by Jessika Anspach McEliece
Her deafening scream reverberated through the studio.
Remembering it and my stomach still curdles. One moment she was doing petit allegro, the next writhing on the Marley floor in animalistic agony.
There are just some moments you never forget.
Moments you wish you could.
And yet these terrifying incidents are ones rarely thought of, let alone mentioned. It must be human nature to sweep the scary under the rug. Like those cheesy ceramic monkeys I often see in vintage shops, we choose to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” superstitiously (and aren’t we dancers the worst?) believing that if we don’t speak it, acknowledge it, then it doesn’t exist. Injury won’t happen to us. We keep the lights on and those monsters “safely” under the bed.
But sometimes, no matter our diligence – how often we ice, how much we stretch or see the P.T., no matter how many “Zzz’s” we get, the monsters rear their frightening faces. And sometimes we end up on the Marley floor.
My “Marley moment” came May 15th, 2015. And I actually was on the floor.
Prancing on pointe to Tchaikovsky’s glorious score, I scuffled forward and sat quickly on my heels, arms and head bowed reverently in first position. The innermost ring in the sunburst of salutatory women. We were rehearsing Balanchine’s brilliant Serenade.
There was a small “pop”. Nothing terribly uncommon, especially at 30. But the gradual and persistent swelling that followed later that Friday night in my right knee, now that was a little odd.
I thought maybe it was something I ate – some strange inflammatory response. Funny, the fictions we create to fit our fancies. Will is powerful, and desire can be deceptive. But after months of mono, months of fatigue and frustration, I was finally feeling like my old self and, well, I was willing to believe anything… Anything to keep dancing. Anything but the truth.
I pushed down the doubt and pressed on, through the pain. I mean isn’t that the dancer’s way? The show must go on! So I did what I promised myself I’d never do: I let prudence give way to pride and pleasure. And I paid the price.
Fast-forward six weeks. Still living in Denial-land. It’s amazing how those aches and pains magically disappear with a few weeks off. And while I was content to stay in this happy land of lies, the MRI was not so willing. My right meniscus wasn’t just torn, it was “macerated.” Surgeon’s words, not mine.
“But I just… I, I don’t get it! I mean I see it, but… Well how can it look like that on the inside, and look like this on the outside? No swelling. No pain. No nothing! I mean I just ran 4.5 miles on it today. Didn’t hurt at all!”, was my somewhat astonished reaction as I looked at the MRI images.
But was I really that astonished? Running wasn’t the issue; it was rotation. Ballet. Looking back, deep down I knew something wasn’t right and I’d just seen the confirmation. It was right there before me, in black and white. Literally. Desire might be deceptive, but the gut is generally reliable.
The weeks that followed felt like a daze. Like those slow-mo seconds of suspension, space and calm as your car spins on the interstate – before metal bends and glass shatters. I think that’s the best way to describe that span between diagnosis and surgery. Slow mo. Information, procedures, opinions all spinning around me. Nothing to do but wait. Wait for it… wait for it…
The impact of surgery was different than I’d anticipated. But I guess it’s hard to anticipate trauma, of any kind. Muscles tighten, body braces, and every particle winces as Fear and Foreboding step into the driver’s seat. I’m learning it’s much easier to just let go, rest in the unknown and go with the flow. Ha! Easier said than done…
From the surgeon’s perspective it sounded like the whole process would be similar to having my wisdom teeth removed: a 15 minute procedure, in and out that day, some pain-killers, no crutches, and on a stationary bike within a couple days. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy! But I guess to him this arthroscopic procedure would be akin to a tooth extraction, when you think about how he probably had to perform a full knee replacement surgery later that day.
His brevity, paired with an optimistic, yet mater of fact, “let’s-get-this-done” tone set the scene. And my expectations followed suit… It would be brief; it would be relatively painless; it would be minimally restrictive. And by “it” I thought all of it – surgery, recovery… the whole shebang. I’d be back dancing before I knew it!
Call it optimism. Call it naïveté.
I think it’s unrealistic to go into something without any expectations. But nevertheless mine were somewhat unrealistic. It was surgery after all…
Recovery estimates went from an initial six weeks to three months till I’d be “fully back.” But what exactly did that mean? Back in the studio or on stage? And was he taking into account the six weeks I’d had off prior to surgery? Even before Day One I found myself counting. Endlessly counting.
Six weeks since I’d danced.
42 days since I’d put on my pointe shoes.
84 more till that might be a reality once again. And then how long till I could actually dance in them?
I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. But I didn’t realize the hardest part of recovery would be the mental, not the physical side of things. No one tells you that. There are those three monkeys again – not seeing, not hearing, not speaking…
I’ve found that my body, it knows what it’s doing. It (along with my very knowledgeable physical therapist) will tell me the next step to take – when I can move from parallel to turned-out; when I can cross my fifth and when I can’t. It’ll let me know when I’ve done too much and need to back off a bit. It’s going to do its thing and I just have to listen to it, and let it. My brain on the other hand… Some days it’s a battle just to keep it in check.
The counting – I’ve already mentioned that. But the doubting: Will my body still know how to dance? Will I still be able to? After so much time off? At 30? When it felt like such a struggle even before surgery…? The fears and insecurities: Of being forgotten; Of putting on a leotard and tights; Shoot! Forget about the leotard and tights, I just want to fit into my jeans! Please Lord let me not have to buy new jeans!
The mind games. Like walking through a minefield. As potentially perilous to a full recovery as any physical set-back.
How do I navigate these mines without being blown to bits? How do I keep my mind from sabotaging the strides my body makes in this recovery process? I follow the steps of those who’ve gone before me.
Those of Maria Chapman – that woman writhing on the Marley floor. That day her career could have ended. But it didn’t. Instead, after two surgeries, and having to re-learn how to walk, she stepped back into the studios eight months later and performed four months after that.
I will glean from her experience. From the experiences of other colleagues who’ve endured equally heartbreaking injuries. Accepting that there will be good days and bad days. Recovery, like life, isn’t a linear progression – there are mountains and valleys and plateaus. Depression and frustration are understandable elements of the journey, but never meant to be stayed in – important to acknowledge, but paramount to proceed.
Developing distractions – a house remodel, planning a trip or cultivating hobbies you never had time for before. Some sort of outlet for the restlessness that cannibalizes.
Journaling the journey so that one day I can look back and read the roadblocks removed and the progress pursued.
Learning to let go of perfection, of fixed timelines and exacting expectations. Holding instead to hope, to patience and perseverance. And above all to grace. Grace for myself. In the victories and the vexations. In all circumstances.
And by leaving the scary in the light. No more rugs. No more blind, deaf or mute monkeys. And certainly no more monsters under the bed. By stopping the silence and sharing our struggles we pave the path through the minefields.
And maybe, just maybe someone else will make it off that Marley floor.
Although Jessika won’t be dancing this time around, you can still catch Pacific Northwest Ballet October 1st through October 4th at McCaw Hall, dancing their “See The Music” program. It features Christopher Wheeldon’s Tide Harmonic, George Balanchine’s masterpiece, Prodigal Son, and Jerome Robbins’ witty and wonderful The Concert.
Contributor Jessika Anspach McEliece is from Bellevue, Washington. She received her training at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, beginning with Creative Movement classes and progressing through to the Professional Division.
In 2002, she joined the Suzanne Farrell Ballet as an apprentice. She joined Pacific Northwest Ballet as an apprentice in 2004 and was promoted to corps de ballet in 2005. Ms. Anspach’s writing on dance has been featured in Dance Magazine. She is also a frequent contributor to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s blog.