Category Archives: embodiment

Rephabulous: Dance and Therapy


Juan Manuel doing physical therapy in a dance studio after a near-death accident.
Juan Manuel doing physical therapy in a dance studio after a near-death accident.

It’s hard for me to write this post because it brings a lot of pain, emotional, physical, and otherwise. I want to tell you I have been working on a new studio production or that I created a site-specific piece or that I got invited to do an international collaboration. But I can’t. Or at least, I can tell you I started most of these projects, but I stopped halfway through because dance and therapy have changed for me in the past two years.

I have been on a non-linear recovery path since September 2017. I suffered a near-death experience in Mexico during the turbulent week of September during which catastrophic earthquakes left hundreds dead. As a dancer, I always expected I would experience some type of an injury, but I never imagined it would be something so significant as re-learning to walk, shower, and eat. Neither did I imagine I would be learning how to dance with PTSD. I have yet to process the entirety of the experience but I am starting to put words or questions to this past year. One of the central concerns is examining how I dance after a near-death experience that left me with new disabilities and sensibilities.

I have been asking myself this question every day for the 18 months as my abilities have changed. I’ve danced on the bed. I’ve danced in a wheelchair. I’ve danced with crutches. I have danced with a limp. I have danced on the verge of an anxiety attack.  Now, I dance with chronic pain.  I avoid sitting too long because my muscles get stiff. I avoid standing too long because my bones ache. My life is dictated by a constant list of actions and movements to avoid, or positions that need constant modification.

My journey has been long and it has never been linear. I was evacuated out of Mexico and spent four months bed-bound to recover from complex fractures sustained on the right-side leg, hip, and elbow. After I was cleared to put weight on my foot in early January 2018, I started to work on my physical therapy regime. I was bed bound for most of the day and would use a wheelchair when I got up to the bathroom. Though I was patient with myself, I was determined to walk as soon as possible. I had the double challenge of having the entire right side of my body injured, which prevented me from being able to use a walker because I could not put weight on my elbow until it healed. This situation delayed the time I could put weight on my leg. Physical and occupational therapists would visit my house at least four times a week as part of home health care. At one point in time, I had twelve specialists. They facilitated rigorous exercises to get my range of motion back and to make sure that my muscles were not atrophying. The aim was to increase the muscle mass on my legs and glutes so I could hold myself up when I walked. Yet my wounds were still healing so the experience of putting weight on any muscles was painful. I can still feel the time I sat on the side of my bed and put weight on my swollen right foot for the first time after months of being unable to feel the bottom side.

Throughout this process, I had to learn to talk to my muscles and encourage them in order to continue my healing. In January of 2018, my right elbow stopped recovering its range of motion. The muscles were stiffing up. One day, as I massaged my biceps and the elbow to prevent the build-up of scar tissue, I felt my muscles wanting to cry. I began to listen to them as their whimpers expressed they still were traumatized from my fall from the third story building. They were having a hard time relaxing in the new environment, being unsure if it was time to relax. They were in crisis mode. The adrenaline had crystallized between the muscles’ fibers. My bicep wanted to hear from me that it was time to heal. So I said, “Thank you for all you did to protect me during the fall. You did a fabulous job contracting and helping the elbow bone take the impact. I am so grateful for you. You protected the vital organs. You are vital too. It is okay to ease up now. You don’t have to be scared anymore. You have done your job.” At that moment, my bicep muscle and I cried together. Fue un desahogo total. I felt it release some tension and I was able to increase my elbow’s range of motion. More important than seeing the increased range of motion, I was thankful to hear my muscle speak. No doctor instructed me to talk to my muscle. No doctor talked to me about dance and therapy. In fact, the doctors asked me if I was talking to a mental therapist when I mentioned to them I was talking to my muscles. My muscle advocated for itself. I regretted not having listened to it any sooner than that moment.

The past year and a half I have been learning to listen to my muscles. My body has become the studio. My body has become a site-specific location.  My body has become an international collaborator. I have been at the gym or physical therapy five to six time a week for the past 18 months. The weight machines are my companions. The same playlist has been on repeat for 18 months. I’ve learned to talk to my muscles and we are creating a language of our own.

My muscles and I  have come to call this process of learning to listen to each other rephabulous. The word rehab is hidden inside of this motivational phrase because this rehabilitation process is about acknowledging the fabulousness of my muscles, seeing them in all of their glory and all of their struggles. And so I am relearning to dance after this near-death experience with a new sensibility that hears my muscles and the way they speak, love, and care for me. We are taking care of each other anew.