Artist vs. Athlete: The Dancer’s Dilemma

March 16, 2016
back injury

My lower back felt achy. Of course it did—We were coming off from a five-show weekend driving straight into a one-nighter. When you’re a dancer, something always hurts. And when you’re on tour, well, you’re lucky if there’s a part of your body that doesn’t hurt. Thankfully, the bus ride was relatively short, and I knew I would have plenty of time to relax, stretch my legs, and warm up before the show that evening. I wasn’t worried.

When we reached the hotel, I spent my free time walking around a nearby mall—hoping that easy, pedestrian movement would ease my sore back. But when that didn’t help, I became a little frustrated.

Our 5:30pm company meeting was stressful. The theatre was small and our crew was working overtime to load-in and set up. Our dance captain had to re-block several formations and moments of choreography. There was no time for a formal warm-up. When I wasn’t called on stage, I tucked into a wing and practiced some yoga to stretch my back and warm-up my body. But with each flow, the ache began to intensify.

In no time at all, we had passed our “half-hour” call and were still working on stage to make sure the choreography worked in the condensed space. At this point, my back was bad. Every step made me cringe in pain. But as dancers, we’re both artists and athletes, determined to perform our craft at nearly any cost. Without a second thought, I wiped my eyes, popped an ibuprofen, rubbed on some Tiger Balm and took my place on stage.

Adrenaline is a powerful thing. I didn’t feel any pain or achiness at all during the show. When your mind and body are so focused on performing, everything else magically fades away. It wasn’t until the curtain went down that I remembered the pain. But we had the next two days off—Everything would be fine. That night I popped two more ibuprofen and went to bed.

My alarm went off at 7am for our early bus call to the airport. My roommates were already up and packing. I tried to roll out of bed and felt excruciating shooting pain in my back. I pushed out of bed, walked a few steps toward the bathroom, and blacked out.

The next thing I knew, my roommate had shaken me awake and had called an ambulance. I spent the day in the ER and was discharged hours later without a real diagnosis. It wasn’t until I left tour, flew home, and got an MRI that my doctor realized I had herniated a disc.

What caused it? Perhaps it was the strenuous choreography, sitting for hours and hours on a bus, not properly cross-training, carrying heavy luggage, or general overuse. I’ll never know a definite cause. To make a long story short, I’m taking a two-month break from tour to rest and recover—physical therapy, acupuncture, and light cross training to strengthen the muscles in my back and glutes.

Dance means a lot to me, obviously; I am making my career out of it. But you don’t realize how much dance really means to a dancer—on a personal level—until you can’t dance. Dance is so much more than just my job. It’s my exercise, expression, social hour, therapy, education, meditation, and joy.

These many weeks of not dancing have forced me to reflect on myself as a dancer. Why was my first (and really only) instinct to push through the pain during that performance? When does that mantra get ingrained in the dancer’s mind? A number of leads have called out of performances on our tour due to sickness. That seemed perfectly normal and acceptable. But the few chorus dancers who have called out because of an injury were in tears, grappling with feelings of shame, disappointment, and failure. I was one of them. But now I’m asking myself: why?

Ultimately, dancers are artists. But sometimes our athlete mentality takes over and we sacrifice ourselves to “win the game.” My pride as a dancer got in the way of taking care of my instrument: my body. And it’s sad that it took a pretty serious injury for me to acknowledge that. But hopefully my story can help other dancers. I have no doubt that determination and self-sacrifice will always be a part of the dancer’s mind—including my own. But I wonder if in those moments of ache, of stress, or of pain, we can learn to at least ask ourselves to listen to the artist over the athlete.

– Mary Callahan
Bullets Over Broadway, 1st National Tour
Former Work/Study student

Artist vs. Athlete: The Dancer’s Dilemma