Finding My Way Back to Ballet After a Foot Amputation
The other night I was digging through closets looking for some snow gear. Keep in mind, dear readers, that in a three-story home that means a lot of stairs, and with only one leg and no prosthetic that also means a lot of crutching and balancing while digging through racks of hanging and stacks of folded clothing.
Bedroom closet? Nope.
Cedar chest? Negative.
Guest bedroom closet? Another no.
Office closet? Not unless antique fur coats, evening gowns, vintage cocktail dresses, and one Grace Kelly-esque tea length white dress count.
Front coat closet? Nope.
My coat closet? Yes, I have my own coat closet… Still no.
It was interesting opening that closet, though, because on the floor are a half a dozen pairs of boots:
Ankle height snow boots
Calf height quilted snow boots with a furry cuff
Rain boots (a holdover from Georgia’s rainy days)
Cute ankle height winter wedges with quilted insides
A pair of cowboy boots worn only for dancing at those big halls they have in Texas
I realized as I sat there gazing at them distractedly for a minute too long that most of them had been sadly neglected as footwear because of an angry left foot.
Huh, I thought, that’s kind of surreal to think about at this point.
The angry left foot.
Digging through the rest of the closet turned up nothing, but as I turned the wheelchair to back out, I noticed a yellow bag hanging on a little hook on the back of the door, Gaynor Minden written on it in delicate white lettering. All thoughts of snow gear died with those two words.
Every dancer has two bags. One bag is for their dance clothes like extra tights, at least one extra leotard, leg warmers, skirts, ballet sweaters, and a sewing kit with scissors, jet glue, extra ribbons and elastic, a spool of pink thread, one very sturdy needle, and a thimble. The smaller bag is for le shoes and holds the current set of pointe shoes and a backup, the current pair of slippers and a backup, bunnies or wool, toe separators, tape, and moleskin.
Hanging on that little hook on the inside of my coat closet was my smaller bag, my le shoe bag.
At some point over a year ago I came home from the studio not realizing I had danced my last with two feet, hanging the shoe bag up in the closet, and carrying the dance attire upstairs to be washed.
For a very long time ballet for me was so much a part of my life that it became a part of my identity: Gwen, the ballet junkie. My schedule during the week was built around the classes I went to at the studio, so gym time, dinner and drinks, social gatherings, grading papers, dates, everything else happened outside of studio hours.
When the blood clotting took its toll on my left foot and I was forced to hang up the pointe shoes, I kept dancing in slippers.
When the clotting started to kill my toes, I found ways to avoid the pain of slippers squeezing and touching the toes so I could keep dancing:
I cut off part of the toe box…
…And I kept dancing.
Through blood clots, surgeries, pulmonary embolisms, and stroke I refused to quit dancing. Tombé, pas de bourrée, glissade, jeté, step, grande jeté, step, grande jeté attitude, step, turn and do it all again but to the left.
I refused to take a break until my left leg could no longer hold me in a balancé flat footed and until I could no longer force my left foot to do its job. When that left foot was just being too difficult to dance, I hung up that bag, but I never intended for it to be hung up forever.
On May 23, 2017 I had that difficult left foot removed and my left leg now ends about 5-6 inches below the tibial ridge.
Then, somewhere in the last seven months my ballet things were removed from the drawers they occupied on my dresser and put in boxes in my closet. Two dozen beautiful leotards, half as many skirts, an obscene number of pink tights in varying degrees of wear, all of it. And all my slippers and beautiful pink pointe shoes were put in a tub, not to be seen, worn, touched, or lusted over.
A sad business, I assure you.
As an active person, I have always found ballet to be the single most physically and mentally challenging hobby of all the things I’ve tried: climbing, weight lifting, swimming, yoga, Pilates, scuba, sky diving, surfing, and every other kind of dance. Every one of them is challenging in their way, but none force the conscious use of all muscle groups at once the way ballet does. They all provide a mental escape and a distraction from everyday stress but every one of them is such that you can actually think about other things while doing them. Not ballet, though. In ballet there is no:
Tombé, pas de bourrée, “don’t forget the eggs” glissade, “I will not kill my boss today” jeté, step, “don’t forget to make that appointment with the doctor” grande jeté, step, “I think grilled lemon salmon and broccoli will be nice for dinner” grande jeté attitude, finish still holding a pretty smile that matches the grace and poise of the rest.
There is only:
Tombé, pas de bourrée, “don’t forget the eggs” stumble through a sloppy glissade, “I will not kill my boss today, wait, what step am I on?” jeté, flail around like a drunken monkey, accidentally run into someone else mid-grande jeté, count yourself lucky when you only break an ankle and not your neck, and all without a pretty face.
Ballet is beyond.
Only the ballet dancers reading this are nodding.
It’s OK if you’re not a dancer and nodding.
The Pink Tights forgive you.
Slowly the ballet accoutrements are making their way back to the bedroom and to my everyday life. A single solitary pointe shoe lives in the living room so when I relevé, as PT wants, I can do it correctly, as I want. Leg warmers are an everyday accessory, and over-leotard warm-up tops look killer with a tank and yoga pants.
I have one foot.
I have one whole leg and half of the other.
And I have ballet stuff slowly being sprinkled around my house.
What’s the pointe? (sic)
In life, you will come to moments when what you desire seems to be completely out of your reach. Maybe it will be due to an injury or illness. Maybe it will be something financial or relational that seems to stop you. Maybe it will be distance or age that seems to get between you and your desire. What will you do when you get there?
Will you give up on having or doing what you want?
Will you find a way to make that thing happen despite the obstacles before you?
I could easily give up ballet for good. Everyone would understand. But for me to do that would be giving up a part of myself that I’m not willing to quit on just yet.
Not being assured that this activity will be open to me going forward hasn’t changed my motivation. A running blade could easily perform for dancing with its ability to build, store, and release kinetic energy for leaps and jumps. Balancing and turning on it will require the same skills I already possess for balancing en pointe: find the edge, find your center, lock knee and pull up in the quads, and be pretty.
When I have prosthetics, I will have that blade and I will make it do what I want it to do. If it works for other active sports, it will work for ballet. Try telling me it won’t and see what happens. Maybe one day I will have a magical ballet foot, but until that happens I’ll be Gwen, ballet junkie and bionic dancer.
Because I just can’t waste a wing like this.
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Getty image by Aljndr.