We are in a time in history when we seem to be conscious of what we need to keep ourselves healthy. People are told that exercise is one of the best ways of keeping their bodies healthy. The dancers have never had to worry about that side of the picture. What they consume, has been another matter.
I remember asking a dietician how it was that having lived the life of eating all kinds of food at the wrong time of day, and usually the wrong kind of food, drinking far too much alcohol, not having a proper sleep pattern; how was it that I was still capable of dancing; I was 60 at the time.
The answer was simple– “we do not know, nor understand”
If I take myself back to post-war Britain, where there was not sufficient food with any nutritional value available. There was plenty of stodge, but no nutrition. One egg a week, no fruit to speak of in certain seasons, too much sugar in balance with the rest of the diet. Yet, we were dancing and surviving quite well. Perhaps it was the Guiness, who knows.
Touring in the United States during the 50s, doing one night stands. Travel all day by bus, we did stop for lunch, but that depended on where we were and if there was good food available. Grab a quick snack before the show, unless the bus was late, in which case we just went straight in to the show. After the show? Well it varied from state to state. Sometimes we were lucky, most of the time it was “Greasy Spoon” time. Of course mixed with, a great deal of beer, no matter what the food.
There were the cities that wanted to give us a reception after the show. For the first few years that consisted of alcohol and a few snacks. We learned our lesson, NO! FOOD! — NO! RECEPTION! We won. There were some very good receptions during that period, finally.
I remember a reception in Texas, a barbecue. There was half a cow on the barbecue, black olives the size of large plums, drinks? oh yes. A 26 ounce bottle made three drinks.
It was marvellous, but, the problem the next day was absorbing the alcohol and digesting the food. Our systems did not like the after effects. By the way, after the reception we still had to return to the hotel, do some washing, and prepare our belongings for the journey in the morning to our next city.
Feast then famine, sleep, then not enough sleep.
We just kept going.
While in the city of origin, we did our best to keep a balance. The balance was of course governed by the economic situation. Sometimes that was pretty dismal. The outward show had to be good; what was happening behind the closed doors was not always up to par.
We can’t blame injury on economics, we can at times blame it on nutritional problems, but injury is a part of the dancers life.
Most of us have experienced injury on a small or large scale.
Dancers have a strange pain tolerance, we have to be really badly injured before we back up. In one way it is good, in another, a hindrance to proper healing.
There are certain injuries that are common throughout the profession. Sprained or strained ankles are almost, for some, a yearly event.
The ladies have bleeding toes on a daily basis, but deal with it.
The men? they get bad backs. Thank you ladies!!
There are a few big ones, that did in the past put an end to the career. The one that we feared the most was the torn Achilles tendon. After that, came the knees, no knee problems please!!
Harald Lander, a Danish choreographer and teacher, was at the height of his career in the Royal Danish Ballet when he tore his Achilles tendon. That was quite a long time ago. He never danced again, and limped for the rest of his life.
Interestingly enough, the Danes were the doctors who perfected an operation to alleviate this problem. I believe they have about a 60% success rate.
In Festival Ballet of London during the 60s, a German dancer broke his Achilles tendon on the stage of the Fenice Theatre in Venice. He was rushed to Denmark immediately. He danced with the company again, the following year.
Fritz Graf, a ballet master with Festival Ballet for a time, was not so fortunate. He broke his Achilles in the Champs Élysées Theatre rehearsal room. They tried to fix it, but were unsuccessful. He was much older and heavier than the German dancer. Fritz was still limping the last time I saw him.
A young woman in the Royal Ballet had the Achilles operation, then the problems began. The physiotherapist at the Royal Ballet was giving the dancer ultrasound treatments. It was getting worse, not better. Finally the surgeon was consulted. He was horrified to hear about the ultrasound treatment. He had used wire to rejoin the tendon. The ultrasound was cooking her operation site. The operation had to be redone, using gut this time.
A Danish dancer was performing in Napoli in London England. He did a jeté, slipped , and when he landed, his body was facing forward, his right thigh was facing forward, but his right lower leg was at right angles to his knee. His right knee was on the stage. The knee was completely torn open. He danced again after visiting his Danish surgeon.
A young American woman tore her knee open. She had an operation to replace the knee joint with a plastic one. She danced again.
I know of dancers who have had the open heart surgery, they did not dance again, but they choreographed and taught. André Prokovsky was one such example. He went on to choreograph in Australia.
An American dancer in the Marquis de Cuevas company who was extremely flexible, did a jeté in second position, and in mid-air, broke his pelvis. He still choreographed, but was crippled for the rest of his life. No surgery was possible.
For a time, the most common surgery on male dancers in particular was for torn cartilages in the knees. It was an operation performed on many male dancers throughout the world. Many times for all four cartilages.
Glen Gibson of the National Ballet of Canada tore all four. He did not have the surgery, but a therapist did work with him to bring back the muscles in his knees. He danced again in London.
Having someone in the medical profession or alternative therapy that understands dancers in imperative. In London England there was an Osteopath, Dimitri Papoutsis, who was called to treat dancers on the other side of the world. Dimitri understood the ballet technique. He would watch performances and classes. When a dancer came for treatment he would ask them to take up a certain ballet positions, so that he could see their problems, then treat them.
Those in the medical area who understand dance are rare, so the dancer has to use the dancer grape vine to find the right people. Or live with their injury.
Strangely, the killer diseases of the rest of humanity do not seem to plague the dancers. Cancer is the one that comes to mind immediately. Two Danish dancer succumbed to cancer. Toni Lander and Eric Bruhn. Toni was Mrs Clean , always looked after herself, never smoked. Eric on the other hand did everything in excess. Why both of them? And why lung cancer? We will probably never know.