For three years, Rebekah Rimsay danced on an ankle that kept getting worse. The National Ballet of Canada dancer had reached her mid-30s with moderate-to-advanced arthritis in her left ankle, the inevitable upshot of performing professionally for 21 years and training for 13 years before that. “The surgeon wouldn’t do the surgery until I said I was ready to quit dancing, because it only had a 50-50 chance of helping,” Rimsay says. “He didn’t want to be the one to end my career.”
Neither did Rimsay, though she could only put off the decision for so long. “This foot wasn’t capable of doing some of the things that the rest of my body was,” she says. “It’s a very frustrating place to be,” dancing, as she puts it, with a body that feels like it’s 25 years old on an ankle that feels like it’s 80. She upped the painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs, but they were helping less and less. Then, last November, at 39 years old, she stopped being able to walk. “I couldn’t go Christmas shopping. That’s when I was like, ‘This is the right decision.’ I have a small daughter at home. How am I going to play with her if I can’t walk?” She got the surgery the next month.
If you’re a professional ballet dancer, injuries have always been part of the deal. “They’ve had pain since they were eight or nine years old,” says Paul Papoutsakis, the National Ballet’s resident athletic therapist. A full third of the company is sidelined for at least a day or two every season, though most don’t go willingly. “They hate it when a doctor or I have to say, ‘Sorry, you’re off,’” he explains. “You’re talking about athletes who work through pain and won’t give up on dancing, even if they’re sore.”
There’s sore, though, and then there’s advanced arthritis; there’s pain, and then there’s popping out your kneecap, which is what happened at a rehearsal this July to Jillian Vanstone, one of the company’s principal dancers. “I fell, and for a second I thought I just fell,” she says. “Then the amount of pain was astronomical. I mean, I’ve never felt something like that. It was crazy. And then I saw my leg. It looked disgusting.” Sitting on top of a treatment table on the second floor of the ballet’s Queens Quay headquarters, the tiny 31-year-old points two inches left of where her kneecap is now. “It was here.”
“We’re sort of like these racehorses,” says Rimsay. “We’re born and bred to do what we do, and when we can’t do it, it’s really a miserable time for us.” That’s why, after her successful surgery, Rimsay was back on stage by March, and Vanstone and her reset kneecap returned to the stage in November. Both women are now dancing in this winter’s Nutcracker.
“I would say the majority of us do jeopardize our physical health to get on stage and to stay on stage,” Rimsay admits. Can she think of any examples? “Uh, yeah,” she says, then laughs. “My whole career.”
71: Total number of dancers at the National Ballet of Canada.
8–14: Percentage of them who, in any given year, suffer an
on-the-job injury serious enough to require significant time off.
2.45: Percentage of workers in Canada’s most dangerous
industry—construction—who suffered a serious on-the-job injury in 2008.
20: Number of National Ballet staff specifically devoted to dancers’ health,
from orthopaedic surgeons and psychologists to nutritional consultants and Pilates teachers.
The Nutcracker runs from Dec. 19–Jan. 5. Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen St. W.). 866-345-9595. national.ballet.ca. $25–$239.