As Cincinnati Ballet performs at Kennedy Center this week, dance medicine plays a principal role

Athletic trainer will be in the wings

CINCINNATI -- Unlike the Cincinnati Bengals, the Cincinnati Ballet does not publicly release an injury report each week.

But that doesn't mean that on any given afternoon you won't find Jacqui Haas, Mercy Health's supervisor of performing arts medicine, working to get the city's finest dancers back on their feet without missing a performance.

In a basement facility of the ballet's headquarters on Central Avenue, Haas -- herself a former dancer -- functions like any athletic trainer. Performers go through the same physical therapy exercises as a football or baseball player might, and that's precisely the idea.

In a basement facility of Cincinnati Ballet's headquarters on Central Avenue, performers go through the same physical therapy exercises as a football or baseball player might.

"We designed the program just like an athletic training room for a college or pro football or basketball program," Haas said as nearby a trainer helped a dancer stretch on a table. "We see shoulder dislocations, tibial fractures, ACL tears, rotator cuff damage. If something happens during a show, you can't call a timeout -- you have to keep going. Every performance, every day is like the Final Four."

Mercy Health and the Cincinnati Ballet partnered to provide the institution's dancers guidance, strength training and therapy when a jump or lift goes bad, which is something every dancer experiences at some point in his or her career.

Dancer Kris Santos is using the facility to overcome his own injury. 

"If you don't ever have a career-damaging injury, you're not a real dancer," Santos said, his crutches by his side. "I have a stress fracture in my shin, and 30 years ago that would have been it for me. I would have been done. It's been amazing to be able to have this, because the scary thing about our profession is that we can be injured doing something we do every single day."

James Cunningham, a soloist who has been with the ballet for nine seasons, said the therapy has helped him get back to dancing faster. 

"The team is so close to us, literally in the basement, and personalizes care for each dancer," Cunningham said. "As an artist it's important to check in and maintain our instrument to be sure we are performing safely and to the best of our abilities."

Mercy Health's performing arts medicine facility in the Cincinnati Ballet building is like an athletic training room for a college or pro football or basketball program.

Victoria Morgan, the Cincinnati Ballet's artistic director and CEO, recognizes the importance of keeping dancers as finely tuned as professional athletes.

"What has stretched the definition of our art form is the incorporation of other genres of movement, and the cross-training involved in being a ballet dancer is very important, the kind of power you have to have to get to the floor and up again," Morgan said. "It's made different athletes out of our performers, and it's so healthy that they have the opportunity to view and work on their muscles in a totally different way."

Haas and her colleagues are not only available during daily rehearsals but also wait in the wings during each performance in case something goes awry or a dancer requires a quick massage.

They also help supply dancers with strength exercises to work through difficult stretches of a ballet.

"Sometimes you'll hold one position so long that your legs can go numb -- then you're jumping and your leg is numb and you can't feel your foot, and that's when injuries happen," said dancer Melissa Gelfin.

Gelfin especially can't afford an injury right now; both she and Cunningham will travel to Washington, D.C., this week when the Cincinnati Ballet performs "The Nutcracker" at the iconic John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Each year the Kennedy Center invites one ballet company to present its version of the ballet, and this year Cincinnati was asked to deliver its own.

"It's a whole lot of pressure, but it's a dream come true," said Gelfin, who portrays the Sugar Plum Fairy in Cincinnati's iteration.

The company will perform seven performances over Thanksgiving weekend, accompanied by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.

In "The Nutcracker," a dancer might have multiple roles, which means quick changes, running off-stage, completely changing costumes, running back out. So dancers need stamina, and have to be prepared for wear and tear on their bodies.

Morgan choreographed the Cincinnati Ballet's current version of the traditional holiday ballet. 

"The Kennedy Center is connected to the upper echelon of truly great dance; they could choose from any company and they chose us," Morgan said. "It's a huge honor. There's a lot of excitement."

Gelfin said that while "The Nutcracker" is a quintessential holiday performance, it ranks among the hardest to perform.

"In 'The Nutcracker,' a dancer might have three roles, " Gelfin said. "There are quick changes, running off-stage, completely changing costumes, running back out -- you have to have stamina, and you have to be prepared for how much wear goes on your body."

But Haas' dance medicine team will be well-represented, with head athletic trainer Kelly Jo Trimble waiting in the Kennedy Center wings. And Haas has the confidence of a football coach who has prepared her team for a championship win.

"They'll be ready," Haas said. "These guys never choke."

Cincinnati Ballet performs at Kennedy Center this week

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