The Harbinger Online

Broken Belles

Senior Maggie Andriani stands en pointe.
Photos and story by Maxx Lamb
Designs by Tommy Sherk

Sophomore Annika Kuhnke’s Saturday ballet classes at Miller Marley’s School of Dance last for four hours, and

sidafter three hours she has to take her feet out of her pointe shoes and ‘let them release’ because of the sharp, splitting pain in her feet. She kneads, massages and rubs them; it doesn’t help.

According to Kuhnke, most ballerinas start around the age of three, like Kuhnke and senior Maggie Andriani. Most are done before age 36.

According to the podiatrist for the Kansas City Ballet, Dr. John Riley, all ballerinas that dance en pointe (Dancing en pointe refers to ballerinas standing up on the tips of their first two toes in pointe shoes) who start young and continue to dance through high school and beyond are guaranteed to have some form of arthritis when they’re older.

Sophomore Annika Kuhnke knows that she will have arthritis in her feet when she gets older, but she keeps dancing. She keeps dancing because she loves it.

“[Ballet] becomes your life, your emotions are tied to it, and it becomes your happiness,” Kuhnke said.

According to Dr. Riley when ballet dancers go en pointe, it forces all of their weight into their first two toes, and they hold this position for extended periods of time. This causes short-term problems like bunions and blisters. The position their toes are in within their pointe shoes guarantees that toenails will be thickened or discolored, even years after they stop dancing.

Because of the amount of stress dancers put on their bones, they become strong enough that dancers like Andriani can dance for months without noticing that they have a stress fracture up the middle of her foot. An injury such as this would have an ordinary person in a cast for two months, according to Dr. Riley.

Kuhnke broke her toe a few weeks ago on a cement block, during a Shrek the Musical rehearsal costume change. It hasn’t stopped Kuhnke from dancing 12 hours per week.

“It’s not that bad,” Kuhnke said about her broken toe, “You tape it, you wrap it, you go with it; it’ll heal eventually.”

Kuhnke said that while she is dancing she can’t feel her feet despite the massive pressure the en pointe position puts on them. Dr. Riley says this is because of soft tissue’s buildup and hardening around the toes. The tips of the toes become like horses’ hooves, according to Dr. Riley.

Dancers don’t like to take much time off, and according to Dr. Riley it is because of the continual pressure put on the first two toes. If a dancer takes even a short hiatus,the hardened tissue in the foot softens; the dancer goes soft, literally. As a result, joints become more inflamed and the pain in their feet returns. The condition of their feet actually worsens if they stop dancing.

“I was out for a month and it was so hard to get back into it,” Andriani said, “I had to get my calluses back, and that was very painful.”

She did pilates to stay in shape while she was injured, and was thrilled to be dancing again. On the other hand, the tissue in her feet had gone soft. Her callouses softened, she developed blisters and she kept dancing.

“Taking a month off after being injured was painful in a [physical] sense, but the excitement [of dancing again] was worth [the pain],” Andriani said.

***

“I’ve done it since I was little, so it’s always been in my life,” Kuhnke said.

Dance is a creative outlet for Andriani and Kuhnke. It’s how they express their feelings; it is their art.

Andriani can’t draw or play music, but she has utilized a form of expression that requires no sketching, no brush strokes and no sheets of paper. Andriani’s emotions radiate and pour out of her when she dances. This form of expression makes dance worth the injuries.

“It’s more structured than most types of dances, and very set in certain steps, but you can take those steps and within those steps, you can make it your own,” Andriani said.

Andriani describes the feeling when dancing she has when dancing as though she’s being lifted up.

“It honestly feels like you’re suspended in the air,” Andriani said, “It’s such an elated feeling, like when people go running and it releases endorphins, and makes them all happy, it’s the same thing, but times ten. [A performance] is kind of like an adventure; it’s risky, and it’s fun to take risks.”

She uses a numbing gel before every practice and performance because of the pain in her feet.

“Most of the pain is just on the surface,” Andriani said, “Blisters, calluses, bruised toenails, they go away, and I use the numbing gel to get through the surface pain.”

***

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Andriani has an os trigonum (a small bone in the back of the ankle that can cause bad cases of tendonitis, chronic pain and even keep her from dancing), but she’s learned to deal with the pain it causes to avoid getting a surgery. She can’t stand to be out of dance even for the two week recovery time. The pain she feels and the injuries she sustains are nothing in comparison to the drive she feels to complete her dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer.

The mother of senior Taylor Bell, who formerly danced with Kuhnke, Rebecca Cheney, danced from when she was four through college. The scar tissue buildup and the callouses are still visible.

“I have some bunions and scar tissue built up around my toes,” Cheney said, “They’re not so pretty anymore. There [are] definitely consequences to pointe.”

She said without hesitation that dancing was worth it.

Cheney didn’t do pointe primarily, and because she did jazz and other dances, her lasting effects are comparably mild. She’s one of the lucky ones.

Although Kuhnke knows all the potential issues she may face, she intends to dance all through high school and in college to dance with a performance troupe.

“[Becoming crippled due to dancing] doesn’t happen until later in life, and what you get out of it in the young years is so much better than having a little bit of messed up later on,” Kuhnke says.
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Andriani had to use a bone stimulator [above] in order to be able to keep dancing with her broken foot. It aligns the ions in the membrane of the bone to cut healing time in half, according to Dr. Riley.

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