I went to college eager to dance. I knew then that my body wasn’t built to do what it was asked to do in training—I didn’t have sufficient turnout, and my hips were tight, but I pushed myself physically to rise to every challenge. Years after I left SUNY Purchase as a dance major, I danced 10 seasons with Donald Byrd/The Group. Every rehearsal and performance was thrilling, but it was like working out on a technical battleground with no medics and no relief in sight.
One day I was a healthy 39-year-old dancer, the next day I was a crippled 40-year-old. It happened that quickly, and just as dramatically. I left Byrd in 1998 with minor pain in my right hip. I was frustrated by being the lone 40-year-old among a company of 20-somethings, so I thought the pain in my hip was stress-related. After Byrd, I signed a year-long contract with the road company of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Halfway through that year, after having jumped off a three-foot platform eight shows a week, the ache that I thought was stress-related became more serious. At first the pain in my hip inhibited me from working fully. Eventually it stopped me from working altogether. I went to two doctors, who concurred: I needed to stop dancing and consider hip replacement surgery. My career of more than two decades was over.
I cried for a month. I hid in my apartment, drinking heavily and watching movies on TV. Without dance, I didn’t want to live. What other skills did I have? I had never waited a table in my life (which I shamelessly boasted about during my career). I went from being the lucky dancer who was always working to someone who had no income.
Since that depressing day in the doctor’s office, I’ve heard of other dancers who have had hip replacements, including Judith Jamison, Arthur Mitchell, Gelsey Kirkland, Gary Chryst, Bebe Neuwirth (see “Vital Signs,”), and, as I’ve come to realize, many of my friends…
Neither the Arthritis Foundation nor the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons has statistics on the number of dancers with hip replacements. However, Dr. Robert Buly adds, “If a patient has a predilection to develop arthritis, it may be hastened by a prolonged dance career, which puts significant stresses on the body.”
…Orthopedic surgeon Dr. William G. Hamilton, who treats dancers from both New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, says that it’s a mistake to draw conclusions about the source of hip pain. “Although arthritis of the hip seems to be more common in dancers, there is little hard data to support this. The classic story about Suzanne Farrell is a good example. When her hip went bad at the end of her career and she had to have it replaced, the press blamed it on the severity of the Balanchine technique that she had danced all of her life. She said, ‘No one bothered to ask me about it, but my father had bad hips and had to have them both replaced.’ Shortly afterwards, her other hip went bad and also had to be replaced…”
…Is arthritis of the hip a sign of the times in the dance business? No one knows the answer, but we do know that many of us have it. It may have been a painful dance, but it’s not painful anymore. I’m still dancing!
Michael Blake, who has danced with Murray Louis and José Limón, teaches movement for actors at Rutgers University and HB Studio. He continues to dance with PARADIGM…