Janis Brenner: The Body Does Not Forget

Pro­fes­sion­al dancers are dif­fer­ent from the rest of us.  But there’s one sig­nif­i­cant way that they’re not dif­fer­ent.

Read this arti­cle that my guest author, Janis Bren­ner, wrote a few years back for Dance­View Mag­a­zine.  She out­lines the many lay­ers of injury and bod­i­ly stress that have punc­tu­at­ed her years as a dancer, chore­o­g­ra­ph­er, singer, and teacher.

Seems like a steep price to pay.

Janis Brenner

Jump­ing Janis

But her sto­ry isn’t much dif­fer­ent than that of most of my patients, whether they’re dancers, archi­tects, ele­men­tary school teach­ers, or any­thing else.

You may not think that you earn a liv­ing by mov­ing your body.  But you do.

And, like Janis, your accu­mu­lat­ed injuries, acci­dents, spills, aches and pains have a sig­nif­i­cant cumu­la­tive effect.

But the effect isn’t all neg­a­tive.  Every­thing that has hap­pened to you becomes part of your sto­ry. You can pre­tend to ignore the inci­dents of the past, but your body doesn’t for­get.

danceview Magazine


by Janis Brenner

There is a body I would like to believe that I own, but the truth is it owns me and always

This body rules my sleep, my work, my play, my dreams. Every morn­ing before a clear
thought can be for­mu­lat­ed, it wakes me to its call­ings. My “forty-something”-year-old
dancer’s feet take their first hes­i­tant, weight­ed steps and mes­sage me right up through the
ankles, up the Achilles, inside the calf mus­cle to the back of my knee and around the inside
to the patel­la.

Some days the lit­tle calls for help man­age to stop there after I have tak­en a full stroll
around the liv­ing room. Then I begin to hear from my neck and shoul­ders, the left
side test­ing to see if I still remem­ber l975’s rib crunch when the Freed twins, Mor­ris and
Oliv­er, were fig­ur­ing out how to lift all nine­ty-five pounds of me in a leap com­bi­na­tion by
dig­ging their fin­gers in under my left breast and under­arm until I could no longer breathe.
Some­how the crunch trav­eled up my side, set up house in my shoul­der sock­et, and has lived
there ever since.

There is the rit­u­al twist-to-the-left crack of my low­er spine that needs to hap­pen before
break­fast which some­times deter­mines whether I gath­er the moti­va­tion to get myself to
dance class or just get back into bed. If the dull ache at the base of my skull goes beyond a
2.5 on the throb scale, I choose to give in to tak­ing the two Tylenol or to call­ing Drs. Cas­tro,
Cal­vano or Cai for the nev­er-end­ing, expen­sive and only tem­po­rary Chi­ro­prac­tic heal­ing.

Then there’s the slight­ly less mobile right thumb from l983; bro­ken from smash­ing into
Dan­ny Shapiro on stage while wear­ing an Alwin Niko­lais-invent­ed, black-mesh net­ting over
my face that my eye­lash­es were entan­gled in, pre­vent­ing me from see­ing where the hell I
was going. I still pic­ture the cos­tume design­er of the show chid­ing me only the day before
the thumb smash for com­plain­ing to him about the face encase­ment, assum­ing I was just
being a pri­madon­na who had long eye­lash­es. Per­haps break­ing my thumb was my per­verse,
masochis­tic way of say­ing “ I told you so”.

There’s the torn-lig­a­ment-of-my-left-foot reminder from l984, incurred while on an
out­door stage in France with the Dave Brubeck Quar­tet in what was meant to be my final
per­for­mance after sev­en years with the Mur­ray Louis Dance Com­pa­ny. In the open­ing
minute of “Glances”, a dance I had per­formed at least one hun­dred times before, I jumped
up to push Rob McWilliams’ chest and came down onto the out­er rim of my sick­ling, left
foot. Not able to even remote­ly stand back up, I crawled off the stage between Rob’s upright
legs, his state-of-shock face watch­ing me ped­dle off under­neath him like a wound­ed

Janis Brenner

As I dragged myself into the wing, Dave Brubeck yelled out sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly, “Are you
going to be able to get up, Princess?” “I don’t think so, Dave”, I man­aged to blurt out before
real­iz­ing the agony I was in. That fall was a direct and swift pun­ish­ment from the Dance
Gods. Hav­ing shown up late to the the­ater, I did not have time to warm up prop­er­ly before
the show because I had been” busy” with some­one I should not have been busy with at 5
o’clock in the afternoon…or at all.

And then there is the hid­den, lit­tle crevice in my forehead–the “il den­to pic­co­lo”– from the
Ital­ian bus crash of ‘78. Trav­el­ing to Flo­rence, the final des­ti­na­tion on my first and the
company’s longest Euro­pean tour in its his­to­ry, our tour bus skids off the high­way into the
on-com­ing traf­fic. It top­ples over onto its side, is slid into by a Semi-truck and
mirac­u­lous­ly, all twelve of us man­age to hob­ble out through the shat­tered front win­dow.
Three of us have cuts, includ­ing Mur­ray, one has bruis­es from hav­ing all the lug­gage fall on
top of him, the rest are severe­ly shak­en and dis­ori­ent­ed and I have a con­cus­sion.

When­ev­er I am still made aware of the lit­tle dent, occa­sion­al­ly on rainy days, I think
imme­di­ate­ly of Shake­speare. I’m right back in the Flo­rence hos­pi­tal hav­ing elec­trodes wired
to my skull for an EKG. I am so pet­ri­fied the doc­tors will dis­cov­er brain dam­age that I’m
lit­er­al­ly recit­ing, “To be or not to be…that is the ques­tion…” out­loud, so they’ll notice I can
still make thoughts. Much lat­er on, after every­one in the com­pa­ny has made it home, it
occurs to me that recit­ing Shake­speare solil­o­quies out­loud in an Ital­ian hos­pi­tal ward no
doubt made me appear even cra­zier.

Right next to the dent is the bump and mem­o­ries of my head, Hal­loween and hel­mets.
We’re danc­ing Mur­ray Louis’ work “Prox­im­i­ties” in some the­ater in Queens, N.Y. on a rainy
Hal­loween night when Rob, whip­ping around at break-neck speed, acci­den­tal­ly does a front
bat­te­ment kick straight to my fore­head. I have no rec­ol­lec­tion of whether I fell, stood frozen
in time or some­how con­tin­ued with the steps. But I do remem­ber being helped back to the
dress­ing room where Mur­ray has run in car­ry­ing a long, shiny object. “Here, doll”, he says,
“put this spoon on your head right away!”

I am nau­seous, dis­ori­ent­ed and drained of any ener­gy even to ask why, so I sit there hold­ing a
met­al spoon against the bump, which is next to the dent, prob­a­bly recit­ing Shake­speare.
Fol­low­ing this inci­dent, the com­pa­ny chipped in and bought me a cus­tom-made, navy-blue
foot­ball hel­met with “BRENNER” embla­zoned across the front in embossed, red let­ters. For a
while I wore it at the begin­ning of each rehearsal day, part­ly as a joke, but also as a warn­ing
to all to pay atten­tion and stay away from my head.

It was back in l974 that I left col­lege after two years and moved to New York City to study
with Alwin Niko­lais and Mur­ray Louis. Three weeks into the fall term at their school, I
frac­tured the right foot’s metatarsal while jump­ing side­ways across the stu­dio floor with the
rest of the class.

For the next three months I came to the stu­dio every day to observe and
take notes, but also to bemoan my sor­ry state and won­der if this less-than-aus­pi­cious
begin­ning of my life as an artist in New York was a sign of things to come. Once or twice a
year now, when I jump off the foot, the cracked metatarsal again yells up at me, for no
rea­son I can imme­di­ate­ly under­stand. But what I have come to see, almost appre­ci­ate, is the
momen­tary flash of rec­og­niz­ing that 20-year-old girl again; in the throes of learn­ing to
jump side­ways, to plie bet­ter, to move more deeply from the inside–all the things I am still
work­ing on twen­ty-three years lat­er. This makes the momen­tary foot re-crack strange­ly

When I left the Mur­ray Louis Dance Com­pa­ny in 1984, my hel­met went with me. It took me
years to final­ly dis­card that pos­ses­sion because I knew it had come to rep­re­sent all those
acci­dents and injuries as well as mem­o­ries of times, peo­ple and places I want­ed to hold

The asso­ci­a­tions had become emo­tion­al sou­venirs or even tro­phies. All of those
inci­dents altered my dai­ly life, and my danc­ing life, in some way–whether minute­ly or
momentously–and for that rea­son I had need­ed to think of them as keep­sakes. My life had
become housed in my body.

Martha Gra­ham once said, “Move­ment doesn’t lie.” To which I would add, “The body doesn’t


Deepen Your Body of Knowledge

More on Dancer Injuries

Anoth­er Reminder that Pay­ing Atten­tion to Your Body Mat­ters

Uni­ver­sal Sig­nif­i­cance of Dance


About Ronald Lavine, D.C.

Dr. Lavine has more than thirty years' experience helping patients alleviate pain and restore health using diverse, scientifically-based manual therapy and therapeutic exercise and alignment methods.

His website, askdrlavine.com, provides more information about his approach.

Please contact him at drlavine@yourbodyofknowledge.com or at 212-400-9663.

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