My story so far from my time at The Northern School of Contemporary dance. I would like to take you through a period of time that, so far, has probably been the most mentally and physically exhausting time of my life… my back injury. I feel now is the time to share my symptoms, my emotions, my self doubt, and my questions. But most importantly, my journey.
The start of this adventure, for me was week three, term one, year one. I began having unbearable pinching sensations in class- in both my hip flexors and lower back. This meant that I wasn’t able to participate in class without excruciating pain.. resulting in me having to sit out and take notes. At the time, this seemed like the worst possible start I could imagine to my professional training. I was fresh into the school, full of high hopes and motivation, and immediately I was finding myself only being able to watch my peers in front of me- dancing in a way I have dreamt about since applying to the school a year earlier. Not only did I feel that I was letting myself, and all those supporting me at home down, but also I believed that my fellow peers weren’t able to see me for who I really was. For all they knew, I was Charlotte- the first year who sits out in class and takes notes. I was frustrated. I was angry, and more than anything I was disappointed in myself. Little did I know that this was perhaps the best thing that could have happened to me, and so early on too.
At this stage, my advice from those around me was to rest. Before then, ‘resting’ was something that I could only allow myself to do, maybe once a week on a Sunday evening when my body felt exhausted. Other than that, I would accuse myself of being lazy and not making the most of this precious time that is life. I would always find myself running around, whether it was dancing, being in the gym, swimming, or going for a jog. I convinced myself that this was healthy, and more so, making myself a ‘better’ and ‘fitter’ dancer. Looking back, I cannot believe how wrong I was. It took me until October half term, six weeks in and three weeks of watching class to realise that maybe resting isn’t the worst thing in the world. It sounds like such a simple concept to grasp, but I guess it’s so easy to get caught up in the mindset of what you ‘should’ be doing, rather than what your body needs. Turns out, it’s so easy to lose perspective of what is right for you- the individual that you are. I ask that if, like me you are maybe in dance training, or suffering from an injury, take a step back and ask yourself;
Are you doing what is right for you, and your body today?
Back in October 2014, I thought that maybe I understood this question. Now, 18 months later, I realise I have only just stepped onto this life long pathway of understanding.
On returning back to school after half term, I began attending one to one injury support sessions (ISS) with my teachers. Something I vividly remember being told was to “focus on all the things that you can do, rather than the small handful of things you can’t.” For me, this was a huge paradigm shift. I began to acknowledge that my whole body was there to support me- as opposed to just the few specific body parts which may be calling attention of discomfort.
Allow your body to support you in this process.
For me, this trust was the first gateway I needed to progress through to where I am now. I also recall being reassured by all of my teachers, family, and close friends; everything will be okay, it is most definitely not the worst thing that could have happened, and that I will be so surprised at how much strength and technique you can still build from working on a smaller scale. And most importantly, things will take time.
Such reassurance was repeated to myself over and over again in my head- and it was often these words that would get me through the day. Right now, I have to believe in this more than anything.
If I didn’t think that I was already going through an emotionally and physically challenging time, life, and the pathway that it was taking me on, was about to take another serious detour…
Week eight, term one, year one; I woke up in my bed, unable to move. I was scared, and I didn’t know what to do. I remember phoning my parents, full of tears and crying to them down the phone- pleading that they could do something to make me better, or at least make me feel more comfortable. Later on that day, my friends came over and kept me company as I lay on the floor. I cried a lot. I was so disappointed in my body for resulting to this, and I couldn’t understand why it was happening to me.
After what seemed to be the longest day of just lying on my bedroom floor, I eventually sat myself up. I was unable to nod my head without an incredibly strong pinching sensation in my lower back. All my back muscles had spasmed, which meant I couldn’t walk, and my hip flexors were gripping like I’d never felt before. It was horrible.
After visiting an osteopath, I was informed that my facet joints in my lumbar spine were compressed- which simply means that points in my vertebrae were rubbing tightly against each other- at a point in my back which has lots of nerve roots, and therefore I was perceiving pain in that area.
For me, this was the lowest point of my journey so far, both physically and emotionally. In technique classes, I was focusing on completing material at 1/4 speed maximum, and at a very small range of motion- probably at around 20%. I was in constant pain, and was unable to curve, tilt or bend my back. Actions as small as a tendu sent the most discomforting pinch into my hips, and I could only dream of being able to extend my leg behind me again. I began to feel as though I couldn’t do anything at all, and I was embarrassed of myself.
I took myself to an osteopath at least once a week in the hope that he would make me better. I realise now that I was oblivious to the mindset that I was in; I was certain that by seeing the osteopath as much as I could would fix me quickly, and that this would all be over. It’s not until now, where I can take myself out of the situation and look back- that I realise it was a very limiting perspective. Although it temporarily relieved symptoms,
the power of change came from within me.
With having to strip technique classes down to their simplest and most basic form, I decided to take the opportunity to stay optimistic, and start to really try and understand the concept of placement. It took me until week twelve of term one to gain an understanding for myself of how my body was internally moving. It was here where I took my first step in learning how to find the constant connections within the body, and learning how to negotiate this relationship. I still relied on teachers to tell me that I was ‘sticking my chest out’, but I got to a place where I could acknowledge why this was happening, and how to change it. I then became curious about what this feedback might mean on an embodied level. I found myself actively learning about my body, rather than blindly following.
The Christmas holidays that followed gave me a chance to reflect, and to re-motivate myself to continue with such work. I began thinking about my body as a whole, and researched many alternative ways to heal my injuries. I discovered that there are many foods that reduce inflammation: blueberries, ginger, turmeric, cranberries and chia seeds to name a few. I began wanting to incorporate these into my day to day life, along with my new best friend- lavender oil. I swear by her now! I’ve found that, for me, she’s the best way to instantly sooth pain, calm the mind (which I understand becomes a place of over-worrying when injured!) and to reduce inflammation. (My friends can often smell me coming now before they see me…)
I also introduced myself to yoga and meditation, and found myself wanting to complete a different YouTube class every day. For me, yoga highlighted the importance that it’s okay to just breathe. This in itself opened up a whole new chapter of my life. I’m going to Bali this summer to train as a yoga teacher to further develop my skills, and hope to offer support and guidance to people who are experiencing a difficult time in their life, or simply accompany them in their embodying journey.
Over a few weeks I created a practice of lying in constructive rest and listening to my breath. It began with just 5 minutes at a time, and now I’m in a place where I allow myself to lie there for up to an hour and a half, actively resting and journeying through the inner landscape of my body and felt sense experience. This is an opportunity that may not have come to me if I weren’t to invest that initial time to simply breathe. I know that if I was living as I was at the start of my first year, I could have not justified this to myself. Now seems like a good time to give you one of my favourite quotes;
“stay calm, do what your body needs to do, and always remember to breathe.” (Rachel Brathen, 2015)
After returning from the Christmas holidays, my resolution was to focus on all of the things that I could do. Over time, I began finding myself feeling more and more satisfied with the 20 minutes of class that I could do, rather than the 70 minutes I couldn’t. I made sure to go into each and every lesson with an intention- whether it be on my breathing, playing with the musicality of myself and the musician, the flow running through my body or my toes spreading onto the floor. I can’t highlight the importance of making sure you go into class with an intention, especially if you may be restricted by an injury. Not only did I find that it helped me mentally- knowing that I still can have purpose in class, but also physically; it’s amazing how quickly I began noticing shifts in my body patterning.
Before I knew it, I found myself completing an hour of technique class. For some, this may not sound like a great achievement, but for me- I can’t put into words how much this meant. I hadn’t done an hour of class since week three of term one of my time at Northern, and now finally, in week three of term two, I seemed to finally be making progress.
I began being able to tendu to the front, side and back, and could do small amounts of back work. I also realised the importance of finding the time to release my hip flexors and psoas every morning before school. By doing just 15 minutes of lying on the floor with my legs resting on a chair, both my hips and back were able to soften- which helped me to focus on releasing the tension and grip that was held there throughout the day.
A conversation that I will never forget, and hope to one day help others to realise, was with one of the injury support teachers at school in week four, term two. We spoke about how important it is to see you, as you- a very precious and unique individual. After a longer, and very emotional discussion we came to the idea that you are by no means shaped as a person on how many hours of ballet you do per week. From the outside, this may seem like a very simple concept to understand- but my previous experience suggests to me that it is so easy to get caught up in this mindset. Yes, dancing in a studio is great- that’s why we’re here. But no, it does not make you any less of a person if you choose that’s not what your body needs on that particular day.
As time carried on, it was soon week seven of term two- the start of rehearsal period. I still found myself unable to stand for short periods of time without too big a pinching sensation in my lumbar spine- I knew I still had a long way to go.
It was then that Fabiano began leading one to one injury support sessions and Integrative Body Work. At the time I was unaware of how big a turning point that this would be to my approach and mindset to dance training.
I recall having a very big, and turns out to be very pivotal, conversation with Fabiano during my first session. We began by deciding that the best option would be for me to attend all technique classes, and to come off of the alternative timetable. This induced many tears of confusion and fear- I was scared that going to all classes would mean that I would injure myself further. For me, this was a big hurdle that I was yet to overcome.
Fabiano also offered me a lot of guidance into finding my head and tail bone connection. I was encouraged that when my body entered a place of discomfort, I should pause.
And then ask myself the question-
where is my head? And where is my tail bone?
I would like to offer you today this way of working in class, or in any moment of discomfort. For me, it was a big step in the right direction in learning to understand the ever developing connections within my body. To begin, it felt very alien to me. It was a concept that was entirely new in my movement vocabulary, but, over time and an open mind- I have now grown to saviour this way of working, and am continually learning the benefits of this.
Fabiano also guided me into a new way of approaching the discomfort I felt in my lower back. He suggested the idea that by having a connection to the floor, and through softening the knees and feet, this would help to release the tension and rigidity that I used to hold in my pelvic area. Again, this felt such an unusual approach to dealing with pain. However, like Fabiano, I can only offer that you find the way into the ground and this bodily connection for yourself.
As part of my daily warm up, I fold up a theraband and place it under the arches of my foot. I wait, noticing the sensations that may appear from my feet. Again I wait, and just breathe. From the support that I find from underneath my arches, I gently bend my knee’s forward. The connection I find into myself and the floor develop further everyday. It’s always exciting to see where this will take me in class.
I realise now, that it was this guidance, reassurance and patience that got me to the deep understanding I have of my body today. At the time, I was frustrated that I couldn’t just get the answer to what was ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ placement. But how would I have ever learnt to find what is right for my body, on this particular day, in this particular moment in time, if I didn’t learn how to find it myself?
It’s easy for me to admit now that I had the mindset that if somebody could ‘pop’ me into place, I would be on the road to recovery. I understand the satisfaction you feel after leaving a physio treatment. I understand that your body feels ‘in place’, and I completely understand that muscularly you feel things have been loosened, and even ‘put right’. But what I hope to share with you, is my new found understanding that this is not the answer to full recovery. Yes, it may help your muscles to soften, and your alignment will be correct whilst you are lying on the treatment table- but as soon as your feet hit the floor, your body is in a state of the unknown and new. Naturally, your body is going to follow your habits- and over time, you will fall back into misplacement. It’s not until you learn to become consciously aware of these habits, that you will allow you to make any changes to your body, and furthermore improvements. I’m grateful that now I understand the importance of being able to listen to your body, and that the body is in a constantly moving, shifting state. I’m grateful for my new understanding that injury recovery is a matter of deeper, re-organisations within our body.
It is part of our journey to find that for ourselves.
As time passed by, I saw myself entering week nine of term two with a strong focus on finding this ‘neutral’ place, in terms of my head/ tail bone connection. I was fixated on this idea, so much so I was asking myself, teachers and fellow peers endless questions on whether my pelvis looked to be in the ‘right’ place. I agree that being able to ask yourself questions is something with such value, but this search for an absolute answer was greatly limiting the freedom and versatility that my body was experiencing.
More so, we discussed my aims for that week, and decided that I should take a week to do less; advice that resonates with me, even today. Advice that I would like to offer to you.
Take time off from asking your body questions.
Let it be.
Let your body grow.
Let sensations come and go.
There is nothing wrong with you; you hold the gift of being alive.
Breathing in itself is such an incredible thing, why not take time to indulge in that?
Paradise is always just one thought away… Why not allow yourself to take you there?
You are not injured. You are simply learning a technique.
Myself, and those around me began seeing vast improvements in my movement by week ten of term two. It was music to my ears when I received comments reflecting on how my knee’s began to soften, yet remained connected to the rest of my body when I plie, rather than my previous awareness of just bending and straightening. I really began to understand that you have the whole of your body, and also the space around you, to offer constant support.
As it stood, I was still unable to perform the smallest of back bends; lifting my chin was about as far as I could go. Through the guidance of ISS, I began to accept that back bends were an element of having a fear of the unknown. With this in mind, I further began to find, and trust, the support of my whole body. I was reassured by those around me that when my body was ready, it will just go- and back bend when the time is right. This was something I could only trust.
A memory that I don’t think I could ever forget was a class with Jennifer-Lynn, in Week eleven, term two. As a group, we were finding the support of our front body, trusting that, and allowing ourselves to fall forward. We then progressed into our back body. My mind was on my back body as a whole; from my heels grounded into the floor, to the surface running up the back of my head. And then it just happened.
I did it.
My body took me to place that I hadn’t experienced like this before.
I leant backwards into a curve.
I put trust into my body- and it was there to support me.
It just happened. This was the moment I learnt for myself that my body will always be there to support me.
It may not have been anything much to those around me, and it was still a very small back bend. But to me, it was more than that. It was the first time I knew that I could trust my body- and that it will always be there to guide and support me. I found myself getting emotional at the event, and my peers around me couldn’t quite understand why. That didn’t matter. I had just overcome one of my biggest hurdles.
The Easter Holidays came and went, and I returned to Summer term with an energised mind, rested body, and motivation to continue developing my understanding of my body, and to gain a control over this. Myself and Fabiano discussed goals that I wanted to set myself for the upcoming weeks- one of them being that I would move into the centre for jumping, as opposed to doing small plies at the barre. As I hope you may understand, this idea terrified me. The ballet barre had been acting as my support since November- and now I had to face the notion of it not being there anymore. But, through trust- I followed the advice that I had previously learnt from myself- that when my body was ready, it’ll just go- and in this case, jump.
This action took, understandably, time for me to achieve. I hadn’t jumped in the centre since my back began hurting in October. So to re-gain this trust in my body, and to also know that I am jumping safely, took time to establish. By the end of year one, I found myself completing petit allegro in the centre, and, although not lifting from the floor, travelling across the space in Grande Allegro. I couldn’t have been more proud of myself. To look back to the state my body was in just ten months ago, to where my body, awareness, and mind had grew too now- it was unbelievable how far I had come. What a perfect end to my first year at Northern. I knew that I had so much more to discover and learn when returning next year, and I was more than excited and ready for this.
Over the summer, I made sure to find myself time to practise yoga, breath, active rest, and perhaps most importantly do things for me- Charlotte, the individual that I am. I went for walks along the beach, spent precious time with my friends and family, and travelled to some beautiful places too. It was a great summer, and for me- it acted as the perfect time to learn to find balance between who I am, as a ‘dancer’, ‘sister’, ‘friend’, ‘daughter’, ‘employee’, and first and foremost, human being.
This idea of giving yourself a label of ‘who’ you are, and ‘what’ you should be doing is something I have learnt to be very evident within dance school- even if we are oblivious to it. Why should we be any less of a human being if we can’t triple pirouette? Why should we be any less of a person if our body decides jumping isn’t what is needed on that day, and instead some TLC towards, for example a painful knee is more beneficial? These are the questions I feel we should perhaps remind ourselves when we get into the studio. For me, a caring, understanding and accepting person shapes an individual more so than one who grande jetes from the corner. So my question is this-
why can we not see that it is okay to love your body, more so than achieving the aesthetic concern that are offered during a technique class? Can we at the same time, be with both?
Year two at Northern brought to me an idea of dance training from a new lens. I found myself being more accepting when it came to rest and recovery, and I allowed myself to indulge in things outside of the studio. From trying out Yoga Classes at studios around Leeds (I can’t recommend The Yoga Space and Yoga Kula enough), to having weekends away with friends, to spending Sunday afternoons at Roundhay Park, and hours in the evening snuggled up with my new favourite book. And the thing that has been really great? Knowing that all this is okay,
It was a definite knock to my confidence and motivation when I sprained my ankle in Week six of term one, year two. I was so physically and emotionally drained, and it’s easy for me to say now that it affected me in a way I didn’t think my ankle could. I wasn’t dancing for two weeks, but, deep down, I knew that I could trust my body; everything will be okay. It gave me the opportunity to strip myself down back to basics. It was a time that I could remind myself of the fluidity within the body- and discover the rolling and pouring sensations that I could offer. Of course that there were days where I wanted to give up, and I questioned whether my body was ‘made’ for dancing. After only just coming to the recovery of a back injury, it didn’t seem fair that I had to now work with a poor ankle.
I decided to accept what was. I knew that this hurdle would eventually make me a stronger dancer- but more so a stronger person. I could only trust this process, so trust I did.
This leads me to the person I am today.
A year and a half ago I injured my back- a process that broke me down. But, it was the best thing that could have happened. I have learnt a bucket full of life long skills- skills that it would be impossible for me to loose. I have learnt how to listen to my body, to allow my body to do what it needs, to give my body what I can, and to accept. I’ve learnt to accept that dance training isn’t doing the highest jump or biggest leap. I’ve learnt to accept that it’s okay to care for yourself. I’ve learnt to accept the importance of self love and rest. I’ve learnt that injury is a process- I know how to feel aware, but not restricted by myself. I can accept that the body is in a constant change, and ever changing connection to myself. I accept that life takes you on one long journey- and these three years at school are only the first step. Yes, I do still have to use a chair to support an arabesque instead of the ballet barre. Yes, I have never completed a grand allegro exercise “fully” at my time here at school. And yes, I still find myself using the barre as support. But you know what? That’s all okay. I trust my body. It knows what it needs- and I am beyond grateful that I now realise that.
“Every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.” – Buddha.