Nicole Zizzi and Alana Rochford are dancers who met for the first time at an audition. For Nicole, who is 27, the audition was a turning point in her recovery from hip surgery, a procedure called periacetabular osteotomy (PAO). For the procedure, an orthopedic surgeon makes a series of cuts in the bone around the hip socket to rotate it into the proper position. Metal screws are then inserted into the bone to hold the hip socket in place.
It had been a year and a half since her PAO surgery, but Nicole was still questioning her physical capabilities. Alana, 21, had soldiered through the same surgery several years earlier and returned to dance as soon as she could, pushing away any feelings that got in the way.
Even though Nicole and Alana were in good physical shape, the emotional impact of surgery had left a mark on both of them. This is the story of how friendship helped these dancers heal.
Love of dance interrupted by hip pain
Alana: My hip story started at a very young age. I remember coming home from dance class when I was 16, wanting to do nothing but lay in bed because my hip was so painful. It took many years of bouncing around from doctor to doctor, physical therapists, and misdiagnoses to land at Boston Children’s Hospital.
When Dr. Yi-Meng Yen delivered the news that I had hip dysplasia and would need surgery, I pushed it out of my mind and tried to focus on dancing. Flash forward a couple of months. I came home from class in excruciating pain and told my mom, quite emotionally, I wanted the surgery.
In April 2015, I underwent a PAO with Dr. Michael Millis and a hip arthroscopy with Dr. Yen. The recovery was grueling and painful. The toughest part for me was being confined to a wheelchair and crutches. As a dancer, I use my body to express myself. But I was already scheduling college auditions for that coming winter and knew I needed to focus on my physical recovery.
Nicole: I danced throughout my entire childhood, starting at the age of 2. Since high school, I’ve dreamed of having a career that combines the sciences and the arts through dancing. I even now run a dance company of my own, Evolve Dynamicz. Needless to say, dancing is a crucial aspect of my life and mental health.
My hip journey was not an easy one. After years of misdiagnoses and missed dancing opportunities, I was finally diagnosed with hip dysplasia at Boston Children’s Hospital.
I’d never heard of PAO surgery before my surgeon Dr. Travis Matheney explained the procedure to me. I had PAO surgery in December 2017, but I never met anyone in person who’d had the same surgery until I met Alana.
An audition and a chance meeting
Nicole: About a year and a half after my surgery, I decided I should push my dancing and try to get back to where I was before my hip started to hurt. I ended up at an audition where I was doing jumps, kicks, and turns at a level I hadn’t attempted since before my surgery. I could feel the hardware in my hip and mentioned this to some of the other dancers. Alana overheard me and we almost immediately figured out that we are both PAO warriors.
Alana: Throughout most of the audition, Nicole was assisting the director, Jennifer Crowell-Kuhnberg of Onstage Dance Company. Not once did I think she was a year and a half post-op. She moves with so much fluidity and strength. That’s what stood out for me.
In all the years since my surgery, Nicole is the only other person (never mind dancer) I’d met who’d undergone a PAO procedure. I came into the audition not knowing a single soul, and left that evening blown away by the fact that I’d met a dancer going through what I had gone through five years before.
Dancing after hip surgery, dancing together
Alana: Nicole and I were both cast in the performance, “What Is Love?” It was a perfect opportunity to spend several months rehearsing together and getting to know each other.
Nicole is so wonderful to work with. Her gentle disposition and drive motivated me, and so did her commitment to mental health. This friendship has helped me understand some of the darker periods of my recovery. Physically I healed quite fast, but the mental recovery came much later. In fact, I’m still working on it!
Nicole: The hardest part of surgery is the mental part. After surgery, I worked with Kelsey Griffith, a performance enhancement and rehab specialist at the Micheli Center, to identify the mental blocks that came with recovery. I learned a lot, but a big surgery like PAO takes a long time to bounce back from.
It was serendipitous that Alana and I met for my first physically intense project after surgery. I had never met another dancer who had a PAO, let alone someone who was dancing at the level I wanted to achieve. I was holding myself back, scared I would hurt myself, but Alana helped me realize I could push myself safely. She helped me gain confidence and trust in my dancing body again.
The healing power of community
Alana: I so wish I had met Nicole during my recovery process. I was so young, and didn’t fully grasp what I was getting myself into, or how challenging it would be to recover fully.
Nicole taught me that a happy mind is a happy body. You can’t neglect your mental recovery. I wish I had started focusing on my mental health earlier ⎯ it probably would have lightened some of the tougher periods I went through after surgery. But Nicole helped me realize it’s not too late to make my wellbeing a priority.
Nicole: Dancing has always provided me with a close-knit community. When you dance with people, you connect on a subconscious, physical level. It creates connections that are almost impossible to replicate elsewhere. The community I felt I’d lost when I had surgery is also the community that brought me Alana. She has inspired me to keep pushing myself, both physically and mentally. Dancing is now, and will continue to be, an integral part of my identity.
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