Ballet Series: What’s In My Shoe?

This is a ballet technique shoe.

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There really isn’t much to it. Canvas, some elastic, and two small pieces of leather for the sole.

Needless to say, there is no support in a ballet technique shoe. A dancer’s feet and ankles must be incredibly strong. The foot and ankle must always maintain stability. During some steps, a dancer’s ankle must absorb up to 14 times her body weight.

So, what’s a dancer to do when her foot, ankle, and lower leg stop functioning properly? Crying and pouting are certainly always valid options, but they don’t help rebuild someone who has become a partial person.

Dancing has been my identity since I was in preschool. In my tweens, the only disciplinary threat my parents ever gave to me was to “take away” dance. In a seemingly overly dramatic retort, I cried, “I would rather die than stop dancing.” I never stayed out late, I kept up my grades, I did chores, I maintained peace with my brother, I never missed a dance class. Not dancing was not an option. It still isn’t. Despite being crippled by CRPS, I have to maintain the hope that I will eventually find a way to accommodate my limitations. 

My right foot is now completely flat. The muscles that hold up my arch simply don’t work. I wore an arch support insert inside my sneaker when my doctor told me to try to wear a shoe on my right foot (predating the boot that has become a semi-permanent fixture to my life).

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It occurred to me one day a few months ago, during a brief moment of clarity, that if I could put the insert into a sneaker, maybe I could put the insert into a ballet slipper.

I have roughly 15 ballet technique shoes that all once belonged in matching sets of twos. Over time, they all ended up in a bin, hibernating under my bed. Some have elastic sewn properly and neatly in an X across the arch. Some have no elastic. Some have elastic sewn in a giant loop that I’d cross and bring under the bottom of the shoe. Some have two half sewn elastic pieces that I’d tie in a knot across my ankle. The elastic sewing situation depended solely on how lazy I was at a given point in time.

For my CRPS foot, I chose a shoe with the elastic in a giant loop.

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The insert fits perfectly inside. It cushions my heel and keeps my arch lifted.

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…and then there is the brace. A friend casually commented to me recently about my “cute black sock.” Well, that “sock” provides a great amount of stability to my ankle.

Take off your shoes and stand on one leg. Go on, do it.

Do you notice how there are lots of tiny adjustments in your foot and ankle as you maintain your balance?

Well, these tiny adjustments do not happen in my right foot. None of those little muscles function on their own. I do countless exercises with my therabands. I have been working on a balance board for over two and a half years. I swim. I ride my bike. I do everything that I am supposed to do. And still. Nothing.

If I want to attempt standing on my right leg, I have to have my body perfectly aligned, and then I just kind of hope I can keep myself upright. The one thing I can rely on: my leg and ankle will give out on me without warning.

So, I wear a brace in an attempt to maintain stability that my ankle does not provide for itself.

…and then I attempt to “dance.” This set up is not comfortable. Nothing about CRPS is comfortable. Then again, nothing about ballet is comfortable either.

I have no interest in comfort because I am (safely, slowly, steadfastly) fighting to keep a promise I made to myself a very long time ago: never give up this fundamentally crucial piece of who I am.

My Past Became My Present: I Danced!

I danced!

Sort of. Here’s how it happened.

On Friday afternoon, while I was updating my doctors on the progress of the last nerve block, one asked if I had been able to become a little more active.  A little. Yes. I still can’t stand, sit, or pretend to be a normal adult person, but I can bend it more, my gait is less troll-like, my leg is getting stronger.

Every doctor I have spoken to agrees that increasing physical activity benefits CRPS patients.

Does this mean ballet? My doctors are all working to return me to dancing in some form. As my neurologist said about the possibility of remission at my last visit: “It may take forever, but it will happen.”

After the procedure on Friday afternoon, however, I hadn’t seriously thought a ballet class would (could) be in my immediate future.

I woke up Saturday and my leg was feeling good. I put on my boot, walked through the park, six blocks to the Westside YMCA, and went for a swim. Afterwards, in the locker room, I serendipitously ran into a couple two ballet dancers I’d known throughout the years. One was Harriet Clark. She was coming as I was going, but we stopped to chat. We talked about old friends. We talked about the good old days when ABT held open company classes taught by Diana Cartier. We talked about how to ‘move on’ from ballet. “I swim.” Harriet said. I smiled and laughed a little, “me too.” I wished her a good swim and was on my way.

Almost on autopilot, I walked from the YMCA on 63rd St. to Lincoln Center. I have consciously avoided Lincoln Center since my injury, but Saturday felt like the right time. I watched the fountain rise and fall. My spirits lifted. I felt peaceful. The David H. Koch Theater was advertising the Paul Taylor company. (Paul Taylor was the first-ever performance I saw in New York City. I was fifteen.) I stood and stared at the giant bronze Degas-esque hippopotamus. She is a new addition to the scene, but nevertheless, she looked down seemingly judging me with enormous eyes.

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Monday was an all around craptastic day. A blizzard was coming. My flight home on Tuesday got cancelled. The deposition, around which I had planned this entire trip, was adjourned. The hotel where I was staying was booked, and I could not stay an extra night to wait out the storm. I was on the verge of an emotional collapse.

I ate lunch at my favorite tea house, which is across the street from City Center. I was supposed to meet a friend that evening, but she texted that she had to cancel. Just as well, I thought, because I had to figure out how to get myself back to Florida.

I spent about 45 minutes on the phone with my airline, they rebooked me onto a flight Tuesday night, arriving just after midnight, Wednesday morning. Going to the airport in a blizzard would not be fun, but I had plenty of time. Everything was going to be OK.

I looked at the clock. It was the middle of the afternoon. I had no plans. I still felt overwhelmed. I did my ankle exercises. My leg felt very good and I had more range of motion than in the past two and a half years.

I looked at the clock again. I thought about what I would do if I was living my regular old life. Without a doubt, I’d go to a ballet class. I felt sad and tears welled. Then I thought about the past few days. My life used to revolve around dancing. There is no denying, it still does: I can’t go anywhere where I don’t see a dance acquaintance, where I don’t have a dance memory, I can’t look at a clock without thinking about which teachers have classes at that particular time. I can’t just keep swimming and pretending that everything is fine. I can’t keep crying about everything that I’ve lost. I have to keep trying. I have to keep fighting for it. It’s mine.

“Fuck it,” I thought,  “I’m going to find a class.”

[Let’s face it: I’m not going to be doing 32 pirouettes en pointe again any time in the foreseeable future. I am not able to relevé on my right leg. It just doesn’t work; it just doesn’t support me. Standing on just my right leg is wobbly. Jumping is out of the question. But, I am allowed to try to start, if I’m smart. I could at least try a basic class…]

Imprinted in my memory are various teachers’ various schedules. Monday evening. Who teaches where on Monday evenings?

One of my all-time favorite teachers, Kat Wildish, has a class on Monday evenings: Absolute Beginner, at Gibney Dance, which just so happens to be in the same building as the ABT studios where I used to dance years ago.

I had no dance clothes, but I did have leggings, ankle warmers, and an undershirt. I carry my technique shoes in my backpack at all times (to remind myself who I am, to remember what I’m working toward, and possibly simply out of habit). I have an arch support and a brace that prevents lateral movement of my foot that I wear when I am not in my boot.  The support and the brace fit inside of my ballet shoe, but only because I was too lazy to properly sew the elastics three years ago (see, kids, don’t ever underestimate the true value of a little time-saving laziness).

I walked a block to the 57th St NRQ train. Waited on the platform at the last car. Rode to Union Square. Got out at 17th St and Broadway. Walked up one block. It was a trip I’d made hundreds of times. It was as if I had transported myself back to 2002, going from the old Broadway Dance Center building to the ABT studios.

But then, remembering it was 2017, it occurred to me what was about to happen. I had been preparing two years, eight months, and twenty-five days for this moment. I’ve kept my body strong. I’ve done hundreds of thousands of ankle exercises. Hours of one-legged planks; one-legged pushups. Countless hours in the pool and on my bike going nowhere. Hoping. Working. Trying. Crying. Waiting. Wishing. Knowing.

I stood for a poignant moment staring up at the numbers 8.9.0 above the doors.

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I sighed and went in.

Everything about the building was the same as it was since the last time I was there: the “fallout shelter” sign above the door to the stairwell, the mandatory sign-in sheet with nobody’s name written, the human-operated elevator with (I’m pretty sure) the same man taking us to our desired floors. The only difference: “fifth floor, please,” instead of third.

I found the studio, paid for my class and went in. I took off my fleece pants revealing my leggings. I took off my sweater. I carefully took off my boot, trying not to have the sound of the velcro reverberate on the studio walls. Curiously, to my relief, nobody gave my giant boot a second glance. I circled my right ankle a few times. It felt good. I could almost point my toe. I put on my brace, inserted my arch support into the slipper, put on my shoes, grabbed my water, and stepped onto the studio floor.

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I was about twenty minutes early. The pianist was warming up. Students were showing up and carrying barres into the center of the room. I looked around and took a moment to think about how I was feeling. Normally, before class, especially a class I’d never been to in a studio I’d never been to, I would have felt anxious. I would have nervously pretended to warm up while I scouted the room for someone I might know, before claiming “my spot” at the barre. But, I wasn’t nervous at all. I stayed where I was, ironically front and center-ish. I knew which muscles needed extra attention before class. I was gentle with my right leg and foot. And when I thought about the feelings, three came to me: calm, peaceful, happy.

All those times I wished to go home, this was the feeling I longed for.

And then Kat came into the studio. It was as if no time had passed, yet it seemed like forever since I’d seen her. She sat on the floor next to two girls who were next to me. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t have words. She smiled at me and then I said this was my first class since my accident. She touched my left leg and smiled some more and asked how I was doing and said she was so happy to see my face and she hugged me and reminded me that I have to work within my new body and then we started class.

The entire barre was done facing the barre, with two hands on the barre. The warm up was perfect: slow enough, gentle enough, and thorough. I was surprised at some of the things my leg could do. I was surprised at some of the things my leg couldn’t do. I didn’t become frustrated, or sad, or angry. I remained happy, calm, peaceful, feeling at home.

Centre was a challenge, I’m not going to lie. I did what I could and giggled nervously when I wobbled. Surprisingly, I found a harmony between my left and right legs. My left leg could relevé and jump. My right had decent extensions, never minding the crooked, half-pointed foot. My upper body knew what to do and the everything felt strangely cohesive.

Here comes the dancing part. There was a pique arabesque balance within the waltz combination. For the record, waltzes are always among my favorite combinations. The right side wasn’t going to happen so I stepped on a flat foot and “practiced” my arabesque line with my left leg in a tendu on the floor for stability.

The left side surprised me. I had a good practice on the right side, I loved being in class, my heart felt so light, and the 3/4 time signature brought me such joy. I was smiling like an idiot, and was not holding back my upper body. I was waltzing like I meant it. And then came the balance.

We all know by now that my balance on my left leg is aces. I piqued into relevé on my very stable left leg. I engaged my thoracic spine, closed my ribs, engaged my lats, lifted my lower abs to support my low back, presented my arms, face, and chest to the very expensive box seats in my make believe theatre, my right leg floated up, directly behind me, and kept rising while I was perched in my balance until the very last moment of the very last note before the next step which wasn’t late, but perfectly timed; and in that moment, my heart danced.

The next two combinations were jumps. I fluttered around in the back of the class, adapting, marking the right leg, enjoying moving my upper body.

Then, the reverence. Class was ending. In my life, I have never been so truly grateful for a pianist, a teacher, lovely and kind classmates, and especially the feeling of dancing. I have never had a reverence mean so much to me (probably because I never had a ballet class mean so much to me).

After class, Kat, a few students, and I walked out of the studio together. Kat was on her way to Peridance to rehearse a piece for their showcase. She walked with me talking to me, interested, concerned about everything I’m going through. We talked about Florida. She told me I can always come to any of her classes, even if I am not able to fully “do” the steps; it is good for me to be there. She was right. She hugged me again before I went down to the subway.

Even as I was saying goodbye to my beloved teacher, not knowing when I’d be able to dance again, I only felt joy and at peace within the moment. For, I have now known true sadness, real loss, and that short amount of time was a gain beyond measure. It is one that I will remember and happily hold onto for a very long time. For an hour and a half, I remembered who I was, I knew who I am. I didn’t feel confused, aimless, overwhelmed, or lost. Although still in pain and only mildly capable, I was safe, happy and at home.

And that, my friends, is my 2100 word essay (with photos) about the first time I danced (sort of) in almost three years.