by Cara Marie Gary
My career as a professional dancer has been an incredible journey–and it has taught me many life lessons about discipline, commitment, sacrifice, and patience. Dance has always been my outlet for creativity and expression. I’ve gathered a variety of special moments throughout the years. For example, I still remember the exhilarating feeling I had after nailing my first challenging sequence of fouettes on stage. I’ve been blessed to travel and perform in incredible theaters all over the world, one of my favorite moments was performing at the Kennedy Center as Clara in Robert Joffrey’s The Nutcracker. I’ve also had stressful hair situations; in Christopher Wheeldon’s rendition of Swan Lake it was choreographed for me to entered the stage with my hair completely down and in a few seconds style it into a french twist that had to last throughout Four Little Swans and the entire ballet! I’ve had crazy things happen at gala performances like music stopping in the middle of a pas de deux and having to exit the stage and start completely over. As a dancer, you learn to be “ready for anything” and to be able to improvise if something doesn’t go exactly the way you rehearsed it.
However, what I wasn’t prepared for was an injury.
It wasn’t until this unexpected injury arose that I truly realized how much I cherish what I do. I’ll be honest, it has been a hard process learning to cope with an injury. It’s never something you plan for, and often comes just at the wrong time. Without dwelling too much on the specifics of my injury, I’d like to mention that I received news that required me to step back and rest so that my body could recover. I was given specific restrictions from the doctor about not executing particular movements and was taken out of a series of performances that I was highly anticipating. My injury required me to develop a new level of focus and mindset. I know every dancer will have their own story, but I hope to use my experience to shed light on some adversities dancers combat regarding injuries.
Injuries can be devastating to dancers who are constantly training for upcoming performances. The severity of injuries varies, and each experience is unique. The physical results of injuries are often apparent, but the emotional side effects can be equally, if not more, frustrating. Injuring oneself is never an ideal situation, and when it occurs there are a variety of emotions that one must deal with. I feel that it is common for dancers to experience a feeling of social disconnect and isolation when they’re injured. Although the individual is still a member of the company, when one can’t participate in rehearsals or performances there is a sudden void. There are also feelings of anxiety in regards to their current situation. Depression can be associated with injury timeouts; I definitely felt my mood was affected when my primary source of enjoyment was removed. I took for granted how much joy dancing gave me and found myself very emotional and sad after I initially received my diagnosis.
Time is precious and something you can’t get back; having an injury feels as if time slowly crawls at a snail-like pace because you aren’t capable of fully participating in rehearsals or performances. Initially, the passing of time feels like a major setback. Watching my co-workers dance as I sit in the corner doing my physical therapy exercises is not easy. As I reflected on my experience, I found a likely common trait for injuries to be the mental challenge associated with the recovery process. Developing a mental toughness is necessary in recovery. It’s an on-going challenge not to let myself get frustrated, disappointed, and sad. However, I’ve attempted to find ways to stay positive and break the mental block of being injured.
This experience has made me realize how grateful I am for what I was once capable of doing. I’ve had a definite change in perspective and have had to redirect my goals. Instead of focusing my energy on fine-tuning details of choreography for an upcoming ballet, I now have to be diligent in physical therapy. My goals are to follow my physical therapist’s advice and strengthen areas around the injury to assist in the healing process. I look forward to my appointments because they help my mental state; they make me feel in control and proactive about my recovery process. These sessions are helping me overcome imbalances and compensations that I acquired from dealing with the injury. I’ve also been able to focus on other areas of my body that I’ve previously neglected. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of the training process and feel that these specialized exercises are helping me build strength and mobility in a weak area. The rehabilitation progress is unpredictable and different for every individual. With that in mind, I think it’s very important for dancers to follow their physical therapist’s advice and don’t attempt to rush or overdo it. It’s essential to set reasonable and realistic goals and view this time as a way to get stronger in all areas.
Imagery is another coping mechanism I’ve used to help me stay positive and break the mental block of being injured. I’ve visualized the MRI results and the doctor’s description of my injury in my mind and have accepted it for what it is. Now I’ve been envisioning my body healing and picturing myself back on stage. I’ve reflected on some of my favorite moments of my career and have tried to grasp those feelings and direct them towards how I envision it will feel the next time I get to perform. Visualization has helped me build a heightened anticipation for my healing process. I’m reminding myself that this is a phase and an opportunity to overcome a challenge. I feel more focused than ever by seeking new ways of training my body and my mind.
Dance is an art form that is constantly evolving and the mindset with an injury must do the same. Although an injury is initially devastating, dancers must learn to accept and adapt in order to attain the ultimate goal of recovery.
The Joffrey Ballet presents “Game Changers” at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University from February 15th through February 26th.
Contributor Cara Marie Gary is a native of Belton, South Carolina. She joined The Joffrey Ballet in July 2012. Prior to joining The Joffrey Ballet, Ms. Gary danced with American Ballet Theatre’s ABTII and was an apprentice with Orlando Ballet. Ms. Gary began her formal ballet training at International Ballet Academy in Greer, South Carolina, under Hennadii Bespechnyi and Vlada Kvsselova. Ms. Gary received additional training at summer intensives with American Ballet Theatre, Brianskv Saratoga Ballet Center, Ukrainian Academy of Dance South Carolina Governors School, Ballet Spartanburg, and Chautauqua Institution. Ms. Gary graduated with honors from Belton-Honea Path High School and is currently pursuing a Business Administration degree online through North Greenville University.
In 2010, Ms. Gary was a competitor in the IX USA International Ballet Competition held in Jackson, Mississippi. She was a top twelve finalist in the Youth America Grand Prix National Finals in 2008 and 2009. She also received the overall Grand Prix Award in the 2009 YAGP regional semi-finals. In 2006, she was awarded a Diploma of Laureate at the VI Serge Lifar International Ballet Competition held in Kiev, Ukraine.
Ms. Gary has had the opportunity to tour throughout the United States and Europe. Ms. Gary has performed the title role in classical ballets such as The Nutcracker, La Sylphide, Don Quixote, Paquita, Markitanka pas de six, and Coppelia. Her repertoire with ABT II includes roles in the Flame of Paris pas de deux, Jerome Robbins’ Interplay, Antony Tudor’s Continuo, George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante and Stars and Stripes pas de deux, Jessica Lang’s Vivace Motifs, Roger Vanfleteren’s Pavlovsk, Jodi Gate’s A Taste of Sweet Velvet, Aszure Barton’s Barbara, and Edward Liang’s Ballo Per Sei. Ms. Gary has performed roles in new choreography by Robert Hill. Her repertoire with Orlando Ballet also consists of Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake.