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Dancing with wolves

BY JUSTUS FLAIR | MAY 07, 2015 5:00 AM

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When a well-known Olympian is injured and forced to retire, the world mourns. The person’s accomplishments are celebrated, and the public questions where he or she will go from here.

But when you aren’t an Olympian, just a person ripped from the activity to which you’ve devoted your life, where do you go? How do you pick up the pieces and move forward?

That’s the problem one University of Iowa dancer is facing now.

Chelsea Rodriguez has two herniated discs in her back, a condition that almost certainly ends her dancing aspirations. Her future seemed clear, but now it’s murky at best.

“When I first started dancing again [post-injury], I just couldn’t believe this — this constant pain — might be my future,” Rodriguez said. “Coming to the reality that a dance career may not be for me was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.”

Emily Medd, another dancer in the department, is still healthy but knows any move could be the one that tears an ACL, dislocates a joint, herniates a disc and throws her plans into disarray.

“I don’t think too many dancers think, ‘What would I do if I got to the point where I couldn’t dance?’ because we don’t make that an option,” she said. “We’ve trained so hard for this, so we don’t let it go there unless it really is physically impossible.”

Until that moment arrives, they just keep dancing.

Medd’s story

On a typical Wednesday morning, Medd attends class at the UI, as do thousands of other students.
She wakes up at 7:30 a.m., makes a bowl of oatmeal paired with fruit, avocado toast, and a berry smoothie. She then packs a lunch, checks her email, and by 8:45 a.m. is ready to leave her apartment on Iowa Avenue and head to class.

This is where her day starts diverging from that of most students. Medd walks into Halsey Hall, the UI’s dance building. Rather than reading notes or skimming a text to prepare for class, she heads to the fitness center and runs for 15 minutes, stretches, and powers through a few pushups to warm up her muscles in the hope of preventing cramps and injury. She has just enough time to stow her lunch in the student lounge refrigerator before climbing the stairs for Ballet III at 10 a.m.

Halsey Gym is full of women chatting, waiting for class to officially begin. As it does, the instructor leads a short yoga series, ending in ballet’s classic first position: heels together, toes pointed out.

The students quickly take spots at barres spaced evenly around the room. Dancers shed sweatshirts to reveal shiny leotards as music starts pouring from the piano in the corner. Their barre warm-up is rehearsed, second nature. They contort into positions most can only dream of, and this is just their preparation work.

The instructor, a young woman in athletics garb, demonstrates much of the choreography, asking questions as she goes.

“Are your hip flexors loose?” she asks. Medd pauses, adjusts her hips, and raises her leg off the barre. It continues upward until it extends over her head, toes pointed, calf level with her ears. It looks effortless.

“I started dancing when I was 4,” Medd said. “My parents were just trying various things, like a lot of parents. Nothing else really stuck with me; with dance, though, I always had so much fun.”

What started as fun turned into passion. Besides studying dance at a college level, Medd works at the Nolte Dance Academy in Coralville and is a member of the UI Dancers in Company. In addition, she spent last summer studying with Garth Fagan Dance in New York, a 45-year-old dance company based in Rochester.

When she graduates next spring, Medd plans to pursue a dance career. To get there, she strives every day to become just a bit better, to gain a slight edge over the competition. Like many dancers, she has to walk the fine line between working just enough and too hard, risking an injury that could throw her career plans into disarray.

Medd’s first major experience with injury occurred during her  junior year of high school, when she severely sprained her right ankle. The doctor put her in a boot.

“Dancers don’t like to be told they can’t dance,” she said.

As she sat out, Medd watched other dancers, examining their technique in the hopes of improving her own, working on the analytical part of being a dancer, she said.

It wasn’t what she wanted, though.

“I thought, ‘Is [dance] something I could live without?” she said. “Do I want to pursue this knowing you put yourself out there for injury? Just knowing that injury, being told no in a second, can happen any time? Injuries that put you out for a long time can be a scary experience. But I thought maybe this was what I wanted.”

So she started researching college dance programs and ended up loving the UI, a nationally recognized program — convenient, because she lived in Coralville.

As a freshman, Medd was able to get exposure to some of everything — ballet, modern, jazz, etc. But she still wasn’t completely sure dance was what she should do.

“At the end of my freshman year, I was determining between dance and education,” she said. “I felt like something was missing, and I wasn’t enjoying everything as much as I wanted to. I went to Garth Fagan’s intensive and was like ‘OK, this is what I want to do.’ I came back in the fall [of 2013], and I just had this new mindset, and I really went for it.”

Medd realized she would never be young and healthy again, so she threw herself into dance completely; she decided not to pursue an education degree.

Now she spends most of her class time in Halsey, dancing.

As ballet class ends, she grabs her purple pullover and heads back to Halsey’s student lounge for a quick lunch before Choreography II.

In the lounge she finds a classmate and dives into a discussion of what costumes and music would pair well with the piece she’s presenting later in the week. As they talk, another woman, Kristen Vasilakos, wanders into the room and collapses onto a sofa. She has nine minutes before class, so she’s there to take an eight-minute power nap. Vasilakos is the queen of naps, Medd said.

After only two minutes, though, Vasilakos groans; she forgot she wanted to swap her sweats for leggings before class. Once Medd promises to wake her so they can change, she rolls over: five minutes left.

“If I have the chance to sit down during the day, I’m going to take it,” Medd said. “Most of us are.”

The nap ends right on time, and the women head back upstairs.

The barres have been replaced by a large television set. Clicking play, the professor shows a rough recording of a student’s piece. The class gives feedback, examining the goals and message of each composition.

In her feedback, Medd focuses on the emotional aspect of dancing, the tremendous spiritual connection she feels to the physical art.

“I think it just goes back to the self-expression and the reward of dancing itself, not even necessarily the reward of performing,” she said. “You’re able to present your hard work and your ideas in a way that’s very different from other professions. Everyone gets something different out of it; so many people can see the same performance and get completely different things from it. It’s a way to make people aware of various ideas and issues going on in the world.”

Medd’s interest in world issues and social awareness has led her to seek a spot within a “smaller, community-based educational company.”

Such organizations are more motivating, she said, because you know your audience and constantly perform with new dancers, work in different performance styles and use unconventional spaces, such as parks and art galleries.

This interest in community collaboration and social issues directly correlates with her next class, Dance and Society, in which the discussion focuses on “aesthetic and political issues raised by concert dance,” the course description explains. This day’s discussion focuses on exploring atypical dance venues.

Medd has to cut out early, though; she has auditions for next fall’s Dance Gala in Halsey.

Dozens of dancers have shown up for auditions. Many attach white squares with black block numbers to their leotards while others pull on dance shoes or pin their hair in place.

The strong competition, from just one college program of thousands, highlights the difficulty of finding success in dance. Not only do you have to be an incredible performer, you have to maintain your health; one injury, one moment, can be the difference between success and failure.

That’s a lot of stress to carry around, so Medd has to take care of her mental health, too. The psychological injuries of dancing are a bit harder to see.

“In auditions and things, that’s yet another way of being told no,” Medd said. “You have to accept that; you’re going to be told no, and what that does to you as a dancer, and as a person, you just have to accept and move forward.”

When looking for postgraduation performance opportunities, Medd needs to be in the best shape of her life, she said. Dancing at least four hours a day and taking yoga to get her teaching certification is helping, but it also means she runs the risk of injury from constant work. After all these years, she’s still searching for that perfect precarious point between enough and too much.

She’s managing now, but she’s cautious. She has not formulated a backup plan; luckily, she hasn’t needed to yet. But she knows that day might arrive.

“There may come a time where my body no longer lets me dance,” Medd said. “If [dancing] were really, truly not an option — and I would fight for it to be an option — I would stay within the arts, because that’s really where my passion lies. I’d do arts management or promotion, something like that. I’m studying arts entrepreneurship, so I feel like I’m preparing myself for that a little bit. But at the end of the day, I think we’d all rather be out there dancing.”

Read next week’s 80 Hours for Chelsea Rodriguez’s story.


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