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  • Writer's pictureCorinne Baldwin

How My Dance Career Almost Ended

Battling Injuries as a Professional Performer

Would you believe me if I told you that eleven years ago, I almost had to end my dance career?

And that eight years ago, I almost had to end it again?

And that last year, I almost had to end it AGAIN?

MDI are three little letters that changed how I operate as a dancer. If you know anything about anatomy, the phrase “Multiple Directional Instability” might sound familiar to you. And if you don’t know what that means, it means that my joints don’t stay in place. None of them. None, zip, nada.

Now you’re probably thinking that this must be so incredibly painful and how do I even possibly live like this?! The answer is yes…and I don’t know! But I’ve found a way to adapt to what MDI has done to alter my life, including my dance life. It hasn’t been an easy adjustment, but it’s actually helped me live a more healthy and balanced lifestyle than what I was living before.

So let’s take it back to 2012. I was 14 years old and preparing for my dance studio’s recital at the time. We had one tumbling/acro class each week, and I THRIVED in this class. I am a trickster at heart and love learning new skills, and tumbling was the one hour each week that I felt like I was on a playground. I had just learned a cartwheel back handspring step-out, which is basically a more rhythmic and graceful way of performing a round-off back handspring. I had been working on this skill for a few weeks at this point, and was finally starting to feel more comfortable with it.

However, my body had other plans. Less than a month until recital and I was working on this skill, and my left shoulder popped out of place. The comical part here is that this was the one take that was caught on a slo-mo video. Thankfully, my shoulder popped back in on its own and I didn’t need to go to the hospital or anything, but this was definitely concerning and hurt like a bitch. 

I had had one other dislocation in my life, and that was a dislocation of my elbow while also tricking around. It also popped itself back in, but I remember it being sore for weeks. And aside from that, I have memories as a middle schooler of my knee sliding in and out at a dance competition. At those younger ages, I thought they were all isolated injuries, but once the shoulder injury happened, I realized there was something bigger going on.

I went to the doctor after that shoulder dislocation and they did a mobility test on me. I was WAY too hyper-mobile. I could literally walk my arms up backwards on a wall and have my armpits touch the wall. It was quite honestly so disgusting (but a cool party trick, I guess?). They said that my hyper-mobility was a concern, but that any kind of surgery would likely just be the start of a chain of surgeries that I would need throughout the rest of my life to maintain stability in my shoulder. I got sent to physical therapy for a few months, then right back on my way. I felt good about this because it meant I wouldn’t have to stop dancing, but little did I know that this was the start of a looooonnnnnggggg road of joint issues.

And if you were wondering if I performed in my recital that year, well, OF COURSE I DID. I wouldn’t allow myself to miss dance unless I absolutely had to.

Although physical therapy pushed off any future dislocations for a bit, it didn’t stop them altogether. Fast forward to my freshman year of college – I was dancing on the Memphis Pom Dance Team and it was our first nationals choreography weekend. We were learning our jazz routine and I was living my best life. I had a solo moment with this beautiful leg extension into a lift, and I felt like a rockstar as a freshman on this multi-national championship winning team. Right before my solo section, I did a partner trick with a good friend of mine, and luck was not on our side that day. I was going into a front walkover out of the trick, but my leg got caught in her arm, and my body kept projecting forward. Once again on video, my left shoulder popped out of place. This was much more painful than the previous dislocation, and although I tried to finish the routine, my arm was starting to go numb. It had once again popped itself back in (which in medical terms means it was technically a “subluxation,” which is a dislocation and relocation all on the joint’s own), but I knew I needed to see a doctor. 

Unfortunately, I was asked to postpone actually seeing a doctor until a week before nationals. I went about 4 months surviving on kinesiology tape and the minimal assistance from our athletic trainer. When I finally saw the doctor, he told me the unbearable news…I needed surgery. And I needed it ASAP.

I was heartbroken. I knew that this was likely going to be the outcome, but it didn’t make it hurt (emotionally) any less. Yes, my shoulder was in a lot of pain, but it felt more painful that I would have to be out of dance for 6-8 months. That just didn’t seem feasible to me, but I had no choice.

I competed with the team at nationals and we won 3rd place, which was a little bit of a relief given what I knew was coming. We returned home from the competition and I had one last dance session with my friend Meg the night before my surgery. I genuinely thought my dance journey would be over after this.

You hear teachers and mentors say that to be successful in dance, you have to be consistently training. Breaks aren’t an option. This is NOT a good way to mentally train any sort of athlete. Consistency is important, but breaks and rest have to be necessary for your body to heal from any sort of injury. Regardless, I was being forced to take a minimum of 6 months away from my craft, and I was devastated. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to bounce back.

When I woke up from my surgery, I was told that I had that MDI condition I had mentioned earlier. To give you the cliff notes, Multiple Directional Instability is a condition that people are born with in which the ligaments surrounding their joints become like stretched out rubber bands over time, which allows the joints to slide in and out of place. I didn’t realize that this condition was why I had been so flexible and hyper-mobile my whole life. It all started to make sense. To combat it, the doctor placed 3 anchors in my shoulder to tighten my ligaments and hold my left shoulder in the joint.

I went to rehab and physical therapy after my surgery, determined to get back into the dance studio as soon as I could. However, I wasn’t even allowed to workout until I was out of my sling. That took 3 months. One month after that, I begged my doctor to let me take a dance class, and I was told that as long as I was careful and didn’t do too much weight-bearing movement that I could go.

Getting back into the swing of dance was honestly a horrible experience. 3 months before that, I couldn’t even get dressed on my own. My mom and my roommate had to help me with the simplest of tasks. Trying to dance was like climbing Mt. Everest in comparison to what I was trying to make it through on the daily.

But as I slowly progressed back into things, dance started to come back much easier than I thought it would. About 2 months after that first class, I had my first post-surgery performance in my dance studio’s alumni routine. This was a huge feat for me given how difficult my recovery had been so far. 

Things continued to progress, and then I started booking dance jobs for the first time ever, as well as making it onto my first NBA dance team! I felt normal again, but still worked hard to strengthen the smaller muscles in my shoulder to hopefully keep it in place.

Now we fast forward to 2023. I’m on the LA Clippers Spirit Dance Team, which is my dream team of all NBA teams to be on. It’s my rookie season, and we just hit January, and we’re performing a routine that I had been looking forward to performing all season. You already guessed it…my shoulder dislocated again. 

Between my surgery and this dislocation, I had a few additional dislocations that were minor and didn’t really require any additional care. I would tape up and do some of my physical therapy exercises and go along with my day. However, this dislocation was especially painful, and I could barely make it through that game. I knew I needed to report it and seek out a doctor to see what was going on.

And for the second time, I got the horrible news. My ligaments were too outstretched and I needed to have surgery again. The EXACT same surgery that I had already had. The tightened ligaments had outstretched the anchors that were holding my shoulder in place. 

I was once again heartbroken. And this time, I knew exactly what to expect if I ended up having surgery. And I knew that I wouldn’t want to put myself through it all again because I didn’t think I had the energy to rehab AND continue pursuing a dance career after a second surgery.

So I said no.

Yep. I said no to the doctor and said that I would rather do physical therapy to, at bare minimum, postpone any future surgeries. He didn’t like my answer, but he went through with it and I began an 8-month journey in physical therapy.

During this time, I also started taking/teaching Pilates. This also helped me strengthen my smaller muscles, which in turn strengthened my joints. It was a win-win.

My physical therapists and I concluded that this would be an issue that I will continue to face for my entire life. And I know that when the inevitable time comes for surgery, I am probably going to hang up my performance shoes. HOWEVER – I have collaborated with my mentors, coaches, and teachers to discover ways that dance can remain in my life once we get to that point. I can continue teaching dance; I can choreograph; I can contribute more to judging dance competitions; and I can mentor young dancers who may be facing similar journeys as I have.

If you’re reading this and have had any kind of discussion with a doctor that has made you uncomfortable, please understand that YOU have autonomy over your body. With proper discussion, you can make educated decisions with your doctor on how to move forward with a diagnosis, but you don’t have to move forward with something that you aren’t comfortable with. Advocate for yourself because you know your body best.

I know that refusing surgery increases my chances of arthritis and future injuries down the line, but I also know that being a performing dancer isn’t a career that I can have for my whole life. My time as a performer is limited. I would much rather spend my time doing what I love, then navigate this injury and this condition when I absolutely need to. It’s a choice that I know has consequences, but I’m willing to take the risks.

My dance career isn’t ending. I’m a dancer through and through, and if you ever hear me say otherwise, you have permission to give me a nice lil slap on the face.

What’s a major obstacle that you’ve faced that has made you question your career path?

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