Pain and the Dancer

Brianne Bland first noticed the pain in her foot in August. It continued through day after day of rehearsals, and two different long runs of performances, in which she starred. At the conclusion of the run of Giselle – in which she played Giselle – she went to the doctor. Brianne had three broken bones in her foot. It was November.

While dancing with Le Jeune Ballet De Paris Jonathan Jordan starred in a tour crossing five countries. The two broken bones in his foot, which hurt before the tour started, were diagnosed during his layoff. Penny Saunders danced with a torn meniscus in her knee while dancing with Momix in Europe. For thirteen months.

This article is not about the frailty of feet. Or knees. Or the difficulties of staying healthy. This article is about the necessary acceptance of intense pain. These dancers took months to address their concerns not out of denial, but because working with pain is necessary, and commonplace.

In the February 1st, 2005 Washington Post article on NFL all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith’s retirement, the man who will now be the active rushing leader in the NFL stated that success such as Emmitt has had, such as he – Curtis Martin – has had, only comes with pain. He states that everyone gets injured and it is the ability to manage and overcome injury that creates greatness.

Pain develops a person in a certain way. I worked as an Emergency Medical Technician for six years, and was struck by the varied responses to intense, sudden pain. There are those who become hysterical, and those who become calm. What makes a person have one reaction instead of another is difficult to say. It seems clear, however, that significant dance artists respond with calm.

Being a great performer requires a personal intensity that is unusual in those who have not undergone great struggles. Cheryl Crow once croaked “what mercy sadness brings.” It is in this vein that the generosity of performance built through pain can be understood. Empathy with those in pain, empathy with strong emotion of every sort, is a defining characteristic of a great dancer.

To be a really good dancer one must enjoy failure, and, to a certain extent, pain. Failure as it is through doing what one cannot do that one reaches the outer limits of the possible. Pain because it is the anvil upon which is forged the body, and thus the person, who can create significant performance. Nietzsche wrote that “a species, a type, originates and grows firm and strong in a long struggle with essentially constant but unfavorable conditions.” And so it is that the dancers of today carry on in the tradition of the dancers of the last two hundred years. In pain.

R. Betmann 7/2005

Post-note: Since publication of this piece, Curtis Martin began the 2006-2007 NFL season running well. However, in mid-October he was forced to sit out for the remainder of the season due to recurring knee troubles. On July 27th, 2007, prior to the start of the 2007-2008 season, Curtis Martin quietly retired.

The image is of Brianne Bland and Runqiao Du in the hallway of the Washington Ballet. Photo (c) B. Bland and thanks for letting me use it. (Brianne and Runqiao both retired from The Washington Ballet in 2009.)


Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.