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A Deeper Hurt: The Emotional Trauma of Injury Can Be the Most Painful Part

The day after she tore her calf muscle, Lindsi Dec woke up in a state of denial: She thought her body was still healthy, and planned to go to rehearsal. Then her husband had to carry her to the bathroom. “Once I realized how bad it was, there was a lot of crying," remembers Dec, a soloist at Pacific Northwest Ballet. “Never mind missing dancing—I missed walking." The hardest part came once she finally acknowledged what had happened, and that she would be out for nine weeks.

For dancers, injuries are more than broken bones or torn tissue. They come with a deeper kind of loss, one of precious stage time, the momentum of a burgeoning career, even personal identity. In the early stages of a serious injury, the physical pain is often overshadowed by the emotional trauma. Dancers' fusion of self and body is so complete that when they can't move, their world unravels.


“Injured dancers may experience a form of grief," says Elizabeth Manejías, MD, who works with dancers at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. She says mild depressive symptoms and anxiety are common. Lynda Mainwaring, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, led a study on the topic. “We found that dancers, both here in Canada and in the United Kingdom, reported that often the psychological aspect of injury was the most difficult component to cope with," says Mainwaring.

Dancers are trained to be stoic. And because their whole world is connected to their physical presence, when they're forced to be stationary, there's a void. “Especially when the injury is serious and involves long-term recovery, it threatens a dancer's identity," says Mainwaring. When dancers can't dance, they temporarily lose not only their career but also their lifestyle, their means of expression, their sense of purpose.
“I've been dancing since I was 8; without it, I felt incomplete," says the Joffrey Ballet's Miguel Angel Blanco, who spent a year off the stage after two consecutive surgeries on his Achilles tendon. “I had days where I asked myself, 'Why did this happen to me?' I missed a lot of great shows, including a world premiere by Edwaard Liang and Wayne McGregor's Infra."

The danger of depression is twofold: In addition to the emotional drain, it can put the brakes on recovery. “Depression can hurt concentration, sleep and appetite, all of which are necessary to support the healing process," says Manejías. A 2001 study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that patients with leg wounds who had depression were four times as likely to experience delayed recovery. “Also," says Manejías, “there are studies to suggest that depression can heighten the experience of pain because similar areas in our nervous system process both feelings."

Dangerous Territory: The Studio

Every dancer has a different coping strategy. Some feel so betrayed by their bodies that they want to avoid dance at all costs. Others find comfort in maintaining a connection to ballet. For Houston Ballet's Madison Morris, who was out with ankle injuries at the end of last season, deciding to watch her peers proved a turning point. “I feel ashamed to admit that I had to drag myself to see our mixed rep program 'Made in America,' " she says. “I knew it would be difficult to watch them while I was still unable to dance." Ultimately, she found viewing the performance helped her feel closer to the work she loved.

“Some dancers may benefit from attending rehearsals and taking notes, or assisting in some way that helps them feel involved," says Mainwaring. “Some may not feel comfortable watching others perform when they can't." The ability to return to the studio also evolves over the course of a recovery. Many dancers can only handle being back once they can start marking again. “Every step of the process is important," says Dec. “I got my hope back once I was reaching certain milestones, getting closer to dancing again."

Expand Your Artistry

Exploring a new passion while sidelined can be enormously beneficial. “I encourage dancers to focus on nurturing activities and exercise to give themselves the space to process any emotional turmoil," says Manejías. Having another outlet helps keep dancers from getting obsessively wrapped up in their injury, and what they were—or weren't—able to do in physical therapy that day.

It isn't just about distracting your mind. Many dancers discover new dimensions of themselves. Whether it's photography or Pilates, developing other talents will help you return to the studio as a more complete artist. Morris, for example, taught private ballet lessons, choreographed for a youth group and even joined a 24-hour film project. “I thought acting would be a fun and a less physical outlet while I recovered," she explains.

Morris also found support from an unexpected source: an audience member. One day, while Morris was in the theater, a woman approached her wanting to know when she would be performing again. “Her concern during that simple conversation made me feel like I was still part of what was happening onstage," she recalls. “I was still part of our talented team even if I was riding this one out on the bench."

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When School of American Ballet student Alexandra de Roos was 8 years old, she placed a collection box at her dance studio for others to donate their gently used dancewear. De Roos, now 17, has since turned that single collection box into a nonprofit organization that aims to minimize economic barriers in the performing arts with free dancewear and classes.

De Roos' organization, Peace Love Leotards, has collected about $2,600 of new and gently-used dancewear and $2,000 in grants and donations since formally launching in April. Dancers or studio owners can request items through a form on the organization's website.

"I knew that dancewear was really expensive and that a lot of students might not be able to do the thing that they love because it's cost-prohibitive," de Roos said. "I really wanted to create something to allow people to have the same experience of the love and joy of dance that I've been so grateful to have."

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"To have them be like 'We want to help you with this and we love this idea and what you're doing is amazing,' that was really exciting to me," she said. "It was very heartwarming."

Jordan Reed, the creator of custom dancewear brand Lone Reed Designs, said she has donated seven items to Peace Love Leotards with plans to donate more consistently every quarter. Custom leotards often retail at higher prices, but Reed, a former Houston Ballet corps member, said the one-of-a-kind clothing offers an "extra bit of confidence, which can go more than a long way in a dancer's journey of training."

Paul Plesh, a sales director for Wear Moi in the United States and Canada, said the company donated 11 leotards after finding Peace Love Leotards' mission to be "commendable." Joey Dowling-Fakhrieh, the founder and creative director of Jo+Jax, said dancewear "can make a significant impact on a student's confidence, as well as how much they enjoy the process of learning dance."

De Roos has worked to expand Peace Love Leotards, Inc. rapidly in the past few months, but she first created the organization at eight years old after participating in a mentorship program with competitors in the Miss Florida and Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen pageants. The pageants, which are part of the Miss America Organization, require competitors to have personal platforms they advocate for as titleholders. As a competition dancer, de Roos instantly thought about the cost barriers to dance when wondering what her own future platform would be.

De Roos said she and her young classmates often outgrew nearly brand-new dancewear, so she approached her studio's owner about placing a collection box at the studio.

Barbara Mizell, who owns Barbara's Centré for Dance in Florida, said she was unsurprised by de Roos' proposal. De Roos always had "such a way of pushing herself and she never forgot those around her," Mizell said. As the box filled up, she distributed the dancewear to others at the studio, local schools with dance programs, and the local YMCA.

"When they could start to see that it was providing happiness for others, then it was almost like the kids couldn't wait to donate," Mizell said.

Nearly a decade after the Miss Florida organization inspired her to launch Peace Love Leotards, de Roos is now a titleholder herself, as Miss Gainesville's Outstanding Teen 2020. Her new mission for Peace Love Leotards is applying for grants, and she has already received a $1,000 grant from the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund that will be used to fund a Title 1 school class.

"The whole organization behind Peace Love Leotards is the dancers," de Roos said. "Being able to help the dancers that are in need and being able to think about the dancewear that they're going to be receiving or have received has been truly amazing."

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