Darcy McMurray: injury as teacher
“Why do I continually fall into this pattern? What is my body telling me and why? Sometimes, to hear this, we must stop moving altogether, or slow movements down enough so that we can sense and assess each moment. We can move out of our muscle body and work on a deeper, cellular level.” Darcy McMurray, professional dancer, founding owner of Full Circle Pilates & Health. www.fcpilates.com
SM A few posts back Jennifer spoke of Darcy McMurray and her parallel practices of Pilates education and performance. Darcy wrote this article two years ago, and kindly agreed to share it here. The photos below are of Darcy’s performance in The White Spider by Jennifer Mascall in 2011. Photographer: Chris Randle Pilates & Dance April 2010, The Dance Central There is no doubt that every dancer out there could benefit from Pilates in one form or another. Pilates is an incredible tool to rehabilitate the body. The technique focuses on segmental stability and mobility – the isolation and targeting of problem areas – and works by moving with proper core connection and re-aligning the body to its ‘neutral’ posture. By slowing down and controlling movement in Pilates, we can help re-pattern the body. Then, when we speed up those same movements later on (like when we’re dancing and jumping around) our bodies are more likely to function properly. There’s this dichotomy within so many dancers. We work with these highly attuned bodies of knowledge and awareness, yet this is so often combined with the drive to push through movements to make things ‘look good’, despite the consequence of injury. Even when it comes to rehabilitation, dancers still suppress the sensations of discomfort in order to complete the movement task. As opposed to focusing solely on the aesthetic or look of the movement, the focus has got to extend into how the movement is done and how it feels. I’m convinced it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it, that is key. Pilates and dance are a great combination for any working dancer: as a complementary exercise, or as a parallel or transitioning career. They go so well together, so what’s not to love? About a year and half ago, I opened my own Pilates studio. Since then, I have been working with athletes, dancers and Pilates instructors on rehabilitation and chronic pain. Pain is considered chronic if it lasts for more than three weeks, but many of my clients have been dealing with injuries and/or pain lasting for years. What happens if you’ve been following a ‘proper routine’ and doing body work regularly, but the problems aren’t getting any better? What if you’re stuck in chronic pain and it seems that nothing changes no matter what you do? In opening a Pilates studio, I knew that I didn’t just want an exercise space, I wanted a growing and learning space. Pilates is certainly the method that I use, but my approach to teaching has changed so much over the past 10 years. I find that I’m far less concerned with the Pilates exercises themselves and more focused on helping my clients move with a sense of awareness and integration. I started dancing at age four, training in mostly ballet, then later in contemporary dance. My life was dancing, and it was unfolding quite like I had planned it. Then it hit me. I was eighteen years old and almost finished my year in the Ballet BC Mentor program, when I received the results of my M.R.I., which revealed that I had four stress fractures in my feet. Both of my big toes and two of my metatarsals were fractured! I was at the beginning of what I imagined to be a long and fruitful career, and this news was devastating. I felt victimized, I was angry and upset. “Why did this happen to me?!” I heard the news, but I couldn’t wrap my head around how or what would have made this happen; of course, I had known there was a problem long before it was diagnosed. I was barely able to walk, let alone stand without pain, and within this predicament I just figured I would save my movement for dancing. This shortsighted carelessness is typical in young dancers, and even as the training continues to be more anatomically coherent, the knowledge of how to integrate the training is not often that clear. I was lacking in knowledge of how my structure functioned. This meant that I didn’t know what my body was telling me, and perhaps this is why in part I tried to ignore it. I was ‘a Dancer’ and yet I couldn’t walk. I quit dancing as the doctors advised, but things didn’t get any better. As the
the next year passed I slowly began to develop sciatic pain down my left leg, which progressed to a debilitating state. By the time I was nineteen, I had given up on moving unless absolutely necessary: to and from work, washroom, dinner, bed. My sciatica was so severe at that point that I could no longer stretch my spinal cord, which means no flexion.
How could I have spent so much of my life learning about the body and how to move it, and yet know so little about the structures in which it moved itself? What I had learned at this point is how to push my body but not how to listen to it. It seems as if I faced the same problem as much of the world: disassociation.
The following year I decided to join my cousin in a Pilates course she was taking in Toronto. It seemed like a good excuse for change and something that might help me get moving again. I would say that taking the Pilates course was part of the healing process, but on its own it wasn’t complete. I learned more about my body anatomically, but I still hadn’t learned how to listen to it. I lacked a holistic approach that brought my body and my self into harmony. I realized that we require not only physical strength, but an internal awareness to hear and feel. As much as Pilates is now my career – something that I use for my own practice – I needed to go much deeper to heal my own injuries. I needed to heal by changing my overall mind set and learning how to listen to my body. Sometimes lessons come to us in little glimpses at a time, and sometimes like a shattering lightning bolt. Maybe, as I imagine with inherent knowledge, it comes to us as we allow it to. It wasn’t until I realized how upset I was at the fact that my plans to be a dancer had been ‘ruined’ – and how much pain I was still in – that I had a major breakthrough. Having this emotion associated with my injury clouded my ability to really hear what my body was trying to tell me. I learned that we have an inherent power to heal, but we have also have the power to block healing as well. Listening to the inside is not easy, since there are so many layers to work through. Why do I continually fall into this pattern? What is my body telling me and why? Sometimes, to hear this, we must stop moving altogether, or slow movements down enough so that we can sense and assess each moment. We can move out of our muscle body and work on a deeper, cellular level. As dancers we face a challenge. The more experienced we are, the deeper our conditioning goes; therefore the more difficult it is to ‘re-pattern’ our choices. Our conditioning becomes part of our identity and having this emotional content means that it can be difficult to change. This is why doing a simple movement (especially during rehabilitation) can sometimes bring one to tears. Doing body work is important for everyone. As an artist, feeling integrated and pain free allows us to be better conduits for channeling creativity. As dance artists, our bodies are instruments, and this is of the utmost importance. Working with a more integrated foundation allows one to open up the doors of creativity and movement, and gives one the freedom to explore how it comes out. These are all concepts that I am still learning and working on myself. I wish I could say that I always work pain free, and some days it feels easier than others. I still find it quite challenging to not push through to the end result. I can now step back from this old mindset and step into my inner body to gain a better sense of myself. I’m sure that this will not only keep me dancing for many years to come, but will always allow to me to stay healthy inside and out.