Dancer Down: The Whole ACL Story

I was sitting at the Stagedoor Café, my favorite diner on 34th street and 7th avenue when I received the e-mail. It was my favorite place to grab ten dollar eggs and toast after going to Ripley or Pearl Studios.

Five days prior was the audition in New York City. I wore my black high thigh panties for good luck and I kicked my face, gave the choreography my all, sang two songs, and they called me back. The audition monitor handed me the sides to read and on top it said “Cassie.”

“No way…. This must be wrong,” was my first thought. “She’s like…..a lead.” “She has that huge solo, I mean she’s Cassie!” I texted my mom, sister, and best friend right away in shock. I remember it so clearly. The texts sent: “I AM READING FOR CASSIE AND SO FAR I HAVEN’T SEEN ANYONE ELSE READING FOR HER.” So I channeled by best Donna McKechnie, and did the best I could with limited time on the scene. I felt okay about it walking out of the door, but not spectacular. I called my mom, “honestly mom, I haven’t the slightest clue what they are thinking but I danced hard and I got to read for her, so who cares?!”

As an actor, singer, or dancer (or all three) you are quite accustomed to rejection so I told myself as usual to not expect anything from this audition. I am your standard “Chorus Girl” after all. I’m tall and heavily dance trained; rarely capable of playing a female lead due to my height, body type and ‘showgirl’ package. I have been in the ensemble of almost every show or production I’ve done since high school. Don’t get me wrong—I love it. I love being in the chorus. I’ve always been the backup dancer, the “featured solo,” in the front of the formations with one or two vocal moments.

Yet, there it was that morning at the diner, the golden e-mail. With one click, the content would reveal itself and I would be either in a good mood or bad mood. I saw the words “Broward Stagedoor Theatre’s A Chorus Line Auditions” in the Subject line and my blood began to circulate faster.

Hello Kayley,

Thank you for auditioning for A Chorus Line at the Broward Stagedoor Theatre in Coral Springs, Florida. I would like to offer you the role of Cassie.”

I threw the phone down on the table as if it was a hot coal. My hands were shaking. I couldn’t finish my eggs. I called my parents screaming between sobs.

Fast forward 5 weeks later, to opening week. I’d never trained so hard for a role in my life. I learned the original choreography from Broadway legend Jessica Patty who had studied under Donna and alongside Charlotte D’Amboise. I rented out studios and practiced that 11-minute solo as many times as I could to build up stamina. I chopped my hair off from mermaid length to barely past my chin in order to look more like Cassie’s age of 32 and whip my hair around 70’s style. I had motivating and inspiring discussions with my director and coworker Andy (playing my romantic opposite, Zach) in order to build our foundation as a couple onstage. It was riveting. I was growing. I wasn’t just a chorus girl. I had levels to explore and layers to my performance.

When originally learning the choreography, Jess sat me down and warned me of the high demand the show put on her body and the bodies of many other women who’ve taken on the role of Cassie.

“Take care of yourself. Get massages, acupuncture, don’t dance too hard all the time or you’ll pay for it later. Pace yourself. Care for your body.”

Little did I know just how true those statements were and how much it was going to affect me.

Throughout the process, my cast and crew were amazing. All were highly trained in dance, focused, & powerful performers. I adored working with them, I adored rehearsing; showing up to that theatre every day with my foam roller. The dressing rooms were tiny; the theatre was a fairly small theatre on the east coast of Florida. It was by no means Broadway or an equity production, but it was a family—a hard working, devoted, and passionate creative team, backstage and onstage. It was my dream show and my dream role, and I felt like I was on an upward spiral.

Right before opening, I got another promising e-mail from a previous audition in February that I attended as well. A huge musical theatre Dance Agency, Clear Talent Group, signed me. I auditioned among hundreds of ridiculously talented dancers and they wanted to sign me and work with me. Cue more tears, more excitement.           Opening weekend came and my mother, grandmother, stepdad, aunt, sister, and a few other friends came and showered me with love and support. It was a beautiful few days full of flowers, tears, hugs, and kind words. Shortly thereafter, the second week of performances came and my grandmother came to a Wednesday matinee performance. At this point I had performed in 6 shows as Cassie. We had that Thursday off, so I decided to go home to Naples for a day, see my family and guest teach at my old dance studio. With much excitement, I surprised my old students and taught a grueling hour and a half class where I taught them the opening number (tons of turns, jumps, kicks, and pliés). I must have done the combination 30 times with them. I was dripping in sweat, jumping and kicking higher than I ever had, soaking up the adrenaline and super proud to pass down the show’s legacy to the girls. At the end of class, I’d promised them to show them my solo. I was nervous to perform in front of my students so the adrenaline kicked in big time. I sang the first 3 minutes of it and broke into the dance break. The second 8 count in, I do a big high right kick with my left leg planted in plié. I was dancing too hard, too passionately, and I had already danced for an hour and a half straight. It happened in an instant. I heard a profoundly loud ripping, popping sound that resembled a rock colliding with the ground and I was on the ground. Then came a dull ache in my left knee; the knee that was bent 2 seconds ago. I have never been injured in my life (minus a broken toe) so I truly didn’t think I had done anything serious. I got back up quickly after a few moments on the floor and tried to start walking/dancing again. My knee gave out. I couldn’t straighten it. The ache continued and worsened. But there was no swelling, no bruising, and not as much pain as I would have expected from that horrible ripping sound.

The next 48 hours were my worst nightmare. Should we go to the ER? Which Doctors do you know in the area? How can we get an MRI as soon as possible? You have an appointment tomorrow at 8 A.M. Did you call your director?

I couldn’t even begin to think about missing a show, not being Cassie, not dancing that incredible solo, not returning to my Chorus Line family. I wouldn’t believe it. I iced my knee that night, searched Google for potential answers as to what happened and prayed fervently. I wished for a sprain, torn cartilage, something minor. The next morning, after a speedy MRI and texts back and forth to my director and cast, I received the news.

“It’s a clear, full ACL tear. I am so sorry.”

ACL?! That was a football, basketball injury. I had only heard of athletes tearing their ACL’s during heavy contact sports. When someone tore their ACL on TV or during a game, my dad would always say, “He’s done for the year,” or so and so “tore his ACL, poor guy is not finishing the season.” I was in disbelief. My whole vision for my passion and my career collapsed in that moment. I cried and cried and cried into my Dad’s arms.

I write this now, 10 weeks from that very day, 9 weeks from ACL reconstructive surgery. It’s been one hell of a journey. This is not a “pity me,” story by the way. This injury is by no means life threatening, life ending, or even catastrophic. I am blessed with great health and I know this is only a tiny, miniscule thing compared to the kind of beasts that some children and adults battle in their lifetime. In the performing arts industry, however, it does pose a lot of problems. It means a huge chunk of your career comes to a halt. It means you re-evaluate the way you move for the rest of your life. It means you spend a year doing rehab, icing, and teaching your new ligament to do what your old one did. It means without your nerve endings you have to re-teach yourself how to land a jump because it doesn’t feel the way it used to. You have to re-educate yourself on how to fouette turn, how to pirouette, how to do a tilt. To most non-athletes, rehab is a chore and a hassle. To the average person, returning to work is fairly easy and can be done after 3 or 4 weeks post operation. For dancers, rehab is a matter of survival. For us, it’s about being that 40% that is capable of reviving the abilities they once had before the injury. Yes, you heard me. It’s around 40% or lower–the percentage of people who are able to return to full strength and agility. That’s a low number. Yet this will not discourage me. Every day, I use my ankle weights and I do my resistance band work. I remember that this is temporary and that I have the opportunity and capability of returning to that same level of performance. I tell myself that I will do “A Chorus Line” again. I will be able to turn and kick and jump as well as I used to. I will book jobs through my agent once I return to full health. I will follow the rehab protocol and not rush or attempt anything too soon. Most importantly, I will not fear re-injury. I will challenge my mind to not be fearful, but to be strong and confident when I am about to land a jump 10 months after the operation.

Injuries require patience, a strong support system and a positive mind. To conquer a setback, it takes prayer, God’s unconditional endurance, meditation, and belief in yourself. I am on this path. I am waking up daily with pain, feel cracking and grinding in my new knee parts when I am exercising, and have to control swelling by ice regularly. However, this is just the beginning. When I go to a dark place of thinking, “Why me? Why now? What lesson is here for me, God?” I revert my attention to the light of the situation. If my ligament hadn’t torn then, would it have torn in a show? Down the line at an audition? Or in the city without family around to look after me? God only knows. But now is the time not to ask questions. It is the time to push forward. It is the time to light a fire in my soul; to let this hurdle teach me the value of life and health. I promise myself these things daily: I will try to be patient, to be wise, to grow, and to see this as an opportunity to become an even stronger dancer. When I begin to feel sorry for myself, I will reach out for help. I will read about, study, and strengthen my body and mind. And I will be a voice that inspires others, inside my industry and out. I am not done achieving my dreams in the slightest.

When I called my director and told him that I was unable to perform for the remaining 5 weeks, he said something remarkable to me that has stayed in my heart throughout my recovery. Between my sobs and “I’m sorry’s,” he said, “Kayley, you focus on getting better. Don’t worry about the show. Don’t worry about us. We will be fine. These things happen. You have a long, long career ahead of you Kayley. Go get better fast so that you can get back on stage again.”

Thank you Kevin Black. I dedicate this blog to the cast & crew of a Chorus Line, my unbelievable family, and to any dancers in need of encouragement. IMG_9270 IMG_9281 IMG_9463 IMG_9485 IMG_9378 IMG_9941 IMG_9286 IMG_9313

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