Pro Spotlight: Charlotte Lanning
ATHLETE: CHARLOTTE LANNING
Charlotte Lanning started her ballet training at the age of 10 at the Washington School of Ballet under the direction of Mary Day and Rebecca Wright. She then studied at the American Dance Institute on Scholarship. She received the Phillip Jerry Memorial Scholarship for summer study and was a finalist for three years in the Kennedy Centre Ballet Master Class Series. She has performed in productions such as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty. In the feature below, she takes us through her inspiring journey after facing a devastating injury in the prime of her dance career.
“I fell in love with dance after watching the musical Cats on PBS at the age of seven. By ten I had enrolled in dance lessons and knew that I wanted and had to become a professional ballet dancer. At twenty I signed my first professional contract with the Colorado Ballet, making that goal a reality. Since then I have danced all over the world, including most recently with the Sibiu Ballet Theater of Romania. I can’t imagine a life without dance. As a professional with Sibiu Ballet Theater, I enthusiastically woke up every day for company class, rehearsals, performances, and my cross-training routine. I took for granted how strong and confident I felt on stage, moving fearlessly from movement to movement; expressing emotions with only the smallest movement of my wrist. It took ten years of Olympic-athlete-level training to become a professional dancer. It took only a few seconds following a disastrous error of mechanics to lose all of my strength, confidence, and freedom to move.
The day of my injury, my legs trembled with fatigue. Faced with an injury at the end of my sixth season, I strenuously repeated jumps I was not ready to complete. Suddenly, my left knee spiraled inward. Along with excruciating pain, the infamously loud “pop”, and with my knee buckling underneath me, I was violently thrust to the ground. I thought all the blood had drained from my body.
Within hours my knee became unrecognizable, as my newly deformed knee ballooned and froze at an unorthodox angle. In drastic contrast to my lifestyle the week before, I was confined to my bed and would only get up to use the bathroom. I had to crawl my way there, unable to put any weight on my left leg without debilitating pain that made me feel faint. After five lifeless long days living on my bed, my mom came to rescue me and bring me the 4,820 miles home to have an MRI. Griping the paper that revealed my fate, I screamed. Tears gushed from my eyes. I had a complete ACL tear, a lateral meniscus tear, and an MCL sprain. If returning was even possible, I was going to be away from the stage around a year.
After a challenging month of physical therapy to increase motion in my deformed knee, I had surgery. The surgeon created a quadricep tendon and bone autograft to reconstruct my ACL, and then repaired my meniscus. Worse than the post-operative pain that felt like a knife was being jarred in my incisions, my quadricep would not engage. I could not walk without limping, lift my leg, straighten my knee, or bend my knee beyond seventy degrees. As a dancer you can’t afford to lose any mobility or strength.
I ambitiously fought for my old life, training constantly with newly learned exercises and old staples, including squats, lounges, quad sets, hip thrusts, hamstring curls, calf raises, pilates, and planks. They manipulated my knee at physical therapy, coercing mobility and hooked my quadricep to a machine that used electrical pulses to engage the muscle. I was incredibly grateful when I could lift and straighten my leg, walk rhythmically, and bend my knee with more ease. After more time passed, I was able to run, and though I still could not jump, I progressed to a hop.
After six long months of consistent grueling work, the day came when I was finally cleared to go back to my sanctuary and start training. Despite the buoyancy I felt, I was immediately overcome with debilitating fear. I cautiously executed every movement with extreme hesitation. I was scared to re-tear my ACL, tear it on the other leg, or encounter another injury. I feared pain. I feared someone would bump me, knock me over, and undo the surgeons work and all of the rehabilitation I had endured. Jumping was especially scary. I gripped tightly on the barre as I jumped until I felt tested enough on my own.
Fear was overshadowing my passion. This was worse than any physical pain I felt, as it was something no one could control. It came in waves; sometimes resting in the back of my mind and other times permeating through me. This fear was my biggest challenge. Over time I realized that by enjoying the steps I had missed so much, I could overcome my timidity. Pouring my emotions into movements, they became stronger and more confident. My advice to those struggling with fear is to change your focus and concentrate on your love and passion for what you do. I worked with this renewed passion in a patient and slow manner to progress steadily. Balances became single pirouettes. Singles became doubles. Hops became little jumps, and little jumps grew into confident leaps. After practicing five months to regain my freedom to move and polish technique, I was ready to say goodbye to my physical therapists, practice studio, and teachers and join my beloved company.
I extend my deepest sympathies to anyone who has this injury and must go through this incredibly heartbreaking, lonesome and isolating experience; lonely in that you are separated from the connections of your pre-injury life and that others cannot relate to your new current challenges. I am also very sorry for the pain that you must endure; not only for the tragedy of not participating in your sport that might be so closely linked to your identity but also for the physical pain. The only way back to normalcy is to push through these hard moments and know that they are not only going to pass, but also prepare you to handle anything that comes your way.
Backstage in Sibiu, I close my eyes and reflect on the battle I faced to get here. Opening my eyes, I see my colleagues and friends as they warm up, fix their pointe shoes, and go over choreography. We make our way to the wings after saying “toi toi toi” for luck. The music starts. We enter the stage. I feel complete jubilance, freedom, and pride. I am performing after one year, two months, and six days. Caught up in the movements, I forget all doubts and weaknesses. I feel extreme gratitude for being able to do what I love. With my heart opened, my passion overcomes my fears. I am so glad for this moment for which I fought with everything I had.”
Thank you Charlotte for helping to inspire athletes across the globe!