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A Dancer's Journey: Pilates Cue Magic, Toe's up and Omar!

By June Chiang

One year ago, Donna hobbled into my studio. She is a high level professional with a long history of dance training and recreational performance. There are legions of former dancers who live in two worlds. The current world of work, success driven accomplishments, family, and perfectionist ideals of beauty. Then there is the never dying other world. The creative, passionate, artistic, physical memory driven world of dance. This past may fade, may be ephemeral in our daily lives, but, it is a constant reappearing apparition of an existence that haunts us, feeds our souls, and taunts from the backstage of our minds. The dancer in us never dies. Some force themselves to walk away forever. Some faithfully continue on in class. Others fight to return. This is Donna's story.

Donna wore a t-shirt, "Sicker than your average". She described the pain and limitations in her hips and body from toxic mold exposure. She went through the litany of doctors and diagnoses and tests and treatments she has been through and continues to endure. She spoke with tears in her eyes of how much she missed dancing and wanted so much to be able to jump and fly across the floor again. "First, we have to re-learn how to plie," was my simple quiet response. Pilates is all about developing a healthy plie. I have become the wise ballet coach. Part auntie, part teacher, part Yoda.

Plie is the beginning and the end in ballet. Plie is the controlled bending and straightening of the legs. So, much more complicated and difficult than many dancers were taught. The proper technique and training is slow and tedious. Many schools skip this technique training in order to satisfy students and parents need to have fun, enjoyment, and competition. Which is completely understandable for most kids who just want to have fun and parents who want there kids to develop good posture and work habits. But, without the basic foundation of a good plie, all the other more complex steps become compensations in the joints and muscles. Leading to early hip joint degeneration in Donna's case, due to hypermobility, hard floors, and now mold toxicity affecting her hip cartilage and tissues. She could not turn out, barely bear weight on one leg, could not tendu (point) to the side or back without distortion in her hips and legs.

This might deter most people and cause them to just give up, get hip replacement surgery and be satisfied with walking and an occasional flight of stairs. But, Donna is indefatigable, curious, pain tolerant and driven to heal. My most ideal client. We both understood it would take time, consistency, commitment, and the belief she will get better.

Baby steps. With most clients in pain who have some body awareness, I start very slow and focus on pelvis re-organization and control. Her work consisted of a few repetitions of basic low abdominal work and hip realignment. A set of 4-6 well executed small movements was exhausting and sometimes painful. Most clients would give up with frustration. Sometimes, she wanted to. Her attention span and stamina were short in the beginning. But, we took every small improvement in muscle control, realignment, or body awareness as a big victory and indication that we were moving on the right track. Most people want big victories. I want small ones, because they lay the foundation for the next victory and so on. Baby steps in the beginning are critical to success in the long run.

Application and Joy. We started applying the Pilates and GYROTONIC(r) principles to ballet as soon as we could so she could understand the relationship between body awareness and getting back to her chief goal, dancing ballet. So at the end of each session we spend a few minutes doing barre ballet. Setting goals and accomplishing them are two different things. We had to focus on both the short term goals of regaining strength, range of motion, and stamina while also visualizing the long term goal of dancing. There needs to be joy in all of this. Pilates and dance are not just physical endpoints, they are also about experiencing joy. The joy of feeling strong, athletic and graceful, of experiencing and sharing success, of enjoying being alive.

Trust and Belief. I trust and believe in the process of Pilates. Fortunately, my client did, too. When there is trust and belief between two people over time. Scientific magic happens. As we started to get acquainted, we shared a sense of humor, and a common bond of knowing we were going to do this together. It's a biochemical, psychological, neurophysiological synergy which allows deep healing to take place. I could see Donna improve at a faster pace after about 6 months. Setbacks became short lived and opportunities for more body awareness and learning took place. Incorrect muscular compensations began to unwind. She was working faster, had more stamina, and accepted challenges more readily. She began to turn out without residual pain. Her plie's were centering better. The most challenging move for her, pointing derriere (behind) was happening consistently. She can't stop now.

It Takes A Village. Donna has an extensive team of professionals helping her. Doctors, chiropractor, massage therapists and dance teacher/PT. No one person can provide the answer and the cure. When someone is chronically ill, it takes a team. I am just one person on her team and respect everyone else she has carefully selected to help her on her journey. Donna also takes group HIIT Pilates to supplement her exercise and carefully applies the focus on form and body awareness to assure she does not injure herself. One group class unfortunately involved a teacher giving 60 plus lunges on one side. A very expensive lesson for her to learn that it is not an appropriate way to approach exercise. It required massage, chiropractic, and a private Pilates session to resolve the misalignment created by too harsh an approach on the body. It takes a village.

Stay In The Moment, Experiment and Find the Magic Cue. I try to stay in the moment with my clients during my sessions and focus on the issue of the day. I find this approach facilitates novelty, interest, learning, and interaction. One year into our work together, Donna sent me a text saying she tried a Zoom ballet class for the first time in a long time and became frustrated by a releve (rise) on her right leg and wondered if I could help her. YES! I love pro-active clients who want solutions. I love figuring things out. I love playing Pilates true detective! We focused on all the basic elements, foot/ankle, glute work, oblique core work. Finally, I went with my instinct and set up the Reformer for prone rises on the box. Time to experiment! We tried single releve's with one leg reaching up in parallel attitude (bent leg lift). First, very conservatively and basic, just small rise and small lift.

Then the magic hit. The cue which made a complete difference in her body and mind. I asked her to think of her perfect ballet partner. Without hesitation she said, "Omar."

"Now imagine Omar lifting you up," while I hand cued her. Then I stepped back and said a few more things about length, blah, blah, blah, and core, blah, blah, blah. She stared back a bit blankly, her mind processing. "Ok, ready to try again?" I stand back.

"Ok," she says. She glides out on a beautiful releve with the weaker leg.

Spontaneously, I say, "OMAR, LIFT, OMAR, LIFT, Toes Up!" And there she is in an amazing position in control with length, extension derriere, and joy on her face. It brought tears to my eyes.

Photo: Omar and Donna, Black Swan Pas de Deux, Circa 2015

Afterword: Donna and I continue our Pilates sessions. She is now slowly and carefully restarting pointe work.


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