“Growing the Hard Way”: Stage + Studio by Annie Honebrink

The fear sets in fast.  In the pit of my stomach.  Pop.  I hear it again in my head.  But I wonder if I ever heard it at all—or did I just feel it.  Which is worse?  I hobble off the stage and change my costume and start back to the wings to prepare for my next entrance.  Each step onto that leg sends a searing pain through the outside of my foot and a quiet grunt out of my mouth.  My eyes well up, but I don’t know if it is from the dread slowly creeping from the bottom of my stomach into my throat or the searing pain telling me STOP.  I take a deep, wobbly breath, steeling myself for the step onto stage, but then a voice in the back of my head says you’re being silly.  It is dress rehearsal—listen to your body!  Dancers don’t like to listen to that voice.  Because there is a stronger voice compelling us to dance, to move, to push through and on and up.  If it wasn’t for that voice, how would we find the will to push our bodies as we do?  To accept bleeding and bruised feet and aching muscles as normal, everyday occurrences.  To jump higher, extend more, turn faster.  Our art form is driven by that voice—endurance, discipline, progression.  Otherwise we would stand still.  Perhaps that is why injury is so devastating to a dancer.  Because we feel as if we must betray that voice that has been singing in our souls for as long as we can remember.  That voice that drives us to move.  To create.

I sit in a heap on the floor, letting the tears drip freely as I remove the shoe from my quickly swelling foot.  Eventually I end up on the therapy table, carried by kind arms and encouraging words.  I relate the incident to the therapist, my tears drying on my demon-painted face.  Maybe it went crack, not pop.  Could I have imagined it?  The events are a blur, but that dread deep inside is very clear.  And the constant throb from the blob at the end of my leg is all too real.  Maybe it will be better in the morning.  Maybe if I ice the heck out of it and elevate it really high and squeeze my eyes shut and think positive thoughts it will all go away and be a bad memory.

The pop or crack or whatever noise I felt or heard was not in fact a figment of my imagination.  It was the breaking of a bone.  In the grand scheme of things—a broken bone is not a very big deal.  However, it is incredible how much one tiny little bone in my foot can impact my life.  No walking, no driving, no dancing.  It takes a while for it to sink in.  I am all smiles and hope and positivity.  And then out of nowhere as I sit with the ballet staff to work out a new work schedule, I am slammed with a wave of realization.  No walking, no driving.  No dancing.  So I excuse myself as fast as I can and crutch down the hall at lightning-crutch speed which it turns out is more than I can handle, and I drop my pillow and my bag and one crutch goes flying so I hop around on one leg trying to gather my materials, the tears flowing freely now, and class has just let out so the hallway is full of people and I want to disappear or run far away, but instead I am stuck in a sea of warm loving faces who just want to help.  And it feels a little bit like I am stuck inside an I Love Lucy episode—or maybe an overly dramatic TV show—or just a nightmare.  And that makes me laugh and cry at the same time.  And thank goodness for friends who hold you while you are down and lift you up and make you laugh and let you cry.  And thank goodness for the safety of dressing room shower stalls where you can feel safe and alone even though everyone can still hear you choking back sobs.

While I sit feeling sorry for myself and dwelling in the realization that I will have to cancel my trip to visit my boyfriend, I remember talking with him the night it all happened.  There was a smile in the corner of his mouth.  “What?” I asked.  The grin broke free as he said, “I just can’t help picturing your boss and coworkers carrying you around in that demon costume and makeup.”  I remember my belly filling with laughter, sweeping the dread away in its wake.  And just like that night, I can see the bigger picture again, and life looks brighter.  By the time I leave the studio, I’ve had countless hugs and smiles from my ballet family.  And I can see in their eyes that they know.  Because no one except a dancer, or perhaps athlete, can really know.

My brother sends me video clips and pictures with dark humor—our strange sense of humor.  “I have trouble believing everything happens for a reason, but I do believe that we can find a reason in everything,” he tells me.  Big brothers are special like that.  They know how to bring you up when you’re down.  When I was a baby, Bo would just enter the room and I would start squealing.  He didn’t even have to do anything.  When I was a toddler he would jump from his knees to his feet for me, and I would laugh so hard I would stop breathing.  When I was in elementary school and he was in high school, he would find me in the hall and throw me on his shoulders and run around.  He is still making me laugh.  Helping me find purpose.  Healing.  His daughter decorates my cast.  I don’t know if there will be any room for anyone else to sign it when she finishes, but I don’t care because I can’t say no to those big brown eyes twinkling with excitement as that little voice exclaims “Annie, I color your cast!” in words enunciated too clearly for a two and a half year old.

It is difficult to be back at the studio—working in the office instead of in the studio.  At a desk rather than a barre.  Hearing the music and the sound of pointe shoes, knowing what I am missing.  I don’t write for a while.  Sometimes writing is scary, because when I write I have to feel, and sometimes it is easier not to feel.  Because I know it will hurt.  But that’s okay because hard things make us grow.  Force us to become something more than we were before.  More than we thought we could be.  And maybe that’s the reason Bo was talking about.  Maybe joy—purpose—is finding new ways to touch and move people in an office behind a laptop instead of in a studio behind a mirror.  Maybe joy can be a choice.  And that voice that told me to dance will find new ways to speak.