Stuck on the Sidelines

ina Klyvert-Lawson, artistic director and dance program director of New York City’s Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts, was touring with Ailey II in the mid-1980s when she first heard it—a loud “snap” coming from her knee after landing a difficult jump. “The dancers around me heard it, the director heard it,” she recalls. “But I didn’t feel any pain.” She continued to rehearse, but by the end of the day, the pain was so severe she had to rush to the emergency room. At the time, the doctor couldn’t find anything seriously wrong, so Klyvert-Lawson iced her knee, wore a brace and finished the tour. After many years of ignoring the pain and continuing to dance and teach, she was faced with the tough decision of whether to undergo a knee replacement.

Surgery is an option for many dancers who have neglected a long-standing injury or delayed proper treatment, but the decision is a weighty one. Factors to consider include high costs and long recovery periods, as well as whether you’ll be able to return to your profession at full capacity. “The question regarding surgery is very dependent on the injury, person and type of dance,” says Megan Richardson, MS, a certified athletic trainer and clinical specialist at The Harkness Center for Dance Injuries in NYC. I would say, ‘Yes, you can teach after surgery’—if you receive good care, follow your rehabilitation regimen and slowly reintegrate into your schedule, allowing time for your body to regain the strength and stamina needed to teach. But again, it’s very individual.”

Here, we take a look at some of the pros and cons of surgery, and talk to two dance teachers about their roads to recovery.

Weighing the Factors

For Nicole Sao Pedro, a dancer since age 3, injury came not in the dance studio but on the ski slopes when she twisted her knee. “Many dancers end up hurting themselves doing another activity entirely, even just tripping while walking,” says Sao Pedro, who currently works as a teacher, choreographer and college dance-team coach. Despite the painful ski accident, she was itching to get back to dance as soon as she returned from vacation; she had recently earned a spot on the Boston Celtics Dance Team. “It’s very hard for dancers to completely stop dancing to treat an injury,” she says. “Not only do I love it, but teaching and choreographing is how I earn a living.”

Sao Pedro, who is holding off on reconstructive knee surgery, admits to knowing a lot of dancers who refuse to go the operation route. “They’ll do physical therapy or the holistic thing first, or try prescription drugs—they’ll try whatever they can before going through something as big of a deal as a surgery,” she says.

In fact, notes Richardson, the average rate of surgery among dancers is roughly two percent, meaning 98 percent of dancers are treated non-operatively.  “However, it’s been found that 80 percent of dancers have a disabling injury in their lifetime as a dancer,” she adds. “Sometimes this results in a few months out of dance, other times, it leads to them changing the type of dance and/or stopping altogether.”

Taking time away from something you love and depend on for financial security can be a daunting prospect, especially if the injury isn’t truly hindering your day-to-day activities and job duties. Indeed, the long recovery period is the number-one downside of surgery for dance teachers. With recuperation times ranging from two weeks to several months, depending on the complexity of the procedure, the temptation to ignore the problem is just too great.

But a minor pain, whether caused by overuse (which, according to The Harkness Center, is the prime reason for dance injuries) or an unexpected fall, can turn into a serious injury if not addressed. Stephen Rice, MD, PhD, the director of Jersey Shore Sports Medicine Center in Neptune, NJ, says people often ignore the first two stages of overuse—pain only after activity, and pain during activity that doesn’t affect performance. Stage three, pain during activity that affects performance, “is when most people seek medical attention for a ‘new’ problem,” he says. “But in order to avoid a stress fracture (stage four), activity should decrease by 50 to 75 percent,” which is a challenge for those working in the dance profession.

Despite having increasing problems with her knee locking and swelling, Klyvert-Lawson continued dancing and teaching, never wanting to stop for more than a few months. Doctors finally operated and found a medial meniscus tear; several years later she had a second similar minor surgery on the knee. “Things were hard,” she says. “The recuperation time took months.”

In 2000, her doctors saw the beginning signs of progressive degenerative arthritis and advised her to consider knee replacement surgery. Klyvert-Lawson opted out, instead choosing to have arthroscopic knee surgery to alleviate the pressure on her knee. “It was a personal decision,” she says. “I could walk up stairs, I could walk 15 miles without getting tired, I didn’t need a cane and the pain wasn’t waking me up at night. My responsibilities in my job don’t require me to perform jumps anymore.” Family, she says, was another consideration. “At that point, it would have been too hard to take time away from my daughter and from my daily responsibilities. It wasn’t right for me.”

Unexpected Advantages

While taking time away from the studio might be a scary thought, don’t assume that an injury, or surgery for that matter, will completely derail your career. Many dance teachers are still able to work during the recuperation process; for some, it’s a matter of coming into work and planning classes and running rehearsals, but sitting out the actual dancing.

Sao Pedro was back to teaching within weeks, even though she had to be chauffeured to class and instruct students verbally while staying seated. She also worked out a payment plan with one of her employers so that she didn’t lose any income.

Both Sao Pedro and Klyvert-Lawson believe their experiences have even made them more proficient at their jobs. “I was a good teacher before surgery,” says Klyvert-Lawson, “but now I’m better. I’m more patient and run the class more slowly. I don’t rush through things, and dancers learn better with lots of repetition. I also watch students more carefully, so I can prevent them from getting injured,” she says. Her students have learned to be more focused as well. Since Klyvert-Lawson can only demonstrate a step once, she first explains it in great detail and then asks them to really pay attention when she does it that one time. For Sao Pedro, being forced to give more elaborate definitions of movement and use a class demonstrator has also been advantageous: “The younger ones all want to be chosen as my demonstrators,” she says.

Klyvert-Lawson’s students have also benefited from the emphasis she now places on stretching to prevent injuries, as well as by watching her treat her own injury, visit doctors and pay close attention to her body. “Just as important as it is for them to hear stories of success in dance, it’s important for young students to hear the war stories,” she says. “They’re getting a taste of reality.”

Klyvert-Lawson admits she wishes someone would have taught her to listen to her body earlier in her career. If someone had, she would have consulted more than one doctor after her fall. “My students are learning how to notice when something doesn’t feel right and how to speak up about it,” she continues. It’s a lesson that Sao Pedro, too, hopes her students can gain from her experience. “Only you know your body. Paying attention to it is part of dance.” DT

Debbie Strong is a New York City–based writer and dancer. She teaches dance and Pilates at All the Buzz in Queens, NY.

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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