dancewear and Class Act Tutu, offered to outfit her for fundraising photos, which a photographer took for her Facebook page for free. By June, Abeo had raised enough for tuition—plus plenty of pointe shoes.

Affording your dream intensive isn't as difficult as you might think. There are a surprising number of eager dance supporters out there. Case in point: On Kickstarter, dance projects have the highest success rate of any type of campaign, with dancers receiving over $4 million in donations through the site since it began. You can also apply for need- or merit-based grants and scholarships, either through your summer program or an outside foundation. Most dancers who want it badly enough can make it happen.


Madison Abeo with other Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in the 2013 School Performance of an excerpt from "Serenade," choreography by George Balanchine. Photo by Rex Tranter, Courtesy Abeo.

Take Your Cause to the (Online) Streets

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Summer Study Advice
In class at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy summer intensive. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Russian American Foundation.

When Complexions Contemporary Ballet's summer intensive program director Meg Paul auditions students for its Detroit intensive, there's one thing that catches her eye for all the wrong reasons. "It's a real pet peeve of mine when a dancer keeps shifting her eyes to me during a phrase," she says. "It tells me that she's not fully invested in the movement, that she's more interested in being watched than in embodying the choreography."

Every summer intensive director has their own list of audition deal-breakers, but there are a handful of universal turnoffs to avoid. "Yes, we want the most talented students, but when talent is paired with a bad attitude or improper etiquette, it gives us pause," Paul says. While certain behaviors may seem minor, they can make all the difference when it comes time for scholarship offers or even acceptance decisions.

DEAL BREAKER #1: Not Presenting Yourself Professionally

An audition is a first impression, and you want to look your best. This begins with researching the specific intensive's audition requirements. "Our audition has a dress code, and we expect dancers to respect that," says Rina Kirshner, director of the Russian American Foundation's Bolshoi Ballet Academy programs. "We want dancers to stand out through hard work and talent, not brightly colored leotards or flowers in their hair."

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