Dancing Through the Pain, Part II

Last week, in the first part of this interview with former professional ballet dancer, Jane Haugh, we discussed what can make a person willing to tolerate pain. Here, in Part II, we continue to explore pain as a voluntary experience, and as an involuntary experience. Jane now lives with her husband and three children in the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Pain (as opposed to suffering, which is mental or emotional) is in the body, and thus is the risk associated with physical courage.

Haugh: In the end, Jen,

what I did in order to be a professional dancer in terms of dancing on stress fractures and soft corns with such unbelievable pain – I don’t know how healthy that was. I do question my decision to do that.

I think that it wasn’t emotionally and psychologically really healthy to get to the point where you could disengage your nerve centers from your feet so you didn’t feel your feet anymore. That’s not me. That’s not part of my body. That doesn’t hurt. To the point where I would sometimes bang my feet against something because that hurt so much that my brain shut that down and I could pretend it wasn’t there. So a little pain can be more difficult than a lot of pain. And I don’t think that’s so good! I think that’s kind of sick!

Armstrong: So you’re in this culture of never mind the pain, keep going. Were there techniques or mental processes or gimmicks that were part of that culture, were there stories, did you remind yourself of such and such dancer where she did this and –

Haugh: Sure! Stories about Melissa Hayden dancing on a broken foot, stories about Darcy Kistler when she broke her elbow and finished “Swan Lake.” We had these stories of famous people who performed through amazing things. Darcy I think seriously injured her elbow for life, and never did Swan Lake again – or only did Dying Swan – I don’t remember what the whole thing was – but it wasn’t good! But if you’re at the New York State Theater and you’re in Act I and you’ve got two more acts to do, what are you going to do? So you do it and then you go to the emergency room later I guess!

Armstrong: Okay, so I want to go in a different direction now. When your parents died and your sister was very badly injured [in a car wreck], you were 17, and so you were already a very dedicated dancer. So your sister was very badly injured for a long time, am I right?
Haugh: Yes, she was operated on a couple of times. You know, we did this weird thing. She had a plate in her arm, and she also had a brain injury, and deep into the fall they x-rayed her arm, and no healing had begun. The accident was in July and this was in September. And this bone was really brittle and they were very upset about it because the plate was not an ideal way to hold the bones together and it was kind of shocking that there had been no healing. And so they wanted us to rent this machine that was really really expensive and we didn’t have any health insurance, and my aunt [their guardian] was really upset about this, and I remember having a conversation with my sister where I said to her: “You have to concentrate on healing this bone. You have to think about it. You have to concentrate on it.” I don’t think if I wasn’t a dancer I would have thought of it that way. But I already understood that my body responded, to some extent, through the control of my mind. And I really did think that it was possible that if she concentrated on healing her arm that it would start to heal. And then we wouldn’t have to get this expensive machine and do all this stuff – and it did! They said they’d set up a four-week assessment and if no healing had begun she’d have to go up to Columbia regularly for electro-stim or something, and four weeks later there was quite a bit of new healing when they took an x-ray, or whatever they did. I don’t know whether that helped, but I definitely remember having this conversation with her. I remember – like taking a bath, and something really hurting, and just lying there and trying to relax my mind into that pain and trying to get the blood flowing there and I would start to feel – I mean I am not a big believer in that stuff. But…

Armstrong: Most Americans, probably, live pretty cut off from their bodies, right? Would you agree? So you had a much more intimate relationship with your body. So you understood a lot more about what the body can do, and what its limitations are. What I wonder is, did you ever evaluate or compare the pain that you endured willingly with the pain she had to endure unwillingly?
Haugh: No. I think one of the things that I learned from dancing is that everybody’s pain threshold is really different. And I started to understand that I actually experienced quite a bit of pain, especially for somebody who was a professional dancer, and that a lot of people around me were not experiencing quite that level of pain. So we would do the same thing, have the same number of blisters, and I felt like I could really barely walk, and I spent all night icing my feet, and the other person was out dancing. And I thought, well they are obviously not in as much pain! Or they’re managing it so differently. I mean, I see in my kids – there’s a huge difference in Z.’s and M’s pain thresholds, and then another huge leap to T.’s. Z. will hurt herself and she’ll get a bump somewhere, a black and blue mark, and a week later – not complaining, but she’ll say this thing still hurts, should I take some more arnica, or should I ice it ? And M. will have the same kind of injury and two days later she’ll have forgotten about it.

I think her body experiences less pain. Her body recovers from pain more quickly. She recovers from emotional upset more quickly. She recovers from loud noises more quickly. Her physiological self recovers faster from things. But I think T. [her son] – I don’t know how much pain he experiences but he rebounds very quickly partly because he doesn’t want to stop in order to feel that pain. So he can have a huge knot on his head and I think it’s got to hurt, but if I go to touch it he’ll shy away and it does hurt him, but he doesn’t want to stop. So that’s a different way to overcome pain, is to be so focused on what you want to do that the pain is secondary. So with my sister, I learned early on not to project any kind of pain I was feeling onto anyone else’s situation because it so often just doesn’t work. I’d be all sympathetic [to a fellow dancer] and they’d be like “What?” I’d say, “Your feet are a mess!” but it wasn’t bothering them.

Armstrong: Okay, so here’s something about pain, and that’s that pain has a lot to do with what we think about. What is the story we’re telling ourselves about the pain – am I doing myself an injury, what’s going to happen? The story we’re telling ourselves about what’s happening to our body… I mean, pain only happens when you notice it right?
Haugh: Right, so when you go on stage you don’t feel the pain in your feet because you have all this adrenaline, so you’re not noticing it.
Armstrong: It’s like taking the kids to the doctor to get a shot. There’s all this suffering, this storytelling. So, and this is my projection, I would think that if I’m a dancer, my world, everything I do, involves my body, right? So if I break my ankle then I won’t be able to work. So I’m curious about the role of storytelling in this. Stories that you tell yourself to keep going, or stories that limit you.
Haugh: Part of the story of dancing is being tough, of saying this hurts but I’m strong enough and I can overcome this, or this hurts and I might hurt myself but the director is there and I really want this part so I’m going to do this anyway, because I see myself as that person who will overcome this pain. And then he’ll see me as that person and then I’ll get the part. Or I’ll get to go on tour. So there’s some part of talking yourself into doing things because of the way you see yourself: as a strong person who can overcome things that normal people would stop at. You say, well, maybe someone else would stop, but that’s not me. I’m not that person and I’m going to keep going.
But I also think there’s storytelling with our kids, when our kids hurt themselves. There are two different things. There’s where people say, “you’re okay you’re okay you’re okay,” but the kid isn’t okay, and the kid is upset and doesn’t feel okay. And then there are people who say, “Oh no, you’re hurt! You’re bleeding, you’re not okay!” But there’s something in the middle where you can say, “Let me see what happened. I need to see what happened.” I think all three of my kids think of me as a very competent person to deal with whatever hurts them. They bring me their hurts. I say we need to calm down so we can see what happened so that we can deal with whatever that is. I think it’s really important for them to realize that you can get sick or you can get hurt and then your body does this amazing thing, it heals you, it heals your cut, you get a scab and then there’s nothing there anymore. What an amazing thing! So this is an opportunity to say, “You’ve hurt yourself, but you’re going to get better, because your body is this amazing thing that knows how to heal itself. How awesome is that! And then there’s this feeling of resiliency, this feeling of ow – I really hurt myself ! – but I know I’m going to be okay.
Please feel free to share your thoughts about physical courage and the risk of pain, either from your own experience or from watching your children.

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