Setting Me Free

Wake up, dance, eat, go to bed. Wake up, dance, eat, go to bed.

As a dancer, that was my life, nearly every day since I was a child. That's the life I wanted, and that's the life I was living.

Everything was super until one day in February 2005. I felt a strange clicking in my right hip. Like many artists, I have lived and breathed and sacrificed for my art through many successes and disappointments. A clicking hip wasn't go to stop me.

I was wrong. It did.

I functioned for two whole days despite the clicking. On the third day I awoke in debilitating pain. I couldn't lift my leg more than three inches off the floor to the side or back. Every time I took a step I felt an abnormal shift on the outer side of my hip.

Uh, oh.

I didn't remember injuring myself. Was something out of place? Did something tear? What could it be? Will I need surgery?

Calm down I said. It's just another ache. Take a day off, chug down some Advil and run yourself an Epsom salt bath.

I did. No help.

It's really hurting now. I'm distracted, tense and worried. O.k., whip out the Tiger Balm. Done. Ice pack. Check. Heating pad? Yup.

The next day I couldn't walk. My hip just couldn't bear any weight. I had to lean entirely on my left leg and hold the wall for support just to get from the bedroom to the kitchen. Walking took an eternity. I had to muster the strength to lift my right foot and then place it down ever so carefully. My hip was killing me. Burning. Throbbing. Piercing pain. And my stomach hurt from too much Advil. I knew it.

Something was really wrong. I felt disturbed and abandoned by my own body. Please make this stop. I pleaded and then cried in the hallway. Alone. Forehead pressed to the wall. Evening approaching. Tears dripping. Panic gripped me.

I want to dance again. I so want to dance.

Next thing I know I'm on the phone trying to get an appointment with an orthopedist. I need to know what's wrong. I'm desperate and rude to the receptionist.

"Look, I need to see him now. This is an emergency." Finally, I get to see him, labeled, 'the last patient'.

He starts asking me a bunch of routine questions: Where is the pain? What was I doing when I first felt the pain? How would I describe the pain? When did the clicking start? etc. My eyes are still swollen from crying.

He tells me to lie down on the examination table. It's covered with white paper. The room is silent. He palpates and feels my hip. Takes my leg, rotates it this way and that. The paper crinkles beneath me. He tests my range of motion, making notes in my chart. I'm holding my breath, staring at his face, scared of what he's going to say.

"Well," he says finally, "I'm going to give you a steroid injection".

An injection?! I sit up.

"But wait, you never told me what's wrong." At this point his back is facing me and he's already preparing the injection.

"It's your IT band," he says. "Iliotibial band, also known as runner's syndrome." It's a severe case of bursitis in the hip joint caused by the way I walk, scoliosis, and relentless turnout in the hip.

My words come quick and scattershot: "But I'm not a runner. Will this heal? When will I be able to dance again?" With an indifferent gesture he motions me to lie back down on my side.

I do, watching the long needle head straight toward my hip. My heart is pounding. This is my hip. I'm not ready for this. "Show me exactly where it hurts." I point, thinking he wants to avoid that spot.

I was wrong. He injects the needle precisely into the most painful area.

"It's important that the injection is direct," he says, "otherwise it might not work." My eyes are bulging, and I want to punch him. It feels like the injection is taking forever. It goes deeper. I'm gripping my blue paper gown. I feel naked and raw. My limbs are cold.

I start crying, which I rarely do around others. "It hurts. It really hurts."

"I know," he says, holding the needle steady. Tears are streaming down my face. I'm a total mess.

My recovery was slow, entailing ongoing physical therapy and steroid injections. I had to learn how to walk 'correctly' and perform hours of mundane exercises at the clinic and at home.

I'm not very patient. The worst part of it was that since I couldn't dance, rehearse or perform, I really had nothing to do. Suddenly I had so much space and silence. For the first time since childhood there was no dance class to attend, no vision to pour myself into, no performance to get excited about. The ride had stopped mid-way.

During this empty time there were so many details I missed, like the daily act of choosing a fresh leotard for the day ahead. Packing water, chocolate and other delights in my dance bag. Twisting my hair up and then setting it free at the end of the day. Most of all, I missed the smell, taste and feel of the dance studio. The shared sweat and grime, the dirt and glory all over me in every pore. I loved it with my whole being, and I ached for it deeply.

Now it was physical therapy, and then Pilates and yoga. Yoga. I had trouble staying on my mat because I often felt a distracting urge to bolt across the room, just run, be free and get that high I used to get from dance. (Sadly, monkey mind was added to my list of ailments.)

So I listened to music, gazed out the window and read a lot. Then, one day, I came across a quote that forever changed my life:

"Remember that you are unique. If that has not been fulfilled, then something wonderful has been lost." – Martha Graham

Unique? I've heard this before. I'm unique. You're unique. Every single human being is unique. We all know this, yet how many of us actually discover and express our uniqueness?

It occurred to me that most of the time we're too busy being ruled by fear of rejection from lovers, bosses, friends, colleagues, teachers, society and family to ever think about being unique, or even just slightly different. We want to be accepted, and we go to great lengths to achieve this. Most people are conditioned from birth to fit in and follow a laid-out path. We compromise and wear masks that both distort and shield us.

I began to think deeply on this and delved far into my own inner world. One afternoon I bolted up startled by the sudden realization that I was going to be dead one day. Yes, dead. Without a doubt. Oh, no! Was I on the right path? Living a meaningful life or just being on autopilot? What is my contribution here? Am I really happy? What's possible for me in this lifetime? What is my purpose?

I had what you could call a full-blown existential crisis. The framework of my life was crashing down around me,and yet somehow, sacred doors were opening in me, leading me to a place of safety I had never been before. I followed, and entered my own inner truth. I had arrived at my core and knew one thing for sure. Life is precious and I wasn't going to be afraid to be me. This is my life right here and now, and I want it to be honest and amazing!

Something inside said, "Now, Suzana—live now!"

That day, I made it my mission to follow my heart and be me. Surprisingly, following my heart meant returning to the art of drama, which I studied and loved in college but gave up in order to focus exclusively on dance. Sacrifice is what you're told to do for dance.

That year, inspired by a keen sense of my own mortality, I changed the way I lived and this inevitably changed my art. Egged on by a strange new urgency and drive, I began to do things my way, create my own new art and live on my terms.

I began to give expression to my whole being by creating dance-theatre works that were both dance and theatre-based as opposed to just a rearrangement of pretty dance steps I learned in class. I found myself getting really raw and soulful on stage, exploring both the emotional and the physical with a blinding hunger for self-realization and no regard for rules. No longer was I a pretty ballerina. I had become a strange new animal, equal part actress, dancer, choreographer, producer; my voice, my vision.

Supported from within by a heightened sense of the brevity of life, I put all excuses and BS aside and became fearless, like a lion in the wild, I roared. I made both fierce enemies and friends during this time.

Bursitis caused the first crack in my shell. Bursitis shattered me so that I could find my self. It still shows up sometimes but not nearly as severe. No big deal. I breathe and open to a gentler way of being. Bursitis brought a nurturing quality into my life and a new found strength and sense of purpose from a source I least expected—my true self. Thank you bursitis. You've set me free. I love you.

"Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all." – Helen Keller

Suzana Stankovic's newest work,
P U R E, fuses dance, drama, projection, lighting and everyday objects, to celebrate human potential, self-determination and truth. It was inspired in great part by the inward journey.

P U R E will be performed on Fri., June 12 and Sat., June 13, 2009 at 8:00 p.m. at 15 West 28th Street, 2nd Floor, between Broadway & 5th Ave., New York City. A post-performance party is included. For information, visit Tickets are $25; $18 in advance. Tickets are available at Smarttix. Use the code PURESP2 to get $15 rush tickets.

Born in NYC, Suzana Stankovic studied gymnastics as a child, ballet with Callina Moraitis, at The Joffrey Ballet School, and with world-renowned teachers at Steps NYC and ballet arts at City Center. She presented her first piece of choreography at age 19. In 2007 she presented full-length modern ballet "Rapture," and shared the stage in a principal role with Tony-winner Savion Glover at The Joyce Theater. Suzana sees herself as equal part actress, dancer, director, choreographer and producer. For more information, visit