A Body in Motion

A traumatic fifteen-hour spinal operation saved my life but stole most of my mobility and, thus, my dance career. It took fifteen years to begin to correct the story.

Sophie Kohn is a writer and the managing editor of the CBC...

 

On a grey Tuesday night in March I’m standing outside The National Ballet of Canada, flinching as elegant glass doors meant for elegant people quietly glide open and swallow me, brisk and certain. The receptionist looks up and greets me brightly. It’s too late to change my mind.

I step into an achingly familiar cloud of hairspray, sweat, and muted piano repertoire seeping through thin studio walls. Three different scores from three different rooms are gently duelling, flirting, tumbling over each other, crisp rushing rivers braiding and parting ways. I’m briefly paralyzed in the lobby, a moment alone with the light, satisfying clack of pointe shoes landing jumps, the invisible instructors shouting rhythmic French words on the downbeat. I unclench, slowly. I am home.

At thirty-five, I’m returning to class for the first time in nearly two decades. I’d insisted on a long and absolute estrangement from dance after a traumatic fifteen-hour spinal operation that saved my life but stole most of my mobility and, thus, my career. A day that reconstructed me, but in that reconstruction, a shattering.

Throughout my twenties and into my thirties, I couldn’t watch dance or hear about people doing it. On a crowded and frantic December subway car, confronted with a loud, colourful ad for The Nutcracker, I’d quickly look away at someone’s wet winter boots, sinking and stewing in a silent black lake.

*

As a five-year-old, shy and cautious and catlike, I discovered a strange and joyful planet at the Banbury Community Centre dance class. Rather than begin with the excruciating details of pointed feet and correct arm positions, our instructor, a jubilant South African woman named Carol, started by whisking us all up to a perch on a faraway star where we took in the glittering, aerial view of what dance is first and foremost about: an honest and primal reaction to music, a thing that tingles in every single cell. An awakening.

To that end, she’d turn on a piece of piano music from a weathered black cassette player, commanding us cheerfully to spread out, and it always took a few tries before the ka-klunk of the play button finally stuck, before the intoxicating moment of total and wild possibility, an unconditional freedom that existed nowhere else in my orbit.

The instruction was simple and the same every time: “move however you feel.” We’d become roaming hippos, delicate raindrops, fearsome serpents slithering on our stomachs. The two scrawny boys in the class would inevitably plunge to gruesome, twitching deaths from invisible gunshots.

My arms and legs did feral things indifferent to my consent, as though my bones had stories to tell, an urgency deep in their hidden rivers. I jumped and crouched and spun and fell bruised and breathless onto the hardwood floor and got up as a tentative baby emu, a stern boss swinging a briefcase, a world famous figure skater.

Week after week, the instant I was given permission, all kinds of expressive and explosive movement poured out of my tiny, anxious body, and I began to trust it, to let it lead me. I followed it into whatever tangled, untamed forest it dared me to explore.

*

Three decades later, the same churning, unstoppable gale inside is still making decisions before my brain can catch up. Initially propelled by a vague, arm’s-length curiosity, I’d been perusing The National Ballet’s website one afternoon at work. I’d overheard a coworker gushing about the public classes open to all skill levels, and a surprising surge of territorial fire ripped through me.

I sat at my computer both relishing and fearing the tense, supernatural moments that hover just before a boiling geyser announces the eruption of its depths. Without being asked, my fingers registered for a class. A bolt of inevitability. Calmly, I closed the website.

At thirty-five I’m now a confluence of other vibrant identities, my days a dizzying kaleidoscope of crude and polished stones. I’m a comedy writer at CBC, I do stand-up. I get in canoes and on planes with a bottomless hunger and read a lot of feminist fury and do crossword puzzles with coffee and a cat on Saturday mornings.

I am full, I am brimming, I am enough.

Yet now my hands are pulling on black tights in a crowded change room. Oh god, and I’m inexplicably tying my hair back, I’m walking across a vast grey vinyl floor in bare feet, my steps sticky and staccato—why? why? why? why?—as the nervous eyes of a dozen other dancers roll down my body, burning into me from all directions. I’d forgotten this feeling, the quiet storm clouds in our smiles.

The two men in the class are muscular and breathtaking, so powerfully present, sleek and self-assured like bullets.

*

When I was seven or eight and happily enrolled in proper ballet school, my teacher taught us to demand balance from our bodies, to conjure a presence, a stern stillness. To accept nothing less. To refuse. To refuse. To refuse.

Relevé,” she would command, and we’d rise onto our toes, arms suspended in midair. We were tiny, wobbly creatures then, uncertain like wet fawns. Inevitably, one of us would tip over, throwing off the rest of us, and we’d giggle as it became a game of trying to outlast each other. That’s when she’d clap suddenly, a loud, frightening crack that split the sky.

No,” she’d shout. “Say no.”

Our startled bodies would quickly clench, arms and legs locked, abdominal muscles zipped up, our smiles falling to the floor as we would return our attention to balancing. But we were small and still searching, and we continued to quiver as she walked down the line, inspecting us for posture and resolve. A cheap blue plastic whale clock hung above the shaggy head of our surly Russian pianist. Her slow, dramatic steps fit snug and perfect between each heavy tick of the second hand.

My body is fighting me, raging and confused, but I take it. And take it. And take it.

Carol’s class had taught me to move. But it was just as important to learn to stand still. How to stop moving. Abundance and restraint had to co-exist in the same body. The dream, but then the discipline.

“Find something fixed to look at,” she continued, her words melting into a calmer, gentler place, a tidy pile. “Don’t take your eyes off that object. Do not move. Say no.”

My eyes land on the top of a willow tree beyond the studio windows, swaying lazy, soft and sure. My body settles into itself.

“Find your centre. There’s no coming undone. Not right now.”

We hang in the air like painted ghosts. We get stronger.

My body still decides what’s real and true, but gradually my brain learns to step in, to help temper it and tame it, to sculpt raw movement into a shape. I learn to invoke elegance despite the roiling waves inside.

“Good. And release. And that’s fine for today.”

This moment—the gunshot of her clap, the refusal, the silence dripping off it, the shock of it—has lived in the chaotic centre of my chest ever since. My parents fighting, boyfriends who yelled, bosses who fired me, gentle Sunday morning coffees where I learned love was ending or aching or unreturned: I kept my balance. I summoned the trees.

*

The diagnosis began with a public humiliation.

At twelve, straddling a chasm between supernatural creature and regular kid, I was sitting on the studio floor in a stretch class with my legs at a 180-degree angle, gushing to my best friend Zoë about boys and Paula Abdul. Our instructor, a blunt French-Canadian woman with a long, feral braid like a horse, crouched behind me and placed her cold hands firmly on my back.

“What’s wrong with you?” she demanded. A dozen flushed faces rose from the floor.

“Nothing,” I snapped, and so began several years of responding to this question constantly and curtly the nanosecond it was asked. Judging panels. Backstage at shows. Curious pre-teen girls in dressing rooms. They wanted to know. Everyone, always.

I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t have language for it—just one shoulder and one hipbone strikingly higher than the other, and a slow crescendo of hot, pulsing pain up my spine. My ribcage was starting to violently torque and twist around to one side, throwing off my centre of gravity and making pirouettes increasingly difficult. In class, wobbly and uncertain as the day I began, I’d focus hard on my willow tree, quietly begging it to steady me. It yawned in the breeze, indifferent. I’d say no from the centre of my being. I’d fall out of the turn.

My previously high marks on exams began to plummet. The adjudicators’ ornate cursive comments grew increasingly disappointed.

There was a sudden gaggle of experts, hushed conversations with my mother in anxious white hallways. School nurses, physiotherapists, orthopaedic surgeons scribbling into clipboards. “Bend down and touch your toes. And again. And back up? And one more time.”

“Okay, sweetheart. And relax.”

Scoliosis is a lateral curvature of the spine that predominantly affects girls. Most cases are mild enough to be managed with physiotherapy, or if that fails, a rigid canvas brace to prevent the curve from worsening.

But while my mother and I gingerly amassed hospital pamphlets and talked late into the night as I cried into her lap, puberty ushered me into a sudden growth spurt. My spine roared to life like an angry boa constrictor, winding its way around my body, tightening its grip, compressing my lungs and igniting a blinding pain. I was constantly desperate for air, and I compensated by breathing quick and shallow, nervous and drowning like a baby bird. I’d lie in bed at night feeling fiercely gripped in my own torso, as though my spine was devouring its prey, swallowing me whole. In the morning I’d lock the bathroom door, take off my shirt, and attempt short, terrified glances in the mirror. I watched my body quite literally turning against me, felt the betrayal in my bones.

By fourteen, my spine was a dramatic “S” shape, and both curves were hovering around ninety degrees. My body had become an alarming, disfigured thing. At school I ignored the questions. Parties were a strange new country of halter tops and bikinis; I wore dark hoodies and distracted uneasy classmates with jokes. They relaxed and called me “Quasimodo” and I agreed and I laughed, though it hurt to agree and it hurt to laugh.

The speed and severity of the snake was astonishing. Dizzy and frightened, I went with my mother to meet one of the top orthopaedic surgeons at The Hospital for Sick Children. My only option, he explained, was an extremely risky fifteen-hour operation to fuse my spine from neck to tailbone with a complex constellation of titanium steel rods, bolts, screws, and bone grafts. They would remove my contorted ribcage and use that bone to fill in the spaces between vertebrae. They would dismantle my whole upper body and put me back together. Operating so close to the spinal cord came with a chance of paralysis. It would be a long recovery. Superhuman patience. A year in a protective plaster brace. As for mobility, I’d be able to hinge forward a bit from the hips, but that was it. Like an airline seat. My torso would be permanently encased in an invisible block of ice.

It was this or slowly suffocate. Another specialist had casually projected that without the operation, I’d be in a wheelchair by the end of the year. At this, I slid off his examining table, ran crazed with terror into the parking lot, was immediately engulfed in an explosive firestorm of pain, and stopped running. I limped breathlessly back to the clinic and turned myself in like an exhausted fugitive.

Post-surgery life would involve a long list of forbidden activities: downhill skiing, contact sports, horseback riding, repetitive jumping or anything too percussive, heavy lifting, diving into water. We were quiet for a long time. None of it mattered.

I couldn’t ask the question, so my mother made a simple statement.

“Sophie is a dancer.”

The surgeon sighed. His eyes crinkled with sympathy.

We signed the paperwork. I was given a surgery date. I lay on the couch all winter listless and resigned.

*

The last thing I did before the operation was my usual Saturday ballet class. I danced the whole morning in searing pain, vibrating with desperation, the music forming a protective cocoon as it always had. I was gasping for breath and so physically deformed that several months before, my teacher had handed me unspoken permission to wear my dad’s XL T-shirts overtop of the strict uniform of peach tights and navy blue leotard. It was a tiny but considerable kindness—this was a world in which you’d get reprimanded if your pointe shoe ribbons weren’t the correct shade of cream.

At the end of class, I collapsed into her arms, both of us close to tears. She held me quietly, kissed my head, and pushed me out the door.

*

When I wake up, a gradual resurfacing from haunted underwater kingdoms, there’s an angry plastic fist deep in my throat. It pumps me full of air, then relaxes. And again. Click. And again. Click.

My brain staggers into cool white neon hospital light. I’m alive.

I follow the tube, widening eyes thick and blurry with Vaseline. It coils out of my mouth and into an enormous whirring machine beside my bed, prompting a jolt of dull panic. The machine sighs, my chest deflates. Each breath is manufactured and unconvincing, a mechanical bull in a farmer’s field. My chest asks again. The machine doles out another breath. I’ve lost myself completely.

I am in pain so deep, so loud, so bright and fresh that moving a single millimetre feels like it will kill me instantly. I stare at my mother through a hazy petroleum film. She strokes my hair and tells me that they got both curves down to thirty degrees. I can only blink at her. Inside, I’m a tangle of fiery comets, dancing, hissing, popping and shrieking. There’s no coming undone. Not right now.

I move from the intensive care unit to a ward. I work with a physiotherapist to stand up for the first time. The earth feels lost and tilted under my thin blue paper slippers, every step like the abrupt end of a staircase descending into darkness. I’m dizzy and nauseous, severely anemic. My shoulders are in radically new places. My chest faces the right way now. The right way feels wrong.

Days later, two nurses help me walk the ten steps to my bathroom. For the first time, I look at my naked, painstakingly corrected and heavily bandaged body in the mirror.

It is so shocking, so foreign, so beautiful and so utterly not mine that it stops my breath. The torques and twists are gone. The screaming mountains are now paved moonlit roads. I don’t stop crying for days. Relief and disbelief. Confusion, awe, and gratitude.

One night under a sprinkle of downtown stars, I manage a short walk alone to the end of the orthopaedic ward hallway. Shaky and exhausted, I clutch the handrail, humbly assemble my feet into position, and slowly sink six inches into a plié, maybe my millionth, somehow my first.

*

It’s a long, slow summer of physiotherapy, math tutors, and very specific arrangements of pillows. I walk to the Banbury and back, moving wistful and heavy like a sigh. I am encased in a full-body, hard plastic brace for twenty-three hours each day. I’m a toddler in a Halloween robot costume, anxious and stumbling through thick Toronto heat.

My new body is metal and non-negotiable. It doesn’t bend. It won’t jump. It hurts, and the high-pitched metallic screech of steel is throbbing and constant from my head to my waist. Every chair in every restaurant, movie theatre and library is awkward and wrong. I can’t hinge forward from my hips far enough to tie my shoes. This realization shatters me instantly and I sit on the edge of my bed wailing in sudden frustration, late for nowhere.

Before surgery, despite my disorder, my spine had still been able to arch and undulate like the individual cars on a train, loosely linked, precisely hugging a curb as it turns a corner. Now that my vertebrae are fully fused together with bone and metal and screws, I’m one long, consolidated column. A tourist bus with its crude, insistent angles.

I have just barely stood up again. I’m only beginning, so tentatively, to negotiate motion. I’m fragile and fearful of everything.

But it’s time to return to dance class. I am utterly, hopelessly, stupidly determined.

*

For about fifteen minutes, I think I feel beautiful.

The discovery is alien and completely intoxicating. I feel beautiful walking into the studio, I feel beautiful getting changed, I feel beautiful grinding my pointe shoes into the rosin box, I feel beautiful standing at the barre. I am straight and smooth instead of horrifically misshapen and ashamed. I’m wearing just a leotard for the first time in years. I desperately want to look in the mirror. Meeting my own eyes brings shivers and thundering things, like I’m flirting with myself.

This is a mirage that will slowly break my heart over the next three years of classes.

Because every time class begins and it’s time to actually move, to jump, to fly, to bend, I am frozen. I’m weighted, trapped and frustrated, a lonely sailboat run aground. The parts of me still alive with agency—namely, my arms and legs—exhaust themselves desperately trying to push us out of the muddy reeds, to burst forth into the freedom I’ve known and loved and chased around a sunny studio my whole life. They fall quiet, dejected and dangling.

Despite its relentless emphasis on aesthetic perfection, ballet has taught me that in fact, feeling beautiful flows from feeling powerful. Feeling beautiful is an immediate, intuitive consequence of hurtling through space with everything you’ve got. Soaking. Soaring.

I lose interest in the coy girl in the mirror. I suddenly understand with startling sorrow that I will never feel more deeply and authentically beautiful than the days I danced in a body so unsightly and disfigured I housed it permanently under a middle-aged man’s billowing t-shirt. The days I had to hide it so my happiness wouldn’t find out.

*

When I turn seventeen, my ballet school shuts down. The girls I’ve grown up with eagerly disperse to new academies. But my body feels as boarded up and lifeless as the building that summer, both places a shell, a ghost of a home.

We perform in one final show. I dance gentle parts, easy parts, steps thoughtfully written for me by sympathetic instructors. There are flowers and applause and tears, a bewildering haze of motion and colour and sound. And then late that night, the firm slam of a bottom drawer, and only silence.

*

I place my left hand on the barre. The warm wooden cylinder molds to my palm like it’s been waiting for me. We reach for each other, old lovers laughing. We remember.

My legs are turned out in first position. My hips are initially a bit surprised by this development but slowly they comply and settle into place. I draw in a slow breath as the pianist comes to life in the corner. Our instructor takes a stately stroll around the room with his chin raised, hardened hair gel and grace. He inspects us and corrects us. I begin an anxious, familiar game of keeping my uncorrectable problem invisible as long as I can. But within seconds, the exercise calls for a dramatic back bend, demands we become proud, brightly feathered birds. I stand still, staring at the floor, alone and upright for what feels like months as everyone else is falling slowly into the secret pool of light behind them. By now, I’m used to these pangs of loneliness. A single sunflower in an empty meadow.

We all recover, and minutes later we’re descending into a grand plié. My bones know the route, instantly and intuitively. My body is bending in ways it’s been longing to bend, melting into movements I’d been actively trying to erase from my muscles for years.

Inhabiting a ballet physique often causes people to laugh that you walk like a duck, that you move through the world like a magic hen, movements unnaturally deliberate and precise. As a teenager I’d explain that I was a dancer, but in my twenties, I couldn’t say that anymore. At university I’d force myself to walk to class with parallel legs, the way I observed regular people doing. It physically hurt to deny who I was, the vestiges of my old life silently dripping off me as I met up with friends to go eat french fries and get drunk—no fats to be mindful of, no Saturday morning class. I was simultaneously free and imprisoned in my metal cage. My body didn’t quite make sense in a ballet studio anymore, nor did it quite make sense outside one.

I tried to get my muscles to unlearn it all. But you taught them at age six; you were pirouetting before your blood knew which way it was supposed to flow; these movements are alive inside you, always. They’re never far from the surface. Ballet had sculpted me. Before I was anything, I was a dancer.

*

The room is warm and my tank top is damp and itchy with sweat. My torso clenched, my arm above my head, my supporting leg quivering, I am raising my other leg, pointed and outstretched behind me, six inches off the floor. It is immense and maddening effort. My exertion tears the mountains down. My entire spine is protesting loudly from neck to tailbone. It’s burning, stinging, a shocking blaze of light, a siren on a highway. This same leg used to hover easily at a ninety-degree angle to the ground, where everyone else’s legs are floating now. It’s not just that it hurts—my back is firm and defiant, like trying to push open a door with a polite, handwritten “pull” sign on it. However delicate it looks, this arabesque is a hard and angry no.

We finish the barre segment and move to the centre of the room. I’m jumping, tiny, tentative hiccups, leaping listlessly, like a person roughly planning her route, rehearsing her wedding. A fully fused spine means zero shock absorption, and the landing of every jump sends sudden waves of confused pain radiating up my back. Like landing on legs with no knees. I paint on the airy, vaguely amused facial expression every dancer is taught from childhood but I’m seething inside, longing for the days I used to fling myself into the stars, my entire body yearning and hungry to go. The days I used to take up space.

*

One day when I was thirteen and increasingly self-conscious about my warped and twisted back, I was doing a series of somewhat hesitant grand jetés alone in the centre of the studio as the rest of the class watched. My teacher implored me constantly to get out of my head and fully inhabit my body, command the room, own every inch of the floor, crash-land millimetres from the mirrors. To spread, to seep. Instead, I carefully paddled a quiet canoe with small and overly thoughtful strokes.

On this particular day, she leapt off her tall wooden stool in the middle of the exercise and appeared behind me, hands gripping my waist hard, and she pulled and pushed me left and right, up in the air and down with her entire wingspan, her entire heart, until I found my own. MOVE!!!” she laughed, and after a few minutes of this, I understood, but better than that, I felt it suddenly in my guts, and I laughed too and became a loud motorboat that left miles of dramatic frothy purpose in its wake and after that I never went back to the small imprisoning squares I had politely drawn for myself, the modest piece of earth I assumed I got to claim. There was pain but I remember no pain. I remember only that my body was breathing in a new way, my ribcage bursting through my leotard, transcending my permission, reaching, exploring, awake and alive.

That day, a precocious and disciplined teenager with her perfected technique crashed blissfully into a feral and fearless five-year-old, right in the centre of that room.

*

I can still feel that afternoon pulsing through my blood as I assume polite poses and uncertain steps. But the fear is loud in my ears—fear of pain, of cracking in half, of breaking, of falling. So I soften everything. I go slowly and gently and hear in every single second the distant echo of that word, MOVE!!!,” the exasperation that lived inside it, the way we laughed that day as the dappled Saturday sunlight shifted into improbable shapes, following us ferociously around the room like a partner, a pas de deux with my becoming.

*

“You’re dancing again??” my friends exclaim on walks through parks with dogs and new babies. I stare at my shoes. “Can I come see you??”

But these leaps at forty percent power, these steps that barely express anything other than a quiet and cautious contentment—it’s not for public consumption. Not anymore. And that’s a different way to dance.

Ballet is nearly impossible to do casually. It demands superhuman physical strength, your hours, your heat, your whole body. It takes and it takes, whispering increasingly outlandish dares every minute: higher, faster, farther, more. Again. Again. Again. Again.

As a teenager I used to be baffled and embarrassed by a woman who, though she appeared to me as ninety-seven, was in her thirties or forties. She’d taken up dance at a moment most professional dancers retire. She’d do class in an oversized Miami Beach T-shirt, a messy ponytail instead of the slick buns we violently blasted with half a neon aerosol can. She had no public performances to work toward, no exams or summer intensive programs. Her steps were clumsy and crude approximations, an intellectual recall of the instructions that lacked the intuition and full-body urgency that ripped through the rest of us. Red-faced and joyful, she’d laugh after every exercise as we stood around, silent and self-critical, motivated by upcoming deadlines and show dates. Meanwhile, her delight carried her all the way to next week’s class. This sweet, solar-powered love.

I could not understand what she was doing. How she was so comfortable living inside her limitations. I was going to be flawless and famous, or slam the studio door forever, become an accountant in Kuwait and never look back. This woman had happily excavated a middle ground that wasn’t supposed to exist, and she fascinated and upset me all at once.

I think of this woman often now that I’m her age, now that I have everything to learn from her. Now that I’m done with auditions, driven only by audacity.

*

Recently, I sat on my apartment floor beside an enormous dusty envelope. Inside, a series of x-rays from the ’90s: my spine before the operation. The paper is shimmery and loud. As I hold the image up to the windows, a nervous chaos scatters through my blood.

My spine, my backbone, this thing that centres me in the world, meanders into an awful, exaggerated “S” shape. I follow it down. My body remembers instantly. I feel light-headed and sick.

I start back at the top. This time, my spine forms a path.

The path begins certain and strong at the base of my neck. Until abruptly, a sharp left turn. The unexpected moment of detour. The path leads way out to a lonely wilderness near my ribcage, a place it was never supposed to go. It veers far off course, a plan contorted.

It then swings madly to the right, compensating and overcompensating for what it wanted to be but couldn’t. It’s a path that can’t seem to find its purpose. Neither settled nor simple.

I danced with electric intensity, a heart full of need, my first, most ferocious love. I then lurched away from dance, filled with frustration. I swerved left into an all-encompassing career and then right into all-encompassing crisis. Extraordinarily explosive, then uncommonly confined.

Now, at thirty-five: a recentering.

It’s startling to look back and realize that my path was written into my body like this. Every night as a teenager, I bent forward on command in the bathtub and my mother would diligently work her fingers down each vertebrae like our paediatrician showed her, trying to assess if the curves were worsening, and every night, they were. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was telling me my own story, quietly, as I hung my head millimetres from the surface of the water and the tips of my wet hair danced and whispered in the white lavender foam.

I put the x-rays down.

It took them fifteen hours to correct this spine. It took me fifteen years to correct this story. But at long last I’m emerging, dizzy, disoriented, and grateful, into a strange and overpowering light.

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