Martha Carter Talks About Her Healing Journey - Part 9

How dance and dancers have shaped and informed every step of the journey

This is Part 9 of a serial blog post. In Part 8, I share additional healing modality explorations, pros, cons and experiences, in particular with Alexander Technique and Taoist Meditation. In Part 7, I take the leap into emotional counselling, thanks to a bonus twist of getting a massage at the same time. Missed the earlier posts and want to catch up? Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6.

I keep wanting to talk about getting into Yoga for Scoliosis — an eventual and integral part of my scoliosis journey following the removal of my Harrington Roads — but as I write this serial blog, and look back on all that’s happened, other memories get triggered and new understandings appear.

Today, I am realizing just how much my personal experience with dance has been a major factor in my scoliosis journey. First to be impassioned by dance, then told to stop, and to do it anyway — without good body awareness — and to rediscover it with new awareness, find healing through it, and ultimately to find yoga because of it.

Dance has led me all along!

After my initial fusion surgery at 14 years old, I was told that I must stop dancing — forever. But after I healed, due to my youthful and rebellious spirit, I continued to dance anyway. I needed to prove that I could do anything I wanted — regardless of my fused spine. Of course, I was disappointed to realize how limited I was in my own movement, but that did not stop me from following my dream to become a choreographer and teacher.

I would continue to be frustrated with my own lack of flexibility, and experience a fair amount of pain, but it was worth it: being involved in the world of dance kept me in touch with my body, more or less. I say ‘more or less’ because the downside of the dance world — especially the ballet world — is the rigorous scrutiny and judgement of body shape and size. This is hard on everyone’s ego, as very few people are born with a natural ‘dancer’s’ body, and this can create terrible pressure and insecurity for a lot of people. I struggled with it too.

Fortunately, however, the creative outlet felt important for my spirit no matter what, and my constant engagement and physicality kept my body as strong and as supple as possible.

Fast forward a couple of decades, AFTER my rods were removed, and I gained a whole new appreciation for my connection to dance. My body shape or abilities didn’t matter nearly as much as the important insights and tools that my awareness of movement gave me about the mind-body connection, and how important it is for a deeper level of healing.

Dance artists can only survive their demanding careers if they constantly train and maintain their bodies. Every dancer I know works hard to keep their body in shape through both workout techniques and healing modalities. As soon as their body feels even a little out of whack, they take the essential time to have a massage or another kind of body work treatment to ensure they heal as quickly as possible. They don’t just pretend it doesn’t hurt, or expect that it will go away by itself (as I did for many years). They recognize that their body is their tool, and just like any tool, it needs maintenance. They consistently spend time, money and energy on maintenance and upkeep in order to achieve their maximum physical potential and to succeed in their work.

When I started to explore various Supportive Care options, which I often got referred to through my dance connections, I craved more mobility. I knew I would never be able to perform at a professional level, but I still wanted to feel confident in my body, like the dancers that I worked with. Highly skilled dancers are truly incredible to watch. There is an intelligence in their bodies that is remarkable, that allows them to isolate body parts, and to articulate individual joints, particularly the spine. After watching such dynamic bodies for years, I have huge respect for intelligent, trained, connected and aware bodies. Watching dancers allowed me to appreciate and understand the potential beauty of all kinds of bodies.

So why not apply this knowledge and compassion to my own body?

Now that the Harrington rods were out of my back, it was time for me to gain my self-respect back through finding some beauty and articulation in my body again. But how?  

The answer was right in front of me. Basically, I needed to start treating myself (and my body) like the dancer I had always wanted to be. First, I had to consciously start addressing the discomfort and pain in my body on a regular basis. And then, rather than focusing on my limitations, I had to embrace what I could do, and then get creative with it. Dancers’ show up for their craft with an incredible vulnerability; a willingness to open their heart, and try everything that is asked of them; a fearlessness and persistence; a patience with themselves when they fail; a readiness to get back up and try again — no matter how difficult the task. Ultimately, I had to channel my inner dancer.

The big learning for me was around taking responsibility for my own physicality; my own healing. It is tempting to wait for someone or something to ‘fix’ us, like a doctor or a medication. Sometimes, this is necessary... but most of the time, we just need a bit of support to help us help ourselves. The body knows what to do, we just have to give it the opportunity to do it. The more we can tap into our own physical sensations to get to know our own bodies, and trust our instincts, the more aware we become of our own strengths and limitations. We learn to have a dialogue with our bodies: just because it is hard or it hurts, doesn’t mean it is impossible. It just means you have to try it a different way. This is what dancers do.

With this in mind, an important dancer skill that continues to help me the most to this day is one of the first ones I learned: visualization. This lesson goes back to my pre-surgery days when I was an enthusiastic 12 year old ballet student and struggling to do pirouettes ‘en pointe’. One of my teachers suggested that if I could see myself doing the movement in my imagination, then I would be able to do it physically in the studio. I worked on it, and worked on it — seeing myself in my head, imagining the movement in body, and feeling the rhythm of the turn. And sure enough, a few classes later, I did perfect pirouettes over and over again.

Now, as I continue my journey to maintain my back through Supportive Care, exercise and yoga, I still apply this notion to everything I do. When I have a treatment of any kind, I do my best to ‘dance’ with the practitioner, visualizing my body as it responds to the treatment, concentrating on relaxing, opening, letting tissues shift, and breathing consciously to release any tension. Rather than just having something ‘done to me’, I try to be interactive by paying attention to what is happening and asking questions when appropriate. In the days following a treatment, I do my best to give my body the attention it needs to feel as good as possible. It is an ongoing process... and sometimes things get worse before they get better, which can be confusing! But one thing is certain, the body is constantly changing and shifting, and the more I can envision various practices, the more I can help myself. Now, instead of visualizing pirouettes, I focus inward and give attention to physical sensations like decompression, relaxation, expansion, lengthening, strengthening and aligning. Every day, every dialogue, and every ‘dance’ is new, and not only does this keep things interesting, but it acts as a great ‘guide’ as I continue to explore my own movement potential.

Speaking of explorations…

In my next post, I will finally address my introduction to yoga, and how quickly I realized that my ability to visualize my body in movement had its limits — especially when that pesky dancer’s ego got involved!