By Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal
Unlike sports stars who get headlines if they have a sprained pinkie, professional dancers just seem to deal with even major injuries on the quiet. For a variety of reasons, they just suck it up and get back to their daily routines. Dance audiences don’t recognize the physical dangers dancers constantly take, because, in a theatrical context, they not watching a blood and guts sport. But, dancers are athletes too and their bodies are pushed to unseen limits. A serious injury not only jeopardizes their livelihood, but career in their chosen profession.
These issues came crashing in on Colby Damon, one of BalletX ’s most versatile dancers and without doubt a full throttle physical dancer. He is recovering from an knee injury he sustained during a performance of the company‘s recent run at the Wilma Theater. Damon is recuperating in his parent’s home in Richmond, Virginia and he reflected on being suddenly sidelined and his road back to the dance stage.
“I’m doing fine,“ Damon assured, in a phone conversation we had last week. “I had surgery three weeks ago and it went really well. So I‘ve been sitting around since then with my leg is hooked up to this machine that moves it around five hours a day,” he said.
Colby’s injury not only impacted his performances for the rest of the run of BalletX, but he had to cancel his appearances with Sacramento Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, something he financially counts on every year, and after that he was slated to appear in a production of Peter Pan in Texas. It was the first time in 13 years his dance life was completely interrupted for any length of time.
Damon recounted the scary moments he experienced after the incident that, though serious, could have been even worse. Nothing seemed amiss for him that day. He felt the program was fairly light in terms of physical stress. The first work on the program was guest choreographer Mauro Alstolfi’s ballet had some crowded choreography, second was Kate Watson Wallace’s piece which wasn’t physically demanding and then Matt Neenan‘s ballet, which had a lot of partner work. but not much lifting or jumping.
Nothing seemed amiss
At some point Damon noticed that the theater seemed a bit chilly, he said. “During Kate’s piece, I felt myself getting cold, because we weren’t moving around that much. I didn’t think it was a very hard show for me. I thought I could just warm up as we went along,” he recalled.
“We started Matt’s piece, and I just did a tiny swivel that landed in a sort of lunge and when I landed it, my knee just caved-in- went sideways and I heard this crunch and I fell. Somehow, I got up and hobbled off. I felt immediately my body going in shock. As soon as I tried to put weight on it. I leaned against the wall and just tried to calm down,” Damon said. “Matty (Neenan) and Christine (Cox) rushed backstage to help me.”
“After the performance,” he continued, “Matty and our board president, Chuck Arnao, came with me to Jefferson Hospital and we were there until 4am. They gave me x-rays and since there were no broken bones, they sent me home with a brace. I wasn’t in a lot of pain. The next day I came in to the theater, on crutches, so we could fill in my part in Mauro’s piece. I felt ok, and I appeared in the rest of the shows, just as a character onstage and sang in Kate’s piece. It was more for Tara (Keating) I wanted to be onstage with her since it was her last program,” he explained.
Damon went in for MRIs the following week, which revealed the extent of the injury. “Then I saw the radiologist and he determined that I had dislocated my patella tendon and I had a big chunk of (knee) cartilage that I broke off. Then he helped me get an appointment with the Rothman Institute (Orthopedics). They said I needed surgery for it in order to suck out the cartilage and help it re-heal. They told me later that my kneecap actually popped off and popped back in,” he said.
Not to dance
“I was expecting the worse before I saw the doctors, actually, that I wouldn’t be able to dance for a year. I thought it was an ACL tear, so I tried to prep myself for it to be worse than it is. But, yes, it’s definitely a drag missing the freelancing parts. Like a lot of full-time dancers, I count on those incomes all year.”
ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tear, is a musculoskeletal injury to the knee.
They had to delay the surgery because of the insurance processing and scheduling around a holiday week, so Damon had to wait two more weeks. His surgery was a full month after the injury. “There was nothing I could do, so I just came back to Richmond, and then my mom came back with me to help when I was having the surgery,”
“It was pretty painless. They took out a bunch of cartilage that broke off. They did a micro-fracture where they punctured my bone, from where the missing cartilage was to help it heal. The whole procedure took a few hours. When I got home, I was loopy. I was told I had to be off my leg for another six weeks after the surgery to allow time for the cartilage to build up again. I still can’t put any weight on my leg, but the machine will regenerate the area.“ The therapy is going so well that Colby can begin the next phase of his rehab sooner than expected, but Damon was still weeks away from full therapy.
“I’m lucky we have back-door therapy resources. It could have been more drawn out. I could still be waiting for MRI appointments, for instance. Actually, my father is a physical therapist here in Virginia and he deals with workman’s comp claims all the time and I know that the process can be notoriously slow, so I was extremely lucky that the surgery and follow up happened the way it did,” he observed, “Yes, this could have been drawn out so much longer.”
Damon was philosophic about being injured at this stage of his career. He has had a few bad ankle sprains (“coming off some big jumps”) but this is his first dance related surgery. “There’s nothing I could do, so I just tried to accept the reality and move on. I’ve never had time off like this. Never be able to totally relax and not feel guilty about it. Since I was about 15, when I started training in prep school. I started my professional career when I was 18,” he said. Damon is also part of the Leap Program designed for professional dancers to get their degrees while they are dancing professionally, with the goal of a BA in Dance, he said.
“I’ve been learning Chinese, so now I’ve had more time to continue that. Actually, I’m keeping a journal written in Chinese about this experience. There has been a huge outpouring of support after it happened from so many people in the Philadelphia Dance community and all over, actually. People have been calling, and checking up to see if they could help me. That has been tremendously helpful to me. I’m a very spiritual person and this has been a good time for me to reflect on that,:
Also helping Damon relax is nature “I’m also meditating a lot. I have time to look out the window and bird watching, look at the sun, drink tea and read. I’m really thankful to have this time. Even though dance is not part of my daily life now, I know that it will be back, I haven’t walked in over a month now and this…definitely has made me appreciate things like just being able to walk.”
Even with things looking as good as they do, there are always uncertainties with recovery, Damon acknowledged. “It’s going to take a while, but I thinking I can be completely back by the end of spring. We’re figuring it out, there’s a chance sooner, with limitations. It’s hard to say. I could do character roles by then. Maybe I can play the guitar. I’ve done a lot of character work onstage. I had already been talking to Matt and Christine about things like that.” And as many BX fans already know, Damon already has a gallery of dance character roles ready to fly.