Magazine article Dance Magazine

Ache, Throb, Hurt: New York City Ballet Principal Abi Stafford Opens Up about the Frustrating, but Unavoidable Role of Pain in a Dance Career

Magazine article Dance Magazine

Ache, Throb, Hurt: New York City Ballet Principal Abi Stafford Opens Up about the Frustrating, but Unavoidable Role of Pain in a Dance Career

Article excerpt

My lower back went into spasm during a three-week tour to Paris with New York City Ballet this summer. I was dancing Sanguinic in The Four Temperaments, a role that requires the hips to be pushed forward in an exaggerated manner. Because of the raked stage, I was forced to dance with my shoulders placed even farther back than normal, and I could feel the extreme position compressing my lower spine. Yet with the excitement of performing in Paris, I pushed my hips forward with all my might, even though I sensed danger as each tiny back muscle slowly seized up. It felt like fingernails were pressing hard into each nerve. As I danced, I imagined each muscle turning red and gripping furiously. The spasm worked its way up, eventually taking over most of my back.

At the risk of sounding bleak, pain is simply a fact of life for dancers. Of course, not all pain is created equal. It varies from niggling bruised toenails to crippling torn ligaments. There is temporary pain from pulled muscles and chronic pain from tendonitis. Nerves make stomachs hurt. Performances make lungs burn, leg muscles cramp and arms tingle. And at the end of the day, exhaustion can bring on all-encompassing suffering.

Yet there is pain one can dance with, and pain that one can't. For me, lower back pain is nothing new. My first foray into back pain came after executing an overenthusiastic tour jete, sending my back out of alignment while I was still a student at the School of American Ballet.

This time, as a 30-something, the pain was different. Earlier times when my back went out, the hurt was superficial. It would vanish after a quick adjustment from a chiropractor. Now, it was deep and muscular. I had a sense that my poor, angry muscles needed time to calm down. But I still hoped to get back to normal quickly. I diligently signed up for physical therapy appointments. I applied heating pads and ice packs. I popped Advil. I visited chiropractors and massage therapists. I bent from my knees to pick up my 1-year-old baby, keeping my back straight. (Unfortunately, that didn't make my back better but did split my favorite pair of shorts.)

Despite my best efforts, the pain didn't improve. I knew this wasn't the type of pain I should dance through. I was awfully close to looking injured onstage. But I continued to rehearse for my remaining performances anyway. It's not easy to admit you're unable to dance. I didn't want to feel like a failure. Others were managing to perform with injuries, so why couldn't I? I felt like I should have been able to prevent my injury, which was, of course, impossible.

By the end of the finale of Symphony in C during the last week of tour, it was clear that I had made my back much worse. After Paris, the company headed straight to a summer residency in Saratoga, New York. …

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