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The Psychological Pain of Physical Injuries

Photo by Don Curry

As pole dancers, we push our bodies to their limits every time we climb up that pole. Pole dance is one of the only physical activities that requires extreme flexibility but also extreme strength and stability. It’s a fine balance, and it’s difficult to get it right. Injuries are fairly common in pole dance, and no matter how careful you are to warm up well, cross-train and practice your moves safely, injuries can and do occur. Everyone knows how frustrating it can be when you have to take a break from pole for a couple of weeks while an injury heals. You know you’re missing classes, and falling behind while your classmates are learning amazing new tricks. It sucks. But you know that if you do what your physio says, and rehab the injury properly, often you’ll come back stronger than ever. But sometimes injuries can be more severe, and require longer periods of time off the pole and down on the ground. Maybe even surgery. Then your emotional response starts to go from feelings of frustration to depression. An injury can not only take a physical toll on your body, but also have a psychological impact. Sometime in 2013 during my teaching tour of Europe, the US and South Africa, I developed a stress fracture in my first rib. I knew something was wrong with me because I was in fairly constant but manageable, low-level pain for about 3 months before I got back to Sydney and was able to seek treatment. Because it was only low-level pain, I didn’t think it was anything too serious. As pole dancers, we are all used to pain, and I think over the years my tolerance for pain has increased as a result of what I do. So I thought that it would just take a few physio sessions to get me back on track. Over the course of the following months, the pain went from being low-level to intense, and then chronic. I went to see numerous health professionals, but it was a full 6 months before I finally managed to get a diagnosis: stress fracture of the first rib, rib dysfunction in a couple of my other ribs, costochondritis, and some neck issues. In the days leading up to when I was finally diagnosed, I suffered through 3 days of intensely painful muscle spasms and cramps that left me unable to stand upright. The rest of the time, even breathing was painful. Apparently, first rib stress fractures are extremely rare. So rare, in fact, that my sports doctor is writing up my case for publication in a medical journal (woohoo! Pole dance is making medical history!). As I understand it, stress fractures can be caused by a blunt force (like a blow) or alternatively, repetitive stress on the bone by muscles pulling on it can eventually cause a stress fracture. So in other words, my own muscles fractured my own bone. I’ll admit that hearing that made me feel pretty hardcore (not that that was much consolation). But the reality of the diagnosis was kind of hard to accept. No pole until it heals. Probably 2-3 months, possibly longer. I wanted to cry. Pole dance is not only my job, but it’s my passion and my joy as well. It’s wrapped up in my sense of who I am. If I can’t pole dance, what do I do? If I’m not a pole dancer, who am I? I tried to stay calm, and positive. It’s only 2-3 months, I told myself. It will go fast. While I waited, I worked on my splits. I taught classes from the ground, and instructed students while they did all the things I was dying to be able to do again. I took some Body Barre classes to keep active. I took other dance classes as well, but always left feeling dispirited and miserable, knowing that for me, other forms of dance don’t even come remotely close to the joy and freedom of flying around a pole. Knowing there was no other choice than to wait and be patient, I forced myself to keep my spirits up. I think I did pretty well. I’m an optimist by nature. But I have to admit, it was really, really hard. There were many days when I felt I was getting better, and then randomly I would wake up with stabbing pains again in my chest for no apparent reason, and on those days I just wanted to lie in bed and cry. Going from being someone who spends a huge amount of time upside down and airbourne, to suddenly feeling completely grounded and gravity-bound is hard. Watching other pole dancers train and achieve goals around me while I felt like I was being left behind was particularly difficult. It certainly didn’t help that over the Australian summer, pretty much every single Pole Star came to visit the Pole Dance Academy to teach workshops, which I couldn’t participate in. It was torture! So instead of pole dancing, I found other things to occupy my time. I spent more time working on Pole Dance Academy business, and working on my flexibility. But it was hard for me to even be around the studio, which has always been a place of such happiness for me. As I started to get better, I began to reasses the way that I train and the way that I instruct. It’s important to realise your own limits. I know that I’m the kind of person who loves to do everything. I don’t like to say no. I want to take on the world and cram as much as I can into the time I have on this planet. But now I understand that there are limits to the amount of physical stress I can put on my own body. I’m not invincible. And now that I’ve experienced what 3 months off the pole feels like, I’ve reached the conclusion that I need to take better care of myself, so that I can keep dancing and instructing for a long, long time. I’ve had to rethink my methods. Looking back on my days as a gymnast, I realised that my 65 year old Russian coach Igor taught me to do all kinds of things on four different apparatuses, when he could barely speak English, and certainly never demonstrated a single move for me. So I’ve used this time to really work on my instructing technique, and find ways to instruct that don’t involve me performing endless demonstrations. I’ve learnt a lot about instructing from the ground, or “verbal cueing”. I feel like this experience has made me a better instructor. After all, I’m no good to my students if I’m so exhausted that I end up injuring myself. I wanted to write this because I’m sure that many others out there dealing with injuries are facing the same feelings of depression and hopelessness that I did. It’s important to stay positive, but at the same time you need to acknowledge the psychological effects that an injury can have. For me, the best way to deal with it is to set myself other goals and use the time to work towards them. Work on your flexibility in non-injured areas. Work on your toe point. Work on your cardio. Start a blog. Start drawing. Whatever it is, you need something to focus your energies on to work out your frustrations. And sometimes, you just need to cry on someone’s shoulder. Let it all out. But don’t dwell on it. Staying positive is part of the mental battle on the path to recovery. To anyone reading this who is suffering through some kind of injury, be patient. It seems like the hardest, cruellest, never-ending struggle. And in many ways it is. Only another dancer can truly understand how hard it is to be told you can’t do the thing you love most. Recovery can be slow, frustrating, and you may suffer setbacks along the way. Not only that, but it takes a long time to get your confidence back. The fear of injuring yourself again is a very real thing. When I’m feeling down about an injury, I try to remind myself that our bodies are extraordinary machines. Unless it’s a very serious injury or illness, our bodies can in many cases fight back and fix themselves on their own. We can do a lot to help our bodies get better (therapy, eating well, modern or traditional medicine, massage etc) but often, your incredibly designed body will take care of it in its own time. So I’m going to be patient and gentle on myself until I’m back in fighting form. To anyone else out there struggling through an injury, my heart goes out to you. Take care of yourselves, be patient, do your rehab exercises, and remember that the feeling of joy that you’ll experience once your back on the pole will be all the greater for the sadness you’ve faced. Shimmy xxx

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