Injured ballerina discovers Pilates and choreographs a new career for herself and others

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Leslie Braverman helped pave the way for dancers moving into second careers, and 24-year-old Holly Shaw, a BodyVox performer, has followed her lead at Pacific NW Pilates.Leslie Braverman remembers the feeling. It was not a good feeling.

Like most young women in her profession, dancing was the only thing that mattered. She had worked her way up to the professional level, performing for years with the Oregon Ballet Theatre. Then the pain started in her leg, and it wouldn’t go away. It was 1997, the turning point in her life.

Regular rehabilitation and dancing through the pain didn’t work. So Braverman had surgery to repair a tibial stress fracture, basically spelling an end to her ballet career, and she ended up retiring after a brief stint with BodyVox.

Her lifelong love had become a thing of the past.

“I didn’t want to stop dancing. To leave that, it was really, really difficult,” says Braverman, 42. “To any dancer it’s a really challenging transition, even more so because so many dancers don’t have a college education. They don’t necessarily have any future plans. It’s all they’ve done, and unless they’ve been proactive thinking about (the future), they really walk into the real world going, ‘I have no skills except for this.’ By default, a lot of them end up teaching dance.

“It’s interesting that a lot of people have these encore careers, where they transition later in life,” she adds. “As a dancer, you’re quite young, and that’s all you’ve done. My identity and everything about me was wrapped up in that role as a person.”

Braverman learned about Pilates from a doctor friend and “got lucky,” taking over instruction at a friend’s Pilates studio ... and the rest is history. She co-founded Pacific NW Pilates in 2001 in Vancouver, Wash., later branching out to Portland. She sold the Vancouver studio and put all her efforts into the Pacific NW Pilates studio in Southwest Portland.

There, Braverman can share her experiences with many others, from a dancer who has come down with an injury, another looking for a new career, or a client who simply wants to transition into better health through Pilates. The workout is a form of nonimpact resistance training, often with specialized machines, that emphasizes flexibility and specific strength building. Braverman’s studio teaches Stott Pilates, an even more specific form of the body conditioning.

“Somebody comes in with a back or knee injury, and they’re scared,” she says. “They don’t know necessarily know which way to turn, because regular exercise hurts them, but they need to get stronger. They’ve left a PT (physical therapy) situation and gone out on their own. ... There is that personal experience of saying, ‘I’ve been through that process, it’s a huge lifetime change.’ ”

To mark National Pilates Week this week, Braverman’s studio put on a free clinic titled Pilates: Stabilize Your Dancing and Your Future, geared toward dancers, who may or may not be faced with injuries, but who need to think about their future.

Cross training

Holly Shaw, 24, already has received the message. The BodyVox dancer has achieved her Stott Pilates certification and has been teaching at Pacific NW Pilates for nearly three years.

She sees the need for a career transition in the future and has prepared for it — something rare in her line of work.

Has Shaw seen any other dancers proactively think about their future?

“No,” she says. “A majority of dancers that I’ve known and know currently are dancing, and that’s all they have in their mind right now. They don’t have a plan for what’s going to happen when they’re injured or they don’t get a contract next season, or their body just can’t do it anymore.

“Oh my gosh, I feel better about dancing now because I have a second career going for myself. Ultimately, I’d like to have a studio in my home; that’s the long-term goal.”

It might not be just an injury that forces transition. Dancers are usually signed on year-to-year contracts, if not month-to-month or project-to-project. The end can come quickly, and the emotional fall can be just as bad as an injury.

“There’s such a high that dancers can get from being on stage and performing,” Shaw says.

Shaw received her Stott Pilates certification, and another BodyVox dancer, Anna Marra, has been working toward hers. To establish another career path is an important step for a dancer, Braverman says.

Says Braverman, of Shaw: “She’s very forward-thinking that way. She has come to Pilates on her own. This has been such an incredible way for her to continue to dance and branch into a different career. Again, it lends itself beautifully to what she’s doing. ... This is such a beautiful transition for a dancer. It’s using skills you know — a lot of them.”

A female dancer’s career usually ends by her early-30s, with a few exceptions, because of the unnatural movement, flexibility and strength required. “It really depends on the dancer,” Braverman says.

“Physically (Pilates) helps you because it’s like cross-training for a dancer. There are so many similar movements found in dance. The emphasis on length as well as strength, just like dancing. Fluidity, coordination, all these things you find in dance you find in Pilates.”

Many nondancers who want to improve their health also are at a critical transition point. Pilates is one way to go.

“I have a client right now who has been doing Pilates for years,” Shaw says, “and she is so much stronger than when she first came in. She’s able to fix problems that she feels approaching in her body on her own, which is key, taking it into your real life and being stronger. I’ve had a client come in purely for their lower back pain, and that problem’s gone, and now we’re just trying to get her stronger.”

Braverman says: “It was a huge lifetime change dealing with an injury coming out of something so important as dance was to me. I’ve experienced that same sort of fear, feeling that same disempowerment and not knowing what to do.”

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