Life lessons from a dancer

Auckland raised, LA-based dancer Angelika Zueva’s career took an unexpected turn when she suffered a knee injury. She shares her journey to recovery and the lessons she learnt along the way.

Angelika Zueva’s dance career took off when she began dancing for New Zealand’s premier female dance company Street Candee. Since then she’s been working in New Zealand and Los Angeles with some of the top choreographers and hot new artists.

A typical week for Zueva comprises rehearsals, auditions, costume fittings, long days on sets and performing in front of thousands of people. That took a twist when she torn her ACL ligament. She describes how she coped with that in her own words.

Dancers, like athletes put their bodies through a lot on a daily basis and we rely on our bodies to sustain our work and income. I was fortunate to have my career take me to Los Angeles and for the first four months there I was dancing almost every day. Until I tore my ACL, the main ligament in your knee. When torn requires surgery with a typical nine to 12 months recovery period. I was just in rehearsal as usual and on a very simple jump, my left knee collapsed inwards tearing the ligament. This seems to be the thing with ACLs, it’s not an overuse injury, it’s not something you’re predisposed to (although women are at a higher risk than men), it’s just an accident, and it happens to a lot of people. During my long recovery process I’ve learnt a thing or two that have helped me heal my mind as well as my body, and I hope you can find them useful if you are too on a road to recovery.

At the time of the injury, the possibility of it being my ACL didn’t even occur to me – I simply wouldn’t let it. I tore my ACL in my other leg seven years earlier so I knew all that came with it and having just begun living my life in LA the possibility of me having to stop dancing and have surgery was just unthinkable.

Whilst waiting for my MRI results I spent a lot of time praying. Now I am spiritual but this isn’t something I typically do, but at the time I felt so helpless I didn’t know what else to do. Whether you’re religious or not, I think spending a few minutes every day with yourself and reflect on what you’re going through is very beneficial for your mental wellbeing. Whether you chose to pray or meditate, I feel in both activities you are trying to connect with something bigger than you, something you believe in. This process allowed me to centre my mind and 1) be thankful for what I do have and 2) realise what it is that I truly want, and so this was my

Lesson #1: Realising how lucky I was just to have a healthy body prior to the injury. It’s so easy to forget this when there’s nothing wrong with us and it was a good reminder to be thankful for all the good things I still had in my life. Another thing that became very clear to me at this time was what my goals were. Having time away from dance made me realise that it really is something that I want to do for a long time and although I was going through a setback it made me want to work that much harder to get to where I wanted to be.

Although I spent three weeks waiting for my results, when you’re a dancer I don’t think any amount of time can prepare you for the news that you need surgery. So when I got my results I completely broke down. I was really in a state of shock, but I picked up the phone and called my mom, my partner, and a close friend. This is when I learnt my next lesson.

Lesson #2: Talk to someone, talk to as many people as you can, get different perspectives. If you don’t feel like talking just count to three and just make yourself do it, coz trust me, this is the only way out.

If there was just one lesson I could share with you from this experience, this would be it. You have to talk to people. You have to talk because no person is an island and no person succeeds in this life on their own. Each person I spoke to gave me a different perspective and a different way of dealing with this.

My partner listened and let me get everything off my chest and told me that it was all going to be ok. He gave me the feeling of love and support that I really needed at that time and showed me that I wasn’t dealing with this on my own.

My friend, who also happens to be the director of the company I dance for in New Zealand gave me the game plan. She said that I have to find a way to stay involved in the industry even if I couldn’t dance. So I got in contact with a couple of choreographers and asked if they needed an assistant. This lead me to working with one of the hottest LA choreographers on some huge dance jobs. This kept me involved in the industry whilst being injured and built a solid foundation for when I’m recovered. If I didn’t speak to my friend I don’t think I would’ve thought of doing this on my own and would’ve never been a part of what turned out to be the biggest jobs of my career so far.

When I spoke to my mum she made me realise this wasn’t the end of the world. She was very matter of fact in the way she spoke and said something along the lines of “oh you tore your ACL? That’s ok ,it only takes one year to recover, you’ll be dancing soon enough, no big deal. And if you really don’t want to come home you don’t have to, you can just stay in LA. What else are you worried about? Tell me and I’ll show you that it’s nothing you can’t get over and that you’re gonna be ok”. I was like, wow, here I am crying on the phone thinking my dance career is over and I have to come back home, and there she is making me realise that it’s just a year, which on the scale of things isn’t actually a long time, and this isn’t the end of my career, So this was my…

Lesson #3: It’s really not that bad. When something so drastic happens in your life you do feel like your whole world is over. Yes, it’s very important to acknowledge your feelings and know that it’s totally ok to feel devastated, terrified or sad. But then take a step back, look at it from another perspective, and realise that whatever situation you find yourself in, you will overcome it and come out stronger in the end. We are never handed what we can’t handle, and guess what, this experience is actually going to make you better in ways you can’t even imagine.

So talking to each one of those people made a huge impact on how I coped with the injury. I can’t stress this enough, you have to talk and ask for help, even if it makes you uncomfortable. And if you’ve got no one to talk to, find a counsellor or call a helpline.

Lesson #4: You are simply enough. Your job, your passion, it does not define who you are. You define the person that you are, and you are interesting enough, smart enough, human enough to be important as you are. A lot of people who dedicate a large portion of their life to one thing start identifying themselves as that thing only – “I am a dancer and if I can no longer dance I don’t know what I am”. We need to realise that this is simply not true. There is so much more to us than being one dimensional, we all possess multiple talents and multiple interests, we just need to find them. I learnt this lesson when I tore my first ACL seven years ago. During that recovery I discovered my passion for personal training and working with people. And guess what, this did not take away from me as a dancer (which is something I was initially worried about) it actually added to me as a dancer and as a person. I think in the arts especially there is still a strong stigma about going “all in” with no plan B, that’s kind of our way of declaring our full and unconditional commitment to our art. But the fact is, having other interests and skills doesn’t mean you are taking anything away from your Plan A, in fact you are adding to it by making yourself a well-rounded, more interesting person.

To sum all of this up, if you’re going through an injury or any type of setback, just know that you’re going to come out stronger in the end. Acknowledge whatever you’re feeling but don’t let yourself dwell on the negatives. Talk about it and know that you are strong enough to overcome this. And finally, be open to learning the lessons this journey will teach you, just like it taught me.

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