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Dancing through pain

BY JUSTUS FLAIR | MAY 14, 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 career 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 faces 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 pursuing the dream Rodriguez has lost. Medd tries not to worry, but she 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,” Medd 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.

Chelsea Rodriguez’s story

As Rodriguez stretches out her back, reaching toward the ceiling, a quiet pop sounds through the room. Having been a dancer most of her life, the cracks and creaks her body emits aren’t surprising to Rodriguez, a 21-year-old college junior.

One crack from three years ago, in the summer of 2012, stands out more than any other.

“I woke up from a nap, and usually just, like a dancer, you’ll crack your back. But when I cracked my back, I felt a sensation go from my back down my right leg, and then I couldn’t feel my leg,”

Rodriguez said. “I called my mom for help getting out of the bed.”

Her mother took her to a physician, who referred her to another doctor. She had an MRI. She saw an orthopedic surgeon. She had a CAT scan. After a month, she finally had her diagnosis: two herniated discs in her back, inoperable and incurable.

The Mayo Clinic compares a spinal disc to a jelly doughnut. The disc herniates when the “softer center” pushes through its hard casing, irritating nerves and creating numbness and weakness in limbs. Typically, they are caused by regular wear and tear as a person ages; Rodriguez’s, because she was only a teenager, was likely caused by the continued strain of dancing.

With her passion and years of training, Rodriguez’s future had seemed certain — majoring  in dance at the UI before moving forward with a dancing career. Such a serious injury made that seem out of reach, maybe altogether impossible.

Rodriguez is just one of countless young people derailed by injury. She knew a full comeback may not be achievable, but at only 18 with an acceptance to one of the best college dance programs in the country, she wasn’t ready to let her dream die.

Despite the crippling pain she faced every day, Rodriguez kept dancing. Working with the Joffrey Ballet, a world-renowned company based in Chicago, was a dream come true — but it came at a high cost. Rodriguez  recalls being physically unable to walk after long days of dancing. After rehearsals, her father had to pick her up, carry her to the car, drive her home, and carry her inside. But she kept going.

Some may call it crazy. She calls it devotion.

“If you’re not in dance, I don’t think you could understand it,” she said. “It sounds like I’m a psycho. You just want more even if you know you can’t.

“There was no cure for it; surgery wasn’t an option and my mom didn’t want me to take cortisone. I cried for weeks. When you’re so wrapped up in it, you don’t care. It’s sad to say, but you don’t care. You just want the pain to go away and be able to keep doing what you love.”

Rodriguez is still doing what she loves, but not without sacrifice. She has been through physical therapy and rehabilitation. She can walk home each day now but said her daily pain from dancing is excruciating. And still, she has no intention of quitting.

“It’s a part of who you are when you’ve done it for so many years. As much as I want to give it up and slowly let dance go, I can’t,” she said. “For me, I know that when you’re dancing, it enables you to lose yourself and find yourself at the same time, cliché as that sounds.”

Rodriguez started finding herself in dance at 7 years old, a bit later than is typical for dancers. From the get-go, she was trained to deal with injuries.

As a nurse, Susan Rodriguez, Chelsea’s mother, was perhaps more capable than most mothers of helping her daughter avoid injury. But she also knew that pain and dancing are a packaged deal.

“I hate to say it, but most dancers are probably in pain,” she said. “It may be Chelsea’s back this year, but it could be something else next year that she has to overcome.”

UI Associate Professor Eloy Barragán, the head of the undergraduate dance program, said injuries are just part of a dancer’s life.

“I would say that injuries in any athlete’s field are common,” he said. “We push our bodies to excel beyond any person. Sometimes, when we aren’t aware of how far we can go, that’s when injuries happen.”

That, he said, is why UI dancers focus so much on injury prevention.

“The students take anatomy, kinesiology, yoga; they are well-informed,” he said. “The more you know about the body, then you can prevent injuries.”

Each dancer is different, Barragán said, so they need to discover for themselves how to stay healthy. For some, it may be stopping for the day when something hurts. For others, it may be stretching through the pain to loosen the muscles.

Sometimes that’s easier said than done.

“I can remember being 9, 10 years old and spraining my ankle, and you just keep going; you wrap it and ice it when you can,” Chelsea Rodriguez said. “I’ve had ankle, knee, hip, and spine injuries. I think my whole life, I’ve had that no-pain-no-gain mentality.”

Overcoming pain in dance is a bit different than other arts. While the goal after an injury is usually to strengthen the affected area, with dance, one must be careful not to damage flexibility or limit range of motion.

That makes finding a physical therapist a challenge. Rodriguez spent the summer of 2012 working her way through therapists before she found the perfect match in Melissa Reh, a former dancer and physical therapist at Creative Rehab in Libertyville, Illinois. Rodriguez worked with her for nearly three months before moving to Iowa City for college. She arrived on campus ready to start again, albeit a bit slowly.

“[Reh] told me I need to listen to my body; pain is a message your body sends out to you, and you have to listen to it, or it will never get better,” she said.

Sometimes, things get better but still not good.

Like countless kids, Rodriguez was told growing up that she could do whatever she wanted. Now she’s hearing “probably not” more than “yes you can.”

“I just remember being in physical therapy and being in pain, thinking, ‘Why me? Why am I, at the time, 18 years old with two herniated discs?’ ” she said. “But truly, when I herniated my discs and realized how much pain I was in, I knew that dance couldn’t be a priority anymore; I needed to come up with a new Plan A.”

Accepting that reality was not easy. But Rodriguez finds solace in the belief that “everything happens for a reason.” There may be a reason dance isn’t in her future, she said, and hopefully, she’ll discover why that is.

For now, she’s taking care of this moment.

“I think I have finally accepted the fact that I am injured; performing and all that may not be in the future for me and I need to move on from that,” she said. “I can’t sit here and dwell on it, like, ‘Why does she get to not be injured? Why me?’ because I feel like I’ve done that for years, and what  is that going to get me?”

To start moving on, Rodriguez made a list of all the things she loved, besides dance. There were plenty, she said, but they all had one similarity: They dealt with the human body and medicine.

Her interest in medicine is rooted in dance. She remembers attending physical therapy as a kid and asking questions about the terminology and functions of the body. Understanding anatomy and physiology, she said, has always helped her understand what’s happening to her body, why she’s in pain.

She combined that love of medicine with her interest in special education and, voilà — a dream job.

“My goal right now is to be an occupational therapist focusing on disabilities and pediatrics,” Rodriguez said. “But who knows, once I’m into grad school and start doing my clinicals, I could want to do cardio or neuro …

“There are some days where I just don’t know if I’m on the right path, but I keep going. You kind of just have to find a way to make it work.”

And dance will fit in somewhere in this new vision of the future.

“My main goal [is] to open up a dance studio for children with disabilities in the far future,” Rodriguez said.  “You don’t see many studios where they allow people with disabilities or who aren’t fully healthy.”

This epiphany came to her just weeks ago, after nearly three years of battling her body.

“It’s a way of showing that everyone can do this,” Rodriguez said. “I think that would be more rewarding than me dancing.”

Read the 80 Hours edition from May 7 for Emily Medd’s story.


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