pro spotlight - OCTOBER FEATURE

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motivational spotlight: Danielle Brown

Danielle Brown is a principal dancer with Florida’s Sarasota Ballet, where she trains Monday through Saturday, 9-5pm. She dedicated her life to becoming a professional ballerina, and had been training since she the age of six. During the eleventh season that she was with the ballet company, her life took an unexpected turn when she tore her ACL.

Be prepared to be inspired as she shares her story and details of her experience through the recovery season. She also opens up about how the experience impacted her and changed her perspective and mindset.


Falling with Grace

ATHLETE: DANIELLE BROWN, PROFESSIONAL BALLERINA

Danielle Brown - Theme and Variations (choreographed by George Balanchine)

Danielle Brown - Theme and Variations (choreographed by George Balanchine)

“It started out like most Mondays for me. At 31-years old, I was a ballet dancer in the prime of my career, and despite my boyfriend having just moved to Paris, I was feeling even-keeled and content.  As a professional ballet dancer, going into work every morning starts with ballet class. No matter how long you have been dancing ballet you always start with a class to warm up and keep your body in peak condition. On this Monday, it was no exception. It was my eleventh season with the ballet company I dance for and after spending that long with one company you know what to expect for the most part. Class with our ballet master was going as expected, I felt warm, strong, and like I could push a little harder that day.

I was nearly done with class; executing the final combination, when it all happened. I tore my ACL clean off the bone in my right knee, landing from a temps de fleche (to jump from one leg to the other while passing through a battement and a développé). I remember watching it happen in the mirror, I saw my knee buckle inward as I landed on it causing me to fall to the floor immediately. I was in shock and pain. I knew it was bad and knew that there would be no walking this one off. I had injuries in the past - it comes with the territory, but they were always wear and tear injuries that I was always able to manage and dance through the pain. This time though, it was different.

When I knew what I was dealing with and I was told by my doctor that I would need surgery in order for me to ever to dance again, I went home right away and started doing research. I was disappointed to find that there was not a lot of information out there on ACL surgery for ballet dancers specifically. It felt like I was in a very small group of mostly women who even wanted to attempt to dance after such a major injury.

I decided to get a patella tendon graft instead of a hamstring or cadaver graft. For me, it was the strongest and most durable option. I opted to get stem cells injected at the time of surgery as well, for added measure.  The surgery went well, despite being incredibly sick from anesthesia. What should have been out-patient surgery became an extra night and day in the hospital, and this is what started me on a rough road ahead. Everything was affected by me being so sick, I got two blood clots in my calf and had to start physical therapy a week late. If you get stem cells during surgery, you cannot take aspirin or ibuprofen. That, coupled with lack of movement because I was stuck in a hospital bed, resulted in blood clots. I am still glad I got the stem cells, though it did cause me serious problems. Starting my physical therapy a week late on blood thinners really affected my recovery.

Danielle Brown and Juan Gil - Weightless (choreographed by Ricardo Graziano)

Danielle Brown and Juan Gil - Weightless (choreographed by Ricardo Graziano)

Once I finally got going, I was sick again from the combination of blood thinners and painkillers. I was either throwing up or passing out - it made the already difficult task of moving around even harder. I had physical therapy three times a week for my entire recovery, which lasted eleven months.

When I first started, I was very naive about the process. I thought “I am a dancer, we are used to hard physical work. I literally work on my body all day for a living.” I thought I was strong and determined and that physical therapy would be the easy part. Boy was I wrong. No one tells you the amount of pain you will be in with rehabbing an ACL until you get started. The hardest part for me was forcing it to bend. It hurt more than when I originally tore it. My therapist would push on it and force it to bend to places I could not get on my own. I would cry and out in pain literally every time until the very end of my recovery. Even now a year later it still hurts to bend past a certain point. There would be some days where it would take all of my strength to go into therapy, and then the hard work and pain from the rehab session would cause me to go home and nap for hours on end after. The other thing no one tells you about is the mental exhaustion and depression you get from being in physical pain.  Dancers are like most athletes in that the path to becoming a professional means starting as a child dedicating your entire life to it.

The career of a professional ballerina is very short; from about eighteen to thirty-five or forty years old at the most, on average. So at 31-years old, I was in my prime but also seeing the end of my career more than I remembered the beginning. The fear and panic I felt from not knowing if this would all work out were crippling. I became very depressed and I was scared to death. I was scared to be on workers compensation for a year or longer, paying bills was tight on a dancer salary (one difference from most other professional athletes), and the stress of being on only a percentage of my salary for so long took a toll on me.

Danielle Brown and Ricardo Rhodes - Theme and Variations (choreographed by George Balanchine)

Danielle Brown and Ricardo Rhodes - Theme and Variations (choreographed by George Balanchine)

I was not prepared for all of this extra stress. I really wish I had had someone to talk to or someone who had been through it to confide in. I felt scared and alone for a good year of my life. I thought I was strong before this injury, but having been through this injury, I am now certain that I am strong.

As scared and heartbroken as I was I never quit. Even when I felt like I had lost all hope I kept going. I got up and I went to physical therapy, I went to my doctor’s appointments and I put in all my effort. Some days it was easier than others; I think I can count on one hand the amount of “good days” I had in the past year, but I kept trying despite it all. I can now proudly say that a year later, I am back! I was released by my team of doctor a year from tearing my little ACL. I still can’t believe it.  I put in the work and I killed myself to get back to what I love. I am not one hundred percent myself but it will come. They say it takes the first year back in your sport to feel normal again and your second year back you do not even think about it, you might actually feel stronger.

I have a new-found appreciation for ballet and the career I chose. I used to sweat the small stuff and complain about everything, the music being too fast or slow, a slippery floor or my feet hurting, but I do not do that anymore. Every day that I am dancing now is a true gift and I am so grateful. To be an artist and an athlete has been the greatest joy of my life and I do not want to waste another minute of it. I now know what if feels like to lose the ability to do what I love and I know there will come a day where it will be over for good, I will never take another precious day dancing for granted.”

- Danielle Brown

Thank you Danielle, for taking the time to share your story with the XCLevation community, and inspiring athletes across the globe!