(I was very excited to get this email from Melissa Podcasy just as she was returning ot the stage after THR surgery. -NR)
I am a ballet dancer, 47 years old, a patient of Dr. Padgett, an acquaintance of Judy Fugate (who has danced with my husband in the NYCB.), and am back performing after having my right hip replaced this past June 20, 2005!!
I have had a long career having been a principal with the Pennsylvania Ballet, Basel Ballet in Switzerland and for 6 years I did freelance work in NYC with lots of dancers from the NYCB, which is how I met Judy Fugate.
In 1998 I moved to Raleigh NC where my husband, Ricky Weiss began a professional ballet company, The Carolina Ballet. I am a principal dancer as well as a coach. The company is in its 8th season and we have been quite successful having been written up in the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine and several European publications.
I have an interesting story concerning my journey with my right hip! I would be happy to share it with you and others. The way I heard about the site is due to a local reporter who is doing a story on my experience and returning to the stage. I spoke with her yesterday and she found the website. My tale is, of course similar to the ones you have posted. The difference is that I told Dr Padgett that I was not ready to stop performing and wanted to know if he thought it possible for me to re-hab and come back. He was very positive and, well, here I am not quite 8 months post-surgery on the stage.
I am not sure how many dancers have resumed their performing career after. I know Dr. Padgett told me he has done a few modern dancers who have, but as far as ballet dancers I only know off hand of Suzanne Farrell. I actually saw her dance after she had hers' done. The surgical techniques are so different now that it must have been an entirely different ballgame. Two and a half weeks ago I did 2 performances of a character role in heels. That was my first time back. And last week and for the next 2 weeks I am dancing in Jose Limon's The Moor's Pavane, one of 3 pieces on a program we are doing. Granted it is modern dance, which for a ballet dancer is a bit more forgiving (no pointe shoes,less emphasis on full turn out or really high leg extensions). I am scheduled to begin rehearsing in the next week for apart in a new ballet which will be more classical and on pointe. I am hopeful that I will be somewhat up to speed! We will see. It has been a real adventure, as you know.
Carolina Ballet's Melissa Podcasy, front, dances with Timour Bourtasenkov, from left, Margot Martin and Cyrille de la Barre.
Photo of The Moor's Pavane by Pailin Wedel, staff photographer, The News & Observer
Here is an article about Melissa's debut, reprinted with permission of The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina:
Through pain to triumph
A ballerina perseveres to dance again
Orla Swift, Staff Writer
February 26, 2006
Melissa Podcasy lies still as the curtain falls on the Fletcher Opera Theater stage. It's opening night of Carolina Ballet's "Shakespeare Suite." And as Desdemona in "The Moor's Pavane," Podcasy has just been through the ringer. Falsely accused of infidelity, Desdemona suffers the wrath of her jealous husband, Othello. He yanks her by the wrists, shakes her, pushes her away and, finally, kills her.
Podcasy endures the choreographed abuse with grace, falling to the ground in half-splits, bending backward under Othello's arm, crumbling repeatedly as his trust erodes and rising again with vain hope before her ultimate demise.
It's the kind of assured performance that Carolina Ballet fans anticipate when they see Podcasy's name on the program.
And a year ago, it would have been impossible.
By last winter, osteoarthritis had eroded Podcasy's hip so thoroughly that she could hardly walk, let alone dance. The pain in her joint was constant and sharp. Doctors had advised her to put off having her hip replaced. And she feared an artificial hip would end her career as a performer.
She was 45, well into her twilight by ballet standards, but determined to keep dancing. So she took the only leap she could still execute: a leap of faith.
Traipsing around Carolina Ballet's North Raleigh rehearsal studios last year, Podcasy looked like any other dancer. Sporting a leotard, tights and toe shoes, her sinewy muscles popping out from her petite frame, she seemed as fit as the rest of the 32-member company, most of whom are less than half her age.
But while the young women around her wore glowing smiles, Podcasy often looked sullen. She seemed withdrawn and distant. The stellar career she'd worked for more than 30 years to build was crumbling at the mercy of one cranky joint. And she didn't know what to do about it.
"For a dancer, that's really traumatic," she says. "Your whole lives, it's like you told your body what to do. It's like mind over matter. You're in tune with every little muscle: 'This does that. If I want to do this, what do I have to think about to get my body to do it?' "
Now, she had lost that power.
"It was like I was stuck in a plaster cast," she says. "I would think, 'Do that,' and nothing would happen."
Ballet dancers are accustomed to pain. The posture alone -- with legs turned out at a 180-degree angle -- wreaks havoc on the joints and spine. Add to that the wear and tear of constant jumps and pivots, and it's a wonder they last as long as they do.
The most flexible ballerinas are at once blessed and cursed. The shape of their hip joints allows them a wider range of motion. But all that movement puts a greater strain on their cartilage, wearing it down sooner.
Podcasy's pain wasn't sudden. Her other hip had ached for many years. Then the pain mysteriously disappeared, only to migrate across her body and re-emerge.
It had dogged her ever since she arrived in Raleigh as a founding member of Carolina Ballet, which had its first season in 1998.
She tried everything she could think of to reduce the pain, from acupuncture to physical therapy, meditation and massage. Nothing worked.
"I would wake up and open one eye and say, 'Is it still there?' " But she knew the answer.
By 2003, she was at wits' end. The adrenaline that used to fuel her through performances -- her only hiatus from pain -- was gone. Everything hurt constantly.
She went for an X-ray, and there it was: osteoarthritis.
Finally, she had an answer. But she still lacked a solution. Doctors told her she'd eventually need a new hip but that she should wait as long as possible, to reduce the chances that she'd wear out the artificial hip and require yet another one. Many experts now disagree with that advice, because artificial hips are far sturdier than they used to be.
Between 1999 and 2003, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the number of total hip replacements performed in the United States rose dramatically, from 168,000 to 220,000. And as techniques and materials improve, that increase will likely continue, says Dr. Jay D. Mabrey, a Dallas orthopedic surgeon who does 150 to 200 hip replacements each year.
"The real problem comes in when people's families say, 'Wait until it really bothers you,' " Mabrey says. "Then they stop walking so much. And then their muscles get really weak and get smaller. Then, by the time they come to surgery, they have no strength at all around that hip. And then they say, 'Well, now I don't have hip pain but why can't I run around?' "
Working within limits
Podcasy didn't know any of that in 2003.
So she forged on, limping through her daily life. Choreographer Robert Weiss, the ballet's artistic director and Podcasy's husband, created new dances to suit her limited range of motion. And he had given her coaching duties on several occasions, confident she had the necessary skills and hoping she'd be comforted to know that that option was open to her should she decide to stop performing.
In time, though, the pain grew overwhelming. Just turning over in bed was a major undertaking. Sleep was scarce. Every time she dropped something, she had to debate whether it was worth investing several minutes to make her way down to the floor to retrieve it, then climb up again, clinging to furniture all the way.
"I had people say to me, 'When are you going to stop dancing?' Like it's so easy," she says. "I felt like saying, 'When are you going to stop what you're doing?' "
Dancing isn't a whim, it's a mandate, she says. "It's the way I express myself. I love the process. It's intellectually stimulating. I'm never bored in class. I'm not bored in rehearsals. It's something that I love to do, and I need to do it. I need to express myself this way. So I felt like it couldn't possibly be true that it was time for me to stop."
She'd been dancing since she was a little girl. And her marriage to Weiss revolved largely around dance. They're quick to note that they have other things in common, too ("We're both Democrats," Weiss says.). But he has always considered her his muse, and neither wanted that to end.
"It's not even due to the fact that we're married," Weiss says of his admiration for Podcasy. "It's due to the fact that I have a great artist that I don't want to stop dancing because she brings the level of the company to a different place."
Mature dancers are rare in ballet, which takes a brutal toll on the body and pays little in return, Weiss says. Few reach their 40s before injuries force them from the stage.
"That's the crime of dance," he says. "Almost always when people actually get to the point where they really understand what they're doing artistically, that's when it happens."
Timour Bourtasenkov felt every step of Podcasy's decline. Podcasy's frequent pas de deux partner and a friend from her days with the Pennsylvania Ballet, Bourtasenkov was painfully aware of her dwindling dance vocabulary.
He had to be careful how he touched her, lest he grab a tender spot. Lifts and turns were increasingly difficult. He hated to see her suffer. But there was little he could do except tread lightly around her.
"The same thing happens with me," he says. "If I'm in pain, don't touch me. Don't talk to me."
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Podcasy's dance abilities shrank with each passing year. When she saw the roster for the current season, she was dejected. "Petruschka" in the fall, Jose Limon's "Othello" adaptation "The Moor's Pavane" this month. All her favorite roles, and she could dance none of them.
Then, as if in a ballet fairy tale, a magical moment occurred. Master teacher David Howard came to Carolina Ballet to teach for a week.
Podcasy took his classes, but she had to modify most of the movements. She told Howard that she had "some problems" and not to pay attention to her. She was loath to say the words "osteoarthritis" or "hip." Ballet dancers hate when their bodies prove fallible, so they rarely discuss their ailments.
But Howard didn't need details. He recognized immediately what ailed her.
"Are you getting that hip taken care of?" Howard asked.
Podcasy was shocked. Was it really that obvious?
To Howard, it was. He had osteoarthritis, too. And now he has an artificial hip. He jumped around to show how well it worked. He said plenty of other dancers also had hip replacements. He named names. Podcasy was shocked. All these dancers running around with new hips, and she knew nothing of it.
Howard told Podcasy about Judith Fugate, a former New York City Ballet dancer who got a new hip in 2002, at age 46. Fugate had also been told to wait as long as possible. She wishes now that she had acted sooner.
Podcasy remained apprehensive. It seemed that no one who had a hip replacement went on to perform ballet again full time. Only New York City Ballet's famous star Suzanne Farrell had returned to the stage, and just briefly.
Would Podcasy have to give up performing? If so, she reasoned, she'd rather postpone the surgery and keep limping along.
Fugate assured her that she hadn't stopped performing by necessity. It was her choice. She still dances, traveling the world staging Balanchine ballets and running her own company. Podcasy also fretted about the surgery itself. Was there a chance that she could end up worse off than where she started?
"All these weird things went through my head," she says. "Anything and everything that could go wrong, like, 'From the epidural, I'll be paralyzed.' "
But Podcasy was emboldened by Fugate's story. She made an appointment with Fugate's surgeon, Dr. Douglas E. Padgett, at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery. Padgett had replaced many dancers' hips. He knew the strengths and vulnerabilities of a dancer's body and precisely what strains ballet would place on a new hip.
Several modern dancers had returned to the stage after hip replacement, Padgett told Podcasy. He thought the chances were good that a ballerina could, too.
That sealed the deal. Podcasy made the earliest appointment possible, just weeks after the ballet's season closer, "Swan Lake," last May.
Podcasy was no swan. She could hardly walk, let alone don toe shoes. So Weiss created a new role in "Swan Lake" especially for her, a queen mother who hardly moved at all.
But "The Moor's Pavane" lay ahead. And Podcasy had already decided that if all went smoothly, Desdemona might be her sweet reward.
Podcasy underwent surgery in New York in June on a Monday afternoon. On Tuesday, physical therapists were at her bedside, ready to teach her how to walk.
"My leg felt like it was a wooden leg," she recalls. "It didn't feel real at all. It was bizarre."
She began with a walker and progressed to a cane, exercising in bed between jaunts. On Friday, she left the hospital. A week later, she had her surgical staples removed and returned to Raleigh.
Podcasy continued her exercises and had another checkup and X-ray in July. By then, she was feeling light on her feet. She trekked around Manhattan just as she had ages ago, before her hips first betrayed her.
When the new season started in August, Podcasy began taking classes, coached the "Romeo and Juliet" cast and continued rebuilding her strength and flexibility. She had six months before "The Moor's Pavane" was to open, and she was determined not to let it pass by without her.
She had another X-ray in November. Everything looked good. She also began physical therapy, which she continues twice weekly with therapist and athletic trainer Flo Moses, of Sports and More Physical Therapy Inc. in Raleigh. It is hard work, and sometimes frustrating. Podcasy wishes her new hip were more like a car engine, ready to hit the road upon installation. But years of compensating for her addled hip have left her with habits she has to undo.
Staff Photo by Corey Lowenstein
It takes an eagle eye to spot all the ways in which Podcasy's body resorts to cheating, to her own compromised version of ballet that she had developed by necessity. When she bends over, one hip rises. Podcasy doesn't even notice it until Moses grips her and pushes her hips to where they should be. Moses is helping Podcasy retrain herself to use only the muscles necessary for each movement.
Podcasy's persistent bad habits bother her. It's another sign that she no longer holds the puppet strings to her own body. But those irritations are fleeting compared to her moodiness before the operation. Old friends hardly recognize her. Her face looks younger. And she is irrepressibly giddy.
"The simplest things I find amazing to do," she says with a giggle, moving around restlessly as she speaks. "I go, 'Wow, that's incredible' every time I put on my shoe or my sock. ... Everything is coming together. My whole body feels so much better. My back doesn't ache anymore. It's unreal. It's bizarre. It's fantastic."
Two weeks before opening night, Desdemona is firmly in Podcasy's grip. She no longer wonders how long she can endure. She hasn't been pain-free like this since she was a teen.
"Shakespeare Suite" has a three-week run, ending next Sunday. Two casts take turns performing the "Pavane," with an additional two dancers also in the rotation. Podcasy is in the first cast.
Her new hip is carrying her along ably, not a trace of post-op tentativeness. In fact, it's hard to tell which hip she was born with. And that's just as she wants it.
"I don't think it's that important which one," she says with a shrug.
Podcasy and Timour Bourtasenkov by Staff Photo by Corey Lowenstein
Few fans are aware Podcasy was in pain to begin with. Most consider her a flawless performer.
"She always seems to be so comfortable," longtime ballet subscriber Susan Jones, of Wake Forest, says during intermission before the "Pavane." "With some dancers, you're concerned that if there's a jump, are they going to make it? With her, everything just flows the way you expect it to."
That's Podcasy's hope on this night. Behind the thick green velvet curtain in Fletcher Opera Theater, she jogs around the stage in her long white gown, impatient to bring Desdemona to life.
For the next 20 minutes, Podcasy envelops herself in all the anguish that Shakespeare brewed up for his beleaguered heroine. She draws from her own deep wells of misery and injustice, infusing Desdemona with a heartbreaking sense of disbelief and loss. It is an unforgettable performance, every emotion palpable right to the back row.
When Desdemona dies and the curtain falls, the audience cannot help but grieve.
But backstage, Weiss and Podcasy are rejoicing. On this night, Podcasy begins a brand-new life.
"A lot of people would have said, 'To hell with it,' but she knows what she has to offer and she keeps doing it," Weiss says, as friends and dancers descend on Podcasy with congratulatory hugs. "I'm very happy that she perseveres."
Staff writer Orla Swift can be reached at 829-4764 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2006, The News & Observer Publishing Company
Reprinted with permission of The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina
The Carolina Ballet's website.
March 03, 2006
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