Please note that this interview was originally published in Dec 2018. Jack is currently working as a freelance artist. Find him on social media: @jmtraylen
Jack Traylen has been interested in movement from a very young age. Before studying classical ballet at Ballet Theatre Australia, Jack was absorbed in martial arts and circus performance. Since graduating he has worked as a soloist around the world in companies in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe. Currently he remains a soloist with Teater Vanemuine in Estonia. He was recently nominated for ’Dancer of the Year’ at the Estonian Theatre Awards, and won the Estonian Young Choreographer of the Year Award in 2018. His interests remain broad, and if you don´t find him on stage you may find him in a movie!
Which was the most severe injury in your career so far, how did it happen, and how was it diagnosed?
The most serious injury in my career so far has been tearing my Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) in April 2017 while doing a cabriole in company class. It was towards the end of a very busy season for me and during a week where I had been performing, learning and rehearsing 5 different works. It was a long diagnostic process for me, but eventually an orthopaedic specialist diagnosed it after an MRI about 5 weeks after it happened.
Did you undergo surgery?
I did undergo surgery, it was a knee reconstruction where they took a tendon from my quadriceps and used it to replace my torn ACL. I also underwent a second surgery 12 months after the first to remove some bone and tendon from the knee joint.
How was the process for you, from being diagnosed to making the decision pro/against surgery? Who helped you?
It was a hard time, initially when I had the accident I went to Emergency and they took an X-ray and told me I had a small fracture in my patella so they put me in a cast and said 6 weeks off. Then 2 weeks later, I went back to the emergency where they said it wasn’t broken at all and took me out of the cast. Then I sought out an orthopaedic specialist to investigate a little more, he thought I hadn’t torn the ACL but ordered an MRI. The MRI came back and showed a tear but it wasn’t clear so we met again and chatted before I decided to operate. Because of the timeline and all the diagnosis issues, I was upset but also not surprised, I knew deep down that something severe had happened but it went from being a 6 week recovery time to 8-24 months. My orthopaedic specialist and physiotherapists helped inform me of what would happen if I did or didn’t operate, in the end it was a no brainer for me- I needed to look ahead beyond a ballet career and see what would be best for my body long term.
How was your rehab-process structured? Did you have to ask/pay for a lot yourself e.g. because it was not considered helpful?
I was lucky in that my work insurance, government health care and the Estonian dancers’ union covered basically all of my rehab costs. I saw a physiotherapist twice a week for the first 4 months and then would spend every other day in the gym. Initially 3-4 days a week were spent on quadriceps training, alternating days with gluteals, hamstrings, core etc. As well as muscular coordination and balance training. After 4 months I went down to once a week with a physio and then also had another ballet knee specialist in Helsinki who I would travel to once a month to write me a new ballet related program which I would follow (as well as my weekly physio-sessions + gym work). After 5-6 months I started taking barre very slowly, then little by little over the months added in more of class. However, at around 9 months post op I still felt like something was wrong, I was in a lot of pain and didn’t have proper range of motion, so I went back to the orthopaedic specialist and we tried medications and different physio techniques, but after 11 months I knew it wasn’t going away so again, after an inconclusive MRI I decided to have surgery to see what was going on. That was the hardest and scariest part for me I think, I’d done nearly a year of rehabilitation, (6-9 months is common for returning to sport after an ACL tear) and I still wasn’t back, I had a lot of fear that I wouldn’t dance again, and a lot of fear that I’d ruined my knee for the rest of my life too. However, once I had the surgery and they removed some bone in my knee and took a little more of the tendon out, the range of motion returned and also the pain mostly subsided. I’m now at 18 months post first op and 6 months post second op, my rehab hasn’t stopped, the knee will take 2 years until it’s healed…but I’m on the right path!
What/who helped you eventually and got you back on top of the game?
This question is really hard for me because it was such a difficult 12 months. My family in Australia were very supportive, my parents flew over to take care of me for the first month post op. And then after that it was Skype calls and text messages throughout the week to check in on me. My partner was rooting for me the whole time, he reminded me that every small thing I did was a win, and on days when it wasn’t happening or the pain was too much, that it was okay to give myself a pass and take it easy. I found the joy in other things and new forms of exercise- swimming, biking, camping, surfing and I even started cross country skiing. I found that being injured also liberated me from the fear of getting injured, so I started trying all the things I’d wanted to do (plus now I had the time). For me it was ballet that was the last thing to come back because the extension required in the knee and also everything was more painful standing in external rotation. I began choreographing a lot more as a form of expression and a way to keep me invested in dance while actually doing it was still challenging.
Do you think your injury could have been prevented? What would it have taken to prevent it?
I don’t know to be honest, it was a freak accident but I’d had a long and tiring season dancing lots and working through other minor injuries which had probably compromised everything. We had a guest choreographer in the house watching class to cast an upcoming piece so I know I was pushing myself. I slipped a little on the floor as I jumped as well so really there are a whole lot of things going on and I think when you add them together, this kind of thing can unfortunately happen.
Did you go back home for a while and why?
I went back to Australia for 6 weeks, half a year after the first op. I went back home to be around my family and friends, it had been 18 months since I’d been home. I soaked up the Aussie sunshine and started feeling some positivity about the future again.
What toll did the injury take on your mental health? Did you seek treatment? Or did somebody tell you to seek counselling?
My mental health suffered a lot, it’s probably my biggest take away from this whole experience. There was a lot of fear of the future, not even just about ballet but everything in general, my world had changed so drastically and I didn’t feel secure anymore. I think a hard thing for dancers is that we often tie our self-worth to what we do, so if we can’t do that thing anymore then our sense of self-worth plummets. Other problems I had ignored came to the front of my mind since I had so much more free time than I’d ever had in my life. It was really difficult. I got counselling while I was home in Australia and it was the best decision. Of course we all have bad days but now they’re much less frequent and I have strategies and tools to use for them. I think there’s a mentality with ballet dancers to suffer in silence (physically and mentally) and I think it’s a load of nonsense which needs to change. I actually tried to talk to someone in my workplace about my mental state quite early on in the rehabilitation process and their response was ‘you need to figure out a way to get over it by yourself’. Remembering this now makes me so frustrated, most ballet dancers are perfectionists and perfectionists are something like 3 times more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders and self judgement. There needs to be more systems in place for schools and companies to deal with this. Since I wasn’t able to exercise, my body changed (I lost weight and muscle), and this caused me anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, especially because other people said this to me in non-strategic ways. When I started doing new sports I found an appreciation for my body, I focused on what it could actually do and not what it looked like. This filled me with so much self assurance that when I was told I was still too skinny six months after I had been increasing my workload, I knew this wasn’t true as I could feel how muscular my body had become and I was the strongest I’d been in a long time. I could eventually stand up to such comments which I am really proud of, as it goes to show how much the process of injury and rehabilitation has made me be in tune with my body.
Did you consider other career options while you had to take time off dancing?
I did! It actually excited me to think about what my life could be if I wasn’t dancing and realising I had options. I had first hand experience of what worked and didn’t work during the rehab process. I considered studying something in allied health or even something in mental health. Now that I’m back dancing I know when I do decide to finish, that’s something I’ll go into so I can help others.
How did it feel coming back to class, then rehearsal, and ultimately performance?
I kept expecting this AHA moment of joy when first coming back to class or rehearsal and eventually performance but for me I honestly didn’t get it. I was in and out of class because of the pain and lack of mobility which wasn’t very satisfying. It wasn’t until after the second surgery that I really felt some relief. My first rehearsals were for a production of Romeo and Juliet by Petr Zuska and I was dancing a principal role in it, I was so happy to be working and moving again but I still had to be careful with my knee so it was up and down. My first performance was in October 2018. It was a great show, I danced well and I was just stoked to have made it through and given something to an audience again. I wasn’t perfectly healed by the time I was doing all of those things like I’d imagined I would be, so it was about adjusting expectations constantly, but also being proud of the small milestones that you pass and realizing that even through all of this I had achieved so much.
Do you wish you had learned earlier (and not the hard way) how to better care for your body? Or do you think you knew already and the injury happened because something was asked of you that was incompatible with what your body is able of?
I needed to learn this lesson of self care, of course it’s a pretty huge and dramatic way to learn it but it obviously got the message through to me. I was working at a rate that my body couldn’t keep up with and now I respect my body and it’s limitations. I needed to learn that it’s okay to say no sometimes, even if it means maybe I don’t get to dance a certain show or do a certain role, I dance because I love moving and expressing something but I want a healthy body for the rest of my life and that’s my priority. I’m so grateful for all the things that my injury has shown me, it’s helped me grow and develop as a person and also a dancer- what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!
What’s your ultimate advice for colleagues and students who are currently injured?
Injuries aren’t a sprint to get back- it can be a marathon, it’s worth taking the proper time to do your rehabilitation. Make sure to take care of your mental state, seek help from friends, family or a professional! Also, we work so intensely as dancers and it’s pretty all consuming, an injury can offer us the gift of time, use it to work and develop other interests or discover new ones – life is still happening while you’re injured or recovering!