Kerri here: I’m SO EXCITED to be publishing this essay, for a couple of reasons (in no particular order): 1) Shannon worked hard on this essay in revisions with me, and I think it’s really paid off. 2) This is EXACTLY the kind of personal narrative essay that I would love to see much more of here at YARN. It’s a real-life story that reads like fiction, and is just as captivating. So writers, please, if you have a great story to tell from your own life, consider writing it as nonfiction, and submit it to YARN!
By Shannon Bushee
The first time I realized that something was wrong with my legs was an October afternoon a few years ago, during my senior year of high school. I was walking home from school, and as I passed the tennis courts at the park down the street from my house, I suddenly felt a sharp pain in the bottom of my left foot. I thought that I might have stepped on something, but when I looked on the ground, I couldn’t find any big rocks or sharp twigs that could’ve caused the pain. I just shrugged and kept walking as best as I could. Obviously, I thought, I was going to be a little sore after walking a mile home in a too-loose pair of flats with no arch support.
But the pain was still there later that night, when it was time to head to ballet class. I realized that it would probably be a bad idea to try and go up in my pointe shoes with my foot hurting the way it was, seeing as I’d only had about a year and a half’s worth of pointe training by then and it was hard enough to do pointe on a good day. I told my ballet teacher what was going on and asked if I could do the pointe section of the class flat. Because I almost never complained about pain, she immediately knew that something was up, and she had me sit out the second half of class entirely. Since this teacher had had her fair share of dance injuries, she wouldn’t hesitate to put students on the sidelines for a class or two if there was even the slightest hint that something was wrong.
That was why when my legs kept hurting when I woke up the next day, I was confused. The pain had spread to both feet, and then up to the muscles behind both of my knees. I couldn’t figure out why I was so sore when I hadn’t even worked out the day before.
Amazingly, the real pain didn’t even kick in until I got to school and had to sit in a desk for seven hours. Somewhere around hour five, during English class, the pain from sitting with my legs bent got to be too much. I could feel the muscles behind my knees straining and aching under my skin, as though at any second, the tendons might snap. I couldn’t sit still, and I was pretty close to bursting into tears.
I was sent to my pediatrician, and then to a dance injury specialist who was recommended by my ballet teacher. My parents shuttled me to what seemed like every office and satellite of the Boston Children’s Hospital for all kinds of appointments, including one for my first-ever MRI. After countless visits and tests, during which I was poked, prodded, examined, and stretched in every possible direction, I finally met with the orthopedic specialist. I didn’t totally understand his explanation for what was wrong at the time–and, honestly, my parents and I are still a little shaky on the details–but he basically told us that that the muscles on the insides of my knees were overworked and were much tighter than the ones on the outsides. This was pulling on my knees in a way that was causing strain in the muscles and wearing away at the cartilage around my kneecaps. Because the strength of the muscles was so off-balance, it had begun to pull at some of the other muscles in my legs, too, which was why all up and down both legs hurt and why it suddenly seemed like everything I did caused me so much pain. Even though I didn’t totally understand the physiology of what the injury was at the time, or why the pain had started so out of the blue, it was comforting to know that there was definitely something wrong, something that a doctor could point to or see on an MRI.
Of course, figuring out what was wrong didn’t suddenly, magically make the pain go away. I’d gone from a liber ballerina to someone who hurt just sitting in some of the desks and chairs at school because of how I had to bend my legs, to the point that some of my teachers had to let me sit in different chairs. And it hurt to do my job at the city’s library, because constantly squatting down and standing up to reach the shelves put even more strain on my muscles. Still, at least the diagnosis provided a reason for the pain, which at least made things a little less scary.
After I got the diagnosis, the treatment was a physical therapy routine that would balance out the strength of my muscles, so that I wasn’t just relying on the same, overused muscle group all the time. I was also supposed to stop doing other kinds of physical activity until further notice. That meant no more gym class, no more running on the elliptical machine and, most devastating of all, no more dance.
Dance has always been one of my big passions in life. According to my preschool yearbook, my four-year-old self wanted to be a ballerina when she grew up. I can remember being five years old, watching my older cousins dance in a local production of The Nutcracker and wanting nothing more than to dance on stage like the beautiful girls in the pretty dresses. That was why, when I was six, I leapt at the opportunity to take classes at the studio where my aunt worked. For twelve years, I took classes at that studio and performed in recitals and competitions. Dance, and ballet in particular, was a huge part of my identity, to the point that my band director nicknamed me “prima” (as in “prima ballerina”) in high school. I certainly wasn’t a prodigy, but I was decent, and more importantly, I loved it. I loved the gorgeous makeup and costumes, and I loved being able to play a character and to tell her story without having to say a word.
The timing of my injury couldn’t have been worse. It was my senior year of high school and my very last year with my studio. If I had gotten injured any other year, I could have just taken the year off to rehab the injury properly. But this was my last chance to dance with my friends on my team and to represent my studio, so no matter how badly my legs hurt, I was determined that I wasn’t about to quit.
Instead, I spent most of the first part of the year sitting in the front of the room, learning the dances sitting down. Every class, I would come into the studio in jeans or sweatpants and take a seat next to the stereo. While everyone else warmed up, I stretched out and tried to find a way to sit that wouldn’t make my legs hurt. Then, as the teachers would teach us the choreography, I would mark out the combinations with my hands. I would only ever get to stand up to mark my place in formations; the rest of the time, I was supposed to rest and take it easy. It was really frustrating, and it was also a little bit lonely While the rest of the team was hanging out and dancing together, I was off in the corner, just hoping that my legs would feel better soon so I would be allowed to dance again.
Meanwhile, every other day after school, I would go down to the physical therapist. I would sit there and watch the news or ESPN for about twenty minutes while I had a heat pad on the backs of my legs. Then one of the physical therapists would massage the tense muscles, and then I would do various stretches and exercises. At first the exercises sounded easy—things like leg raises or balancing on one foot, things I’d done at the barre thousands of times. I was almost offended when I was asked to do them, as if the physical therapists thought I couldn’t. Then, of course, I tried them, and I realized that these very simple moves were suddenly impossible. The three or four months of physical therapy were a very humbling process, as I had to start from the ground up in terms of re-building my strength and flexibility.
I was only given the okay to get up and start dancing about two or three weeks before the first competition of the year, almost four months after that first fateful October afternoon. I wasn’t feeling one hundred percent better, but now at least my legs only hurt some of the time instead of all the time. It hurt to do some stretches, and it sometimes hurt to do tap just because of the way I had to stomp and jump, but for the most part, I felt like I could tough it out. Pretty much the instant the physical therapists gave me the green light, I insisted to my teachers that I was fine and that I was ready for the competitions. They very hesitantly allowed me to start dancing again, but only during some parts of class, and with some restrictions.
As it turned out, I was not actually ready to jump right back into dance, which I found out the hard way at the big rehearsal before our first competition of the year. This particular rehearsal was an annual get-together of sorts, where all of the teams would run through their dances on a big stage that the studio rented for the night. In this case, it was the first time that my teachers were going to let me do all of the dances full-out since I got injured, and I was determined to show them that I was back in action. Instead, after I ran through the numbers a couple of times with my team, my teachers told me that I looked like I was struggling and told me to sit out of the rest of rehearsal.
I was already overwhelmed that night for a bunch of other reasons—including that I hadn’t eaten anything since lunch, I had a huge paper due the next day, and I’d had a death in the family a few weeks before that I was still trying to work my way through—so the disappointment I felt from this was just too much for me to handle. I felt like I had let everyone down, and I was furious that my leg injury was still holding me back, even though I had been working so hard for months to get better. I felt totally powerless. When we got offstage, one of my teammates told me that I looked upset and asked what was wrong. I started to bawl hysterically, right in the middle of the rehearsal.
One of my teachers—my ballet teacher, the one who’d sat me out that first class when I complained about my foot hurting—had to pull me out of the rehearsal to calm me down. She let me get everything off my chest, and then she explained that she and my other teachers had only told me to take a break because they knew that I already had the routines down. Once it became clear that I knew the choreography—and was perhaps pushing myself a little bit harder than I needed to for rehearsal purposes—they decided that it would be better for me to take it easy in the days leading up to the competition instead of dancing more and risking making the injury worse for no reason. I was still upset that my legs were holding me back, but I at least felt a little better knowing that my teachers and my teammates knew that I was trying. The competition was that weekend, and even though my legs hurt a little and we ended up deciding to scratch my duet, my team and I actually did pretty well.
From them on, I slowly recovered and worked my way up to dancing more and more. The understanding I had with my teachers was that I was allowed to push myself in performances only if I took it easy during class. In ballet class, for example, my teacher gradually increased how much of the class I could participate in as I started feeling better. At first I was only allowed to do the first half of barre work and to mark my part in the dance. Then I got to do all of barre and the slow part of the across-the-floor exercises, as long as I marked the jumps and any big stretches, and so on. She even gave me a solo part in the ballet dance, as long as I agreed to not try to do pointe and to follow the rules she set for what I could and couldn’t do in class. (In retrospect, I realize this was a well thought-out tactic on her part, because I wanted the solo much more than I wanted to do jump combinations and she knew it.) I also got a lot better about letting my teachers know when I would have to sit down for a couple of minutes because my legs were too sore, which helped a lot. Taking it easy during class gave my legs time to heal, and it made it easier to perform at competitions, where I only had to dance for the two or three minutes at a time I was on stage. During the time in between numbers, which could be as long as an hour, I could rest, do physical therapy exercises, and get ready for the next number.
As I was practicing and performing, though, I knew that I still wasn’t dancing at the level that I should’ve been. When I’d started the year, I knew that I was a pretty solid dancer, but that I had a long way to go before I was at the level I wanted to be. As the year went on, and the injury didn’t get that much better, I started to realize that I was never going to get to that level. I had already done the best dancing I was ever going to do. My flexibility was completely gone—the year before I had finally gotten my split, and post-injury, I couldn’t even bend over and touch my toes. Some part of me was always aware that dance wouldn’t always be a part of my life. I just wasn’t expecting it to be so soon, or for it to happen so suddenly. And it really did happen in an instant, or at least it felt like it.
As much as the whole ordeal sucked, though, I’m kind of grateful that it happened. In high school, I was a ridiculous overachiever. I was more focused on what I thought I needed—like dance solos or A’s in all of my classes—that I sometimes ignored the things that I did actually need, like sleep and food. Being injured was a reminder, however obnoxious, that sometimes it would be better for me if I would just slow down and listen to my body when it tells me that it needs a break. Looking back on it now, for example, I realize that there were a few really subtle signs that something wasn’t quite right with my legs, and I either didn’t notice them or wrote them off as not being a big deal. I don’t know if there’s anything specific I could have done to prevent my injury, but I do know that ever since then, I’ve been a lot more careful about listening to my body’s signals and knowing how far is too far to push myself.
Even now, almost four years later, my legs still aren’t completely better. On a day-to-day basis everything is fine, by they start acting up again if I ride the elliptical machine for too long or if I don’t wear the right shoes when I have to walk or stand for long periods of time. Still, I’m grateful every day that I didn’t need surgery, or that the injuries weren’t more severe. Even if I never join the Boston Ballet, I’m fully able-bodied, and that’s more than a lot of people can say.
And I can still dance. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to dance en pointe again, but I can take adult ballet classes at nearby studios, and I even joined my college’s cheerleading squad for a semester. A lot of the excess energy that used to get channeled into dance is now getting channeled into other things, the things that are more important to me now and that I can spend a lot more time on, like writing.
It’s true that I’m not the ballerina my four-year-old self envisioned. Being in pain for most of my senior year really sucked, as did feeling like I had been robbed of this thing that I loved and had considered part of my identity for so long. But honestly, I was never going to end up a professional dancer, even if I hadn’t gotten injured. I started pointe too late, and I don’t have the body type, and I always liked reading and writing better than working out anyway.
This is one of the hardest—but also, in a weird way, one of the most reassuring—things that I’ve learned about getting older. When I was younger, I would have thought that I was a failure or that I was giving up on myself if I quit dance. Now I realize that that isn’t the case, and that it probably wasn’t healthy to have so much of my identity and self-esteem tied to this very impermanent part of my life. It took me a little bit of time to accept the idea that I wasn’t a “dancer” anymore in the way that I used to be, but by letting go of this idea that my younger self had for who I should be, I was able to embrace the person who I was actually becoming instead—someone who still enjoys watching dance, but maybe not necessarily performing it as much, and who loves books and cheesy TV shows and going on adventures with her friends.
Shannon Bushee originally hails from the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. She enjoys writing and reading pretty much everything, and she graduated from Emerson College in 2015 with a degree in Writing, Literature and Publishing. When she isn’t writing, she is probably re-reading her favorite YA novels, watching Law and Order, or trying to avoid becoming a real adult.