On the morning of June 25, Festival Ballet Providence dancer Jordan Nelson was biking to meet a friend in Rhode Island when he was hit by a box truck. The driver drove off, leaving Nelson injured on the ground. The accident left Nelson with a fractured skull, serious concussion, broken clavicle, and abrasions down the right side of his body. He was unconscious for five days and suffered short term memory loss. Though doctors feared he might never be able to regain the memory and mobility to dance again, less than three weeks later Nelson is back in the studio. We checked in with him to hear about his inspirational recovery process and how his passion for dance motivated him.
When you woke up in the hospital were you immediately worried about dancing?
Definitely, because this upcoming season is very important to me, because we're doing Christopher Wheeldon's The American, which I believe is the first Wheeldon ballet the company has done. So for the whole month of June I was working hard on really pushing myself to get in shape and be as ready as possible for the start of the season. And the doctors originally told me I wouldn't be able to get back until January, if at all.
You've said that the hardest part of being in the hospital was not being able to move. What did you do to keep your spirits and your body active?
I was in the hospital for 18 days, and for the first 5 days I don't remember anything. But the last week I was transferred to the rehab section and I started physical therapy. But even before that, I was using this stick massage tool that was luckily attached to my bag during the accident, because being a bunhead you carry those things around with you everywhere. So I started releasing my back and calves and working hours a day to try to bring my mobility back so that when I got out of bed, I'd be able to move. In the rehab facility they were shocked by how quickly I was moving. And it helped heal my brain, and put it on a new mission.
What was the first thing that you did when you were released?
I was released from the hospital last Wednesday, and the first place I stopped before even going home was the studio. I wanted to talk to everyone and let them know that I'm okay, and that I would be in class the next day.
Nelson overcome by emotion on his first day back in the studio.Photo Courtesy of Festival Ballet Providence
We're all so impressed that you jumped back in so quickly. How much can you do at this point?
For this entire week I've been doing full barre. By my fourth class I let myself do the first center combination, but now I make it through the whole warm-up jump combination. Because my arm's in a sling I don't go any farther, but I am letting myself do single pirouettes. My muscles are reestablishing what ballet is, and my balance is coming back.
Despite your brain injury and memory loss, is there something soothing about the repetition of ballet and working from a set vocabulary?
The doctors didn't think I'd remember choreography, and at first it was a bit worrisome. But as soon as I saw the teacher show the first combination one time I was like "I've got this." I've been watching all of the summer intensive students learn variations, and from a chair on the side of the studio I'm picking up the arms and steps and everything. It just came back naturally. That's a huge, huge relief.
Jordan Nelson Photo by Ashley Concannon, Courtesy of Nelson
What goals are you working towards now that you're on the mend?
I plan on being back onstage for our first show this season. My goal is to show everyone exactly what this art means to me, and the work I'm willing to put myself through to be back and to be stronger. I hope to rebuild my body to, at the very least, be where it was last season, but also to build it to a point where I know I don't have to worry about a re-injury.
A lot of dancers express concern and fear over getting back into the studio after an injury. Do you have any advice for dancers on how to get past those mental blocks?
The big thing is figuring out what place dance holds for you. It can be an obsession, it can be a passion, it can be your everything. And there's a difference between working through constant pain and figuring out how to rebuild or readjust your body or your mind to figure out how you can move past the pain. And it's important to go back to the time when dance was just fun. Before it was a responsibility and a job. If you can find that again it takes away a lot of the inherent stress.