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"First you Cry"

Donald Byrd/The Group

I went to college eager to dance. I knew then that my body wasn’t built to do what it was asked to do in training—I didn’t have sufficient turnout, and my hips were tight, but I pushed myself physically to rise to every challenge. Years after I left Purchase College, I danced 10 seasons with Donald Byrd/The Group. Every rehearsal and performance was thrilling, but it was like working out on a technical battleground with no medics and no relief in sight.

One day I was a healthy 39-year-old dancer; the next day I was a crippled 40-year-old. It happened that quickly, and just as dramatically. I left Byrd in 1998 with minor pain in my right hip. I was frustrated by being the lone 40-year-old among a company of 20-somethings, so I thought the pain in my hip was stress-related. After Byrd, I signed a year-long contract with the road company of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Halfway through that year, after having jumped off a three-foot platform eight shows a week, the ache that I thought was stress-related became more serious. At first the pain in my hip inhibited me from working fully; eventually it stopped me from working altogether. I went to two doctors, who concurred: I needed to stop dancing and consider hip replacement surgery. My career of more than two decades was over.

I cried for a month. I hid in my apartment, drinking heavily and watching movies on TV. Without dance, I didn’t want to live. What other skills did I have? I had never waited a table in my life (which I shamelessly boasted about during my career). I went from being the lucky dancer who was always working to someone who had no income.

Since that depressing day in the doctor’s office, I’ve heard of other dancers who have had hip replacements, including Judith Jamison, Gary Chryst, Arthur Mitchell, Gelsey Kirkland and, as I’ve come to realize, many of my friends. Is there any significance to the recent number of 40- to-50-year-olds who have arthritis of one or both hips? Does dance cause arthritis of the hip? I began to wonder if this was a dancer-specific generational thing, or coincidence. I asked those questions of three of my peers. The answers had a common theme: We were dancers performing a painful dance.

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