Tag Archives: knee pain

To Dance Again: Confessions of a Masochist Part 3

The Second Class

It’s today.  I’m actually so excited about going to class, I can’t think straight.  Okay, my knee already hurts and I have a butt spasm because I didn’t stretch enough after running yesterday.  Not to mention that I fell down half a flight of stairs last night, landing on my hip, under the full laundry basket I’d been carrying.  But this is why God made Ibuprofen.   Medicated, caffeinated, I’m standing strong and ready to go.

Like Murphy’s law, both kids (aged eight and ten) are home sick today, but I persuade my sweet, supportive husband to telecommute for the first part of the day.  I make everyone lunch, stick it in the fridge and go find my new black tights.   (Oh, yeah, gorged on Thai food yesterday at a friend’s birthday celebration but who’s looking at my thighs??  Not even me.)

And now that I’m gathering my dance clothes, a word on footwear.  After the first ballet class, I noticed that the balls of my feet felt bruised.  It had been so many years, it took me a moment to remember why.   From my father, I inherited a strange (painless in itself) foot condition which involves the absence of a few ligaments.  This has been confirmed by X-rays.  You’d only notice if you decided to squeeze my feet; you’d find that they’re not tough and thick like, well, feet—but bony and too-pliable, more like hands (no thumb, though; they look human).  I solved this issue—once it was diagnosed—by wearing pointe shoes to dance whenever I could.  (Not a hardship; pointe shoes were required at all times in the ballet companies I danced with.)  Pointe shoes have hard boxes and kept my feet nicely—bound is the only word for it.  Regular shoes also work, as do sneakers, but regular ballet slippers lack support.  When I was in my very young, pre-pointe shoes days, my little feet were padded enough for none of this to bother me.  Later, I was prone to stress fractures.

So, for today’s class I bring a pair of pointe shoes with the shank torn out.  They still look like pointe shoes, but the sole is soft so I couldn’t dance on pointe even if I wanted to.  I worry about what the other moms will think.  Am I showing off? Being a “little trina?”  No.  This is about physical maintenance and longevity.  I won’t wear down the bones in my feet just to avoid coming off like a princess.   Aren’t we all too old for such judgments anyway?  I put on the shoes.  Tie the ribbons (which I must have sewn on about sixteen years ago.)  It feels good.  The shoes say, We’ve got ya old girl.  Go ahead and dance.   I say, I remember you guys, and catch a glimpse of my feet in the mirror, a gleaming flash of pink.  I flex and point my right foot just a little and it feels like ballet—in a good way.

Some of the other women do make comments: Wow, you’re brave, and the like.  I feel a desperate need to explain—you don’t understand: it hurts less like this—really! But I don’t need to bother.  It’s a very live and let live crowd.  If living means reliving a long-retired version of yourself, so be it.

The knee pain isn’t so bad this time.  From the start I remember not to care how turned-out I am, to focus on enjoying the music, being as indulgent as I want in terms of épaulement (defined in Part 2), milking those lush crescendos.  The class goes longer today, I’m told.  We’ll be doing more turns and bigger jumps in the center.  I’m wary of the latter.  The idea of leaping, given my knee issue, is one reason I ruled out dancing again up until now.  But after the adagio, I’m up for the waltzing pirouettes, adrenaline providing a nice analgesic.  Grande Allegro (big jumps and leaps) is next.  I go for it.   Soon I’m doing it: a real grande jeté!  If I squint at myself in the mirror, or better yet, don’t look at all, I can imagine sailing through the air, just as if nothing’s changed.

But when it’s time to try the combination on the left side, I grow sober.  Sense comes into play, overriding Ibuprofen.  No, we won’t go this direction, won’t do something as foolhardy as a big leap landing on my left leg—home to my long-suffering left knee.  I mark the combination, skip the steps but join in for épaulement.  I’m taking a bold step, dancing again like this, but I know my limits.  Most of them, anyway.

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To Dance Again: Confessions of a Masochist Part 2

The First Class

at home in my current identity

I get there early to warm up, but mostly to buy black tights.  I could not find any at home, and though I’m planning to wear sweatpants over the tights, I still need tights—not for the look, but to hold everything in place.  I buy the tights and put them on over the only leotard I could find (black, of course).  Next I stand facing the full-wall mirror in the dressing room, as my formerly anorexic mind swings in out of nowhere to process the image.  Unacceptable, is what it comes up withWhich is how the then me would judge the now me.  How can you possibly expect to lift those legs?  I fight these thoughts; I know better but I have to fight hard.  Here is what my recovered, evolved mom-and-shrink mind counters with: So your legs are thicker than your unrealistic mental ideal?  Who gives a shit when there are people starving in the world?  People losing their children to gunfire and famine?  You are taking an adult ballet class on a Monday morning when other people are at work.  You didn’t get to preview your thighs before you came here because the cleaning lady was washing the mirror at home.   You have no right to kvetch.  About anything.   

Now in comes my friend, who reinforces how ridiculous I’m being.  What are you wearing tights for?  It turns out, not only is everyone in the class around my age, everyone is a mom I know, either from the pool, from my kids’ school or activities.  Everyone looks like themselves, not the twenty year old images of sylphlike perfection I used to compare myself to.   Yet everyone looks beautiful in a way they probably don’t realize.  They are self-accepting and grateful to be where we are, doing this Monday morning moms’ ballet class.  They glow with anticipation.  I forget all about my thighs and stretch, getting excited about the music.

The teacher—a man whose name I’d heard when I was dancing but whom I’ve never met until now—is a flexible sort.  He can teach professionals, little ones or even aging soccer moms, depending on who’s asking.  I speak to him in advance, warn him: I haven’t danced in … my left knee doesn’t really bend so well, I’ll have to take it easy.  He nods with a smile; we’re all in the same boat.   This is not an audition.

As in every ballet class, every level, everywhere, we begin with grand plies.  The music swells and I’m transported back home to myself.  The very, very last thing on my mind is what my body looks like.  I have little actual ballet technique left, only muscle memory, but how well my muscles remember.  When you’re a ballet child, you learn your tendus, frappés and petit battements; your feet and legs internalize the technique.   But the fun part is when your upper body—chest, head, shoulders and arms—learns to dance, really dance.  We call it épaulement (loosely translated: tilt of the shoulders) and port de bras (the carriage of the arms).  These are what you use to translate music into movement; it’s the one thing you never lose.  It’s what still feels wonderful.

My knee, on the other hand, not so much.  We all have battle wounds and mine is the left knee, my trick knee, which is chronologically the same age I am, but in terms of hard knocks, is more like seventy.  The original injury took place when I was nineteen years old.  It was the first day of my professional dance career.  I had just joined the corps of the Cincinnati New Orleans City Ballet (those companies merged briefly during the 1980s) under the executive direction of Ivan Nagy, a well known Hungarian danseur.  The director swept in halfway through company class to inspect his new crop of dancers.   During an exuberant across-the-floor waltz combination, I managed to catch his eye.  I was so young, so nervous, so desperate to make a splendid first impression that I paid more attention to performance and épaulement than to where my feet were in relationship to the floor.  Mid-combination, there was a big, split-leg temps de flèche (read: hitch kick) into which I threw myself with gusto.   I was smiling—a classic closed-lipped, raised-eyebrow ballet smile (look how easy this is!)—and sprang into the air, switching my  legs brilliantly.  Ivan saw me!  Smiled!  Victory!  Then I landed.  I went one way; my left kneecap seemed to go the other.  Following this, the rest of the corps began rehearsing Les Sylphides, I began a long course of physical therapy.

I was young, as I said.  I’d heal quickly.  I’d even perform in Les Sylphides.  But my knee, which had aged twenty years in one fateful moment, would never be the same again. Now it’s on the bulbous side, takes a wacky spiral track whenever I bend my leg.  And pain?  I’ll feel it in unsupportive shoes but as long as I stick to my Dansko clogs, the pain goes away.  Also, I run.  Slowly but consistently, three miles every day which, counter-intuitively, seems to strengthen the knee.  (Whenever I take a break from running, like when I had hernia surgery, my knee got worse.)  But ballet is another story.

Today, during the very first tendu combination, my knee goes ginch!  The teacher sees my eyebrows knit in pain.

“Lisa,” he says, “take the turn-out down a notch.”

Is he kidding?   Turn-out—the balletic state of being gloriously, naturally duck-toed—has always been my claim to fame.  If you’re not turned out, it’s not ballet.  This was drilled into my head for more than twenty years.

“But why now?” says the teacher.  “If it’s not a performance, not an audition, who cares about perfection?”

I let my toes come closer together, form a ninety degree “v” with my feet rather than my “usual” one-eighty line from toe to toe.  Then I dance, using the right muscles, but no straining.  Surprise!  Nothing hurts.  Though this is harder, oddly enough: to remember not to force anything.  But for the rest of the barre, I work as hard as I can not to work as hard as I can, though that does not come naturally.   Every time I space out and just enjoy the music and the muscle memory, I force, I wack, I ginch.  And ouch!  Easy, the teacher says, Easy.

Now we move the bars aside to dance.  Adagio: slow and sensual, allegro: small jumps; then pirouettes to a fun and “dancy” waltz.  Here, there’s nothing to hold onto, so I’m not forcing anything; I’m too busy trying to remember how not to fall down.  I hold a memory in my head of how ballet felt; I project the image in my mind onto my reflection in the mirror, which is managing admirably for an out of shape (for ballet) forty-five year old.  Miraculously, nothing, not even the knee, hurts badly enough for me to stop.  So I don’t stop.  I finish.  Victoriously, I thank the teacher, hug my friend and buy a ten class card.

At night I make sure to roll out the knots in my calves using a wooden device I bought for this purpose years ago at the health food store.  I ice my knee with my turbo-super-duper icepack from a medical supply store.  I fall asleep with the icepack on and wake up frostbitten, which has happened before, but once my knee thaws, it seems okay.  In the morning, and for two mornings after that, I wake up stiff and sore.  But I can still hear the music, still feel the dancing inside me, the way you have that flying, rocking sensation the day after you’ve been to an amusement park and braved the big rides.  I am glad I have a week to recover between classes.  But I can’t wait until Monday.

To Dance Again: Confessions of a Masochist Part 1

This will be the first in a series of posts documenting my return to ballet class.

Sunday: The Night Before.

You’re a forty-five year old suburban mom, writer and therapist.  Put down those pointe shoes at once!!!

This is just one of the thoughts racing through my mind as I embark on this madcap misadventure.   At a dinner party last night, over our third glass of shiraz, my friend—also an ex- dancer—happened to mention that she’d started taking ballet class on Monday mornings.  Adults only, low-key, no pressure, just an hour, and did I want to join her?

Snapshot of long ago: 1984 Performing Arts High School. I was 18.

Are you kidding me?   I said.   She laughed.  She can laugh.  She was a modern dancer back in the day, not a ballet dancer like I was.  (Two entirely different mentalities.  They were healthier, less extreme in the way they treated their bodies.  Never smoked, ate alfalfa sprouts and granola … yes, ate.  Not us.)  Not to mention that my friend lost weight when she stopped dancing, “I guess because I wasn’t carrying all that extra muscle anymore.”  When I stopped dancing (which actually coincided with quitting smoking and getting pregnant) my real-woman body emerged faster than you could say frappucino.

So, more than the fear of knee pain or reactivating the dormant stress fractures in my metatarsals, more than the anticipated embarrassment at how my technique has drained away over the years,  I cringe at the thought of putting on tights and facing the mirror again.   Sure, I look in the full length mirror in my bedroom every day, with the harsh self-scrutiny of an ex-ballet dancer.  I break my body down part by part, staring down the rounded regions, willing them away, just as I used to when I was a dancer (old habits die hard).  But the difference between now and then is that I can put on my jeans, zip them up (tight or not) and walk away from the mirror for the rest of the day.  If I gain three pounds or even five, no one is going to take a role away from me or send me to the back line of the corps de ballet.  I won’t have to put on a white Lycra unitard and stand on a stage before five hundred people.  I’ll go to a PTA meeting, drive my kids to tennis, swing by Shop-rite on the way home.  And no one will notice my thighs.  Not even my husband, who is appreciative of my body in all its minor fluctuations.

Frankly, as bodies go, mine is pretty good for its age and station.  In the real world, I’m thin.  Reasonably fit and lean for a suburban mom.  But not for ballet.  Once, at a time when I was dancing, weighing ten pounds less than I do today, I was called into the office and given a weight warning—told gently that I “was not looking my best,” which I knew was code for lose weight or else.  So I know that for a ballet dancer, especially a ballet dancer from the 1980s and 1990s, I’m chunky.  Really.  If you know what Natalie Portman, an already-thin young actress went through, how she starved herself, for her role in Black Swan, you’ll have an inkling of what’s involved in maintaining a ballet dancer’s physique.  I once starved myself, chain smoked to avoid eating, threw up what little I did eat, all for that physique.  I was shortish (still am) with real live boobs (read: localized fat), so it was harder.  Even if I was thin, I would look bulky on stage compared to the other girls.    Learning to live with and respect my body was a long time coming.  (Part of me is wondering: Will I mess that up if I start dancing again?)

But the more I thought about my friend’s suggestion (draining glass number three of Shiraz), the more I decided taking a ballet class was something I had to do.  As an experiment, a study in what I can take.   But more than that.  The truth is that I miss it.  I yearn for the pleasure of physicalizing some of the most incredible music ever composed.  Ballet is magical, transcendent, spiritual.  If you’ve ever done it seriously, Ballet is a religion complete with rituals, dress codes, dietary laws.  It’s a way of life that becomes part of your identity.  So when you quit, you feel as if you’ve left home and can’t go back.  Ballet is so demanding, the exercises so specific, that in no time, you’re too out of shape to do them anymore.   You no longer look like or feel like you.  You move on, learn to love other things, but you never lose the sense that you’ve left a piece of yourself behind.  So I am going back.

It will hurt in more ways than one, but I’m doing it.  Full disclosure: my incentive was to have something new to write about.  Something that was deep and personal that wasn’t in the past.  Because I know this will be raw and emotional and the curious therapist and writer in me wants to document it as it’s happening.*

Tomorrow I start.  So tonight I am signing off and going to dig up some de-shanked pointe shoes and a leotard.  I will wear as much “junk” as I want (sweats, legwarmers, t-shirt, etc: hiding clothes).  I will not lift my leg above 45 degrees unless I want to.  If something hurts, I will stop.  But I’m going.