Since being diagnosed with my long-term condition, I’ve realised that there’s a huge correlation between professional dance and chronic illness. For me, it was ballet. I trained intensively all throughout my childhood and early teens and was lucky to enjoy some ultimate highs and accomplishments, until (in a nutshell) my underlying condition relapsed at the age of 19 and I finally discovered the diagnosis that changed my life forever. You can read more about my story here.
For a time in the lead-up to my health declining, I did manage to continue dancing recreationally. I carried on for a year or so, before not-so-gracefully retiring when I reluctantly admitted I could no longer manage. Whether you too were a former dancer before becoming ill, or whether you’re dancing alongside managing a long-term condition to this day, here are some things I’m sure we can all relate to…
Counting 5,6,7,8 before any sudden movement
Stuck in bed on a tough day and feel like nothing in the world could possibly get you up and out? Simple. If you’ve been a dancer at any point in your life, 5,6,7,8 will haunt your conscience. Count yourself in and haul yourself out of bed, as if for all intents and purposes you’re about to grandly enter the stage for the YAGP finals. You may well end up back within the covers within minutes, but that’s completely fine: what classical solo lasts longer than a couple of minutes anyway?
Reaching forward for port de bras and wondering whether you’re going to make it back up again
You know how it goes: you’re at the barre, beautifully poised and swooping down, down, down to the floor… where, alas, all the blood in your body rushes to your head and you find yourself somewhat stuck in an uncomfortable hamstring stretch. There’s only so much grace one can demonstrate when trying to haul themselves upright and nonchalantly carry on with the exercise without passing out from the sheer dizziness.
Confusing physio exercises with hardcore personal training sessions
The whole point of physio for chronic illness is to slowly and gently recondition your muscles, but this does NOT go down well when you’ve spent most of your life being trained to push your body past any typical human’s limits like an absolute madman. It may not be an intense ab workout with a sound system booming and a coach bellowing mildly threatening corrections at you, but these gentle arm lifts and slow head rolls are my danger zone now. I might even go wild and *gasps* do FOUR head rolls in a row today… madness, I know.
Wondering whether your feet have turned purple from pointe shoes or POTS
Anybody who does pointe work will be familiar with the feeling of taking off your shoes after class and observing what collateral damage has been done to your feet this time. But with chronic illness, there’s an additional challenge: are my toes this strange mottled colour because of the pointe work, or is it POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) deciding that your body’s had enough of being upright for the day? Do I just need a good lie down or should I fetch the Savlon?
Freaking people out with your hypermobility-meets-flexibility combo
Natural hypermobility combined with a flexibility regime that’s been diligently maintained for years does mean that wacky bendy tricks that freak out the muggles are a perk of this whole situation. I might not be able to stand up unaided for any significant amount of time, but you BET I can still throw a cheeky leg when called for. I may well be hobbling round for a few days afterwards, but sometimes these things are absolutely worth it.
Mentally choreographing when you should be resting
Like… I know I’ve set myself this time in bed to rest and recharge, but why is it that all the most creative ideas sneak into your brain when you shouldn’t be thinking at all? I may not have paced myself to the best of my ability today, but you have GOT to hear about the sassy jazz routine I just mentally choreographed. Somebody fetch me a notebook and the original cast recording of Chicago this very instant, please and thank you.
Feeling the burn: not from class, but from getting through the day
And finally, the one that originally messed with my head most of all: the burning ache of over-exertion arising from doing what were once simple, everyday tasks. This feeling used to be associated with cooling down at the end of a tough day of classes and training, and yet here it is: cropping up after I’ve had the audacity to leave my bed and get dressed. But hey, all the more reason for a pyjama day, in my eyes.
It’s SO important to remember that long-term illness affects everybody differently: every condition comes with a spectrum. Some patients could still be dancing, others may be able to take an occasional class on a good day, and many will no longer be able to dance at all.
But the one thing I think we can all conclude is this: chronic illness may take you out of dancing class, but it won’t take the dancer out of you. Since becoming ill, not being able to go and take ballet class is hands-down the thing I miss the most, and a hole that nothing else could possibly fill. However, I truly believe that my experiences of growing up dancing shaped me as a person, and that if you want it to be, dance will always be a part of your identity. And for that, I’m still grateful.