The Road To Recovery; How Broadway’s Mikey Winslow Is Working To Reverse The Stigma About Injuries In The Dance World

by Michael Mahany | 3/27/2018 3:49 PM


Mikey Winslow. Photo Credit: Chad Wagner

 

Professional dancers have long been respected for their arduous work ethics, steadfast dedications to their art form, and an uncanny ability to perform through pain. Often to the detriment of their instruments, dancers, for generations, have masked injury and risked chronic damage in order to get or keep a job. That stigma—however respectable or repugnant it might seem to be— has pushed some dancers too far, and has left a unremovable stain on the dance world.

 

One performer, however, a formidable Broadway veteran and profound dancer, Mikey Winslow, has had enough.

 

“On March 15th, 2018, I got my left hip replaced,” Winslow wrote on social media. “I want to share this experience with the world because I believe we do not need to suffer in silence and hide our injuries from our industry.”

 

Winslow, who made his Broadway debut performing and dancing the role of Big Deal in the 2009 revival of West Side Story, has built a reputation in the professional community of being a fiercely strong and dynamic dancer, and an overall true triple threat. Winslow has also performed on Broadway in American Idiot, On The Town, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, and toured the US in the first national tour of Wicked.

 

After catching wind of his original social media post, Dance Network had a chance to exclusively speak with Winslow. One week after his surgery, we conducted an interview with the intention of providing an objective platform for him to publicly present the argument he seems so passionately to bear. We wanted to offer him the opportunity to talk directly to readers in order to voice not just where he came from and how he got to where he has, but even more importantly, to declare the why and how he’s striving to push the community passed the stigma about dance injuries that, for so long, in his opinion, has plagued the industry.

 

Read the interview with Mikey below.

 


Mikey Winslow. Photo Credit: Mikey Winslow

 

Dance Network: Mikey, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us and to share your story, we know it’s been a tough week of recovery and rehab. Now, before we get into your injury, surgery, recovery, and your thoughts on the stigma of injuries in the dance world, we’d like to hear a little about your history: back when it all began, what was it that initially drew you to dance?

 

Mikey Winslow: Well, the straightforward answer is that my sister was in dance class and my mother put me in class with her during the summer. (Laughing) I think it was to get us out of the house a bit, but I ended up liking it a lot, and although I was nervous about taking a full term class which involved a recital,— I didn’t think I could remember a routine after my second summer in jazz, I realized I was recalling the choreography with ease. 

 

What dance really became to me was the freedom to express with wild abandon. I had a ton of energy and I loved moving around. I used to do— little did I know— ‘turns in second’ in my basement, dubbing them “Nancy Kerrigan Turns”. My sister and I would recreate The Nutcracker every year after we saw it and I loved pretending to be the Russian dancers. They were so strong and had such power, and I think that really spoke to me.  There was an energy I needed to put out, and dance was a place to do it that felt safe and whole.

 

Dance Network: When you knew you wanted to be an actor and a dancer professionally, what training did you get and how did you go at making a career for yourself?

 

Mikey Winslow: Well I didn’t really know that I wanted to do musical theatre per se. I really wanted to be a music video back-up dancer. One of my teachers had moved to LA and had serious success in that field, and I wanted that lifestyle. (His name, by the way, is RJ Durrell… look him up, he’s got serious longevity and still choreographs for heavy hitting pop stars to this day.) I loved hip-hop, so I wanted to be the best hip-hop dancer in the world. My parents, however, had other thoughts… namely COLLEGE, which for me was a hard thing to digest. I’ll save you the long story, but I ended up in a small liberal arts program with a so-so dance program. I liked the campus and I had friends going there, but ultimately, it was a bad fit for me and I kinda got lost in some dark times. I knew I needed to get out, and I’d had another friend who mentioned the Musical Theatre Performance program at Western Michigan University. I figured I might as well give it a shot since I had done theatre in high school and really enjoyed it. I applied, got in, and that was that. The thing I think I got most out of WMU was a sense of individuality, which I believe is a large part of my success in my career. 

 

I should also supplement that long answer with: ballet. I went to ballet camp in the summers and that was huge. It gave me a solid foundation for my dancing, and it allowed me to have male teachers which was also huge, because I wasn’t really learning how to dance like a “man” in my early days. I certainly don’t fault that as a lapse in my normal training, on the contrary, I think it made me a very unique performer, but I do think there’s something to be said for boys and young men to learn how to move and dance in a masculine way. There is something innately masculine about classical ballet: the carriage of the upper body, the attitude of the mind, and while it can be chauvinistic and patriarchal without a doubt— and those things NEED to be considered— it gave me a mental vocabulary for style and a balancing of the duality of feminine/masculine identity in dance.

 

Dance Network: You’ve done some serious dance shows in your career—you danced Jerome Robbins’ choreography in West Side Story, you’ve danced A Chorus Line, Steven Hogget’s thrashy and angsty American Idiot, and so many, many other different and difficult styles— tell us about some of those experiences and how have you’ve managed to be such a chameleon of style throughout your career?

 


Mikey Winslow. Photo Credit: Jordan Matter

 

Mikey Winslow: Hmm… (laughing) I think by nature I’m a bit of a shape shifter, for better or for worse, and that has certainly made it easier to fit into different styles. What it really comes down to for me is understanding the character I’m embodying in my movement. I try to inform my movement from that place, and then I always infuse it with my own life-force. I have a hard aggressive edge that hides inside me, and when I move and find confidence in the steps, that comes out. 

 

West Side was an obvious transition for me, I had the ballet training, I loved flying through the air, I have a store of anger inside to draw from, and I’ve always been in a life long search of cool”. The style of the steps just made sense, and the difficulty of the steps excited me and made me push harder and harder. 

 

American Idiot was another easy one for me physically because I grew up punk— I don’t care what people say, it was legit for me. I was in the mosh-pits in high school and college, I saw how those kids moved and thrashed around, I understood the emotional release that happened in those circles, and I knew how to unleash it for myself. I think one of the greatest parts of [Steven] Hogget’s choreography in that show was the use of gestural phrases. It gave the performers, many of whom were coming from a singing background, a great way to communicate through the physical body. I found that the raw energy that came with that music and that story, when channeled into precise, specific, and often self-developed gestures, created a very visceral experience in storytelling.  Whether sitting on top of an amp stacked ten feet in the air on the back of the stage deck, or standing on the footlights and performing When September Ends”, the gestures were so personal and fueled, there was no way you could miss. Hogget gave each and every one of us the opportunity and ease to communicate in his language.

 

Dance Network: You were also a flying monkey in the tour of Wicked—and, we know you had an interesting experience auditioning for the show, can you tell us a little about that?

 

Mikey Winslow: Wicked.. well, Wicked was the first dance call I was ever cut from. I think it was the ballet on the bottom [half of the body] and contemporary on top [half] thing that the choreography uses. Although I had the training, I have never had the turn out, and at that initial audition I was wobbly, off my legs, and just couldn’t get there. I honestly never thought it was a show I would do, yet somehow, I managed to get back in the room. I seriously lucked out too, because I was called in for a singer-ensemble track and to cover the role of Boq. And, on top of all that, the dance supervisor, Corinne [McFadden- Herrera] had, literally seen me in American Idiot just two days prior to my audition. I was so panicked that I’d have to come back and do that original dance call again but, I got called to the singer’s dance call, and it was, well… cake. I got there, and it just felt different. I loved the embellished style of the “champagne hand” movement that appears all throughout that choreography; it felt like a natural affectation for me, and I connected it to a way that I liked to move that, I think, came from the female-focused training I grew up with. I’m not suggesting that the choreography in the show is innately feminine, I just think that early on, I unlocked an ability in myself to pick up style— be it masculine, feminine, or androgynous— and I found a way to connect with Wicked’s style

 


The men of Broadway’s On The Town. Photo Credit: broadway.com

 

Dance Network: You’ve also worked very closely with Joshua Bergasse; can you tell us a little about working with him on the dance heavy On The Town revival?

Mikey Winslow: With On the Town, well, it just came together. As you noted, I’ve spent so many hours over the past decade in the studio with Josh Bergasse and I love working with him. His personal style comes from a very [Jerome] Robbins and, specifically West Side Story, background. His shapes and attack make sense to me, there’s a wild abandon with which he moves, and there’s something about his style that my inner child seems to connect with. 

 

There were times, however, with On The Town when I doubted myself. I’d look at the five or six of us who did the opening steps of The Workman’s Dance”— it was me with a smattering of professional ballet dancers and kids who’d been on SYTYCD— and I’d think, jeez what am I doing here? But, it made me dig in and just throw it down as hard as I could, because at the heart of it, that’s what so much of the choreography in that show was all about.  A story about these sailors with just twenty-four hours in a city and chance to go nuts. We took it as an opportunity to leave it all on the floor every night, and that’s what we did.

 

Also, with that show specifically, there was also a lot of upper-class style and ballet partnering, and although I had a background in ballet, it wasn’t necessarily a character-style with which I was all that familiar. In those times, I found it really important to find the dancers in the room that I admired for their execution of a step, and I would just do my best to emulate that. I’d try to recognize where what they were doing resided in my body, and use that as a jumping off point. Dancers like Brandon Leffler and Michael Rosen were hugely impactful in my understanding of this style. I’ve always been scrappier and wilder, so having contemporaries to look up to when it came to this sort of “refined” style was key.

 

Dance Network: So, with all of those different styles, experiences, and shows, how have you cared for yourself as a dancer? And when it came to dealing with injuries, both minor or severe, how did you go about treating them and continuing to work?

 

Mikey Winslow: I’ve struggled with small injuries for the majority of my career, but it’s also something I haven’t really been good at dealing with— although in the last couple years I’ve really strived to do better and work more consistently to care for my instrument.

 

But, here’s the thing: my whole life in dance has been a gift. I was born with a hip deformity that caused the doctors to be unsure of my abilities to even walk.  Obviously, I turned out alright, but I’ve always known that I had that disadvantage, and pain has always been a part of the game. I wore that pain like a silent badge of honor. I knew that things were going to hurt, and I never expected them not to. And, as a result, I didn’t always take the best care of myself. I’d say oh well, and focus on distracting myself instead of really doing the work to care for my body because I felt that it wouldn’t matter.

 

In hindsight though, with what I know now, even with the inevitability of my body failing me, there are a lot of things I wished I’d have done differently. The biggest thing, though: viewing [physical therapy] as a temporary thing instead of creating a lifestyle that was focused on self-care. I’ve spent the majority of my career in PT, as I think a lot of pro dancers do, but I never really allowed myself to accumulate the healing knowledge I was receiving. I’d see dancers doing all these warm-ups and taking such specific care of their body and I honestly couldn’t be bothered to do that. Maybe it’s part of my wiring, or maybe I had a really low tolerance for what I perceived as boredom, but whatever it is, I do wish I would have been cultivating a self-care regime all along. Using my injuries and pain as an identity and point of pride ended up hurting me more than anything. Sure, it gave me a strength and resilience in my younger years, and bolstered my sense of wild abandon, fearlessness, and toughness” —all things that I use and connect with when I dance— but, I didn’t need to be so careless to receive the same stylistic and energetic benefits.

 


Mikey Winslow. Photo Credit: Chad Wagner

 

Dance Network: So, you think its better for dancers to live a life of self-care, and when injuries present themselves, to confront and deal with them, rather than ignore them?

 

Mikey Winslow: Precisely. Pain sucks, there’s no getting around that, but it’s how we deal with it that really matters.

 

Dance Network: So, why then do you think you initially hid your pain, instead of dealing with it?

 

Mikey Winslow: That’s a great question. I think I had the wrong perspective on pain and healing. I was looking at my situation in absolutes. I knew that things weren’t right in my hip because of the hip deformity I was born with, and I was unwilling to accept that the PT and accumulative self-care were actually helpful.  To me, I was on a road that was eventually gonna lead to a dead-end, and I was unable to comprehend the worth of chipping away at a mountain.  To me, the mountain was growing faster than the healing aspects, so I had this outlook of, ‘why does it even matter? It’s messed up anyway’. 

 

Now though, what I’ve learned is that everything is a bit more ambiguous than I was willing to see. Sure, I was on a path that eventually would lead to this surgery, but that didn’t mean that every bit of self-care, and exercise, and PT I could’ve done wouldn’t have ultimately helped in the long run. Of course, it’s really hard to work against an immovable force, and it’s easier to bend under that pressure and just get by, but the real honor comes in working for the good, even when you know that the ratio isn’t in your favor. I mean, that’s what we’re really all doing in this art form, isn’t it?

 

Never again will I lie down and just await my fate. I’ll look at it head on and address it. I hope that hearing my story, other dancers can be better equipped for these sorts of struggles, because they will come up— be it major or minor—but, your intention, response, and action speaks volumes of your character.

 

Dance Network: When did you know you were going to need to replace your left hip? Could you give us a little insight into that decision, and about the preparation, surgery, and prognosis?

 

Mikey Winslow: So, to elaborate on what I mentioned earlier, I was born with Congenital Hip Dysplasia. Essentially, my legs didn’t move much when I was developing in the womb, because both legs were stuck behind my head. My right leg was able to develop a hip socket, but my left side never did. As an infant, I had a series of different therapies over the course of my first six months of life. I was placed in a Pavlik Harness for six weeks, after which I was placed in traction to stretch a tendon in my left hip. I underwent a Tenotomy surgery and was then placed in a Spica Body Cast. The body cast went from my toes to my armpits. (Laughing) There I was, a little plaster froggy. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for my mother, but she did the best she could.

 


Mikey Winslow. Photo Credit: Judy Sopeland

 

After the body cast came off, I had traction in both my crib and my stroller; with these little one-pound weights attached to ropes that went over pulleys were attached to my legs, and they’d move them back and forth to force movement patterns and encourage the development of a hip-socket. Fortunately, the procedure was quite successful and by the time I was one I was learning to walk!

 


Mikey Winslow. Photo Credit: Judy Sopeland

 

Fast forward to my college years at WMU: that’s when I started to have some real pain in my hips, and not just on the left side, but the right, too, because it was working overtime. 

 

Over the years, as I started dancing professionally, it would get worse, and then better, and then worse again— and, I just took it in stride. Eventually, though, I needed to start dealing with it, because the pain was starting to challenge my day to day life.  But, like I said, that pain had become a welcomed part of my identity.

 

That is, until a little over a year ago… I had been seeing the same orthopedic doctor here in New York for my injuries, but, I really began to feel we were overlooking something more sinister going on inside my hip. I decided to get a second opinion which really turned out to be the right route. The new doctor ordered fresh scans and found new and worsening joint damage, and, I found out that I had a torn labrum.

 

After even more scans, I found out I had a very large bone growth on the head of my femur which was causing mobility restriction in the flection of my left hip. So, I went to see a specialist, and that doctor, suggested that, given my dysplastic structure, I may have another demon to deal with.

 

Mikey Winslow as Riff in West Side Story. Photo Credit: Jerry Dalia

 

Even more scans were ordered—the 3D kind this time—  and sure enough, I had advanced arthritis within the socket itself.

 

At this point, the conversation of surgery came up. I was told about arthroscopy; a procedure that would fix the torn labrum and shave down the bone growth - without having to completely replace my hip. I was also told it would require a long recovery, but that it was an operation many other dancers had gone through quite successfully. They also mentioned, however, that this operation, without a hip replacement, wouldn’t do anything for the arthritis in the socket itself, and that the degeneration would only get worse and would eventually need to be dealt— with an emphasis on the sooner rather than later. That doctor sent me to yet another doctor who agreed with the diagnosis, and finally sent me to the man that ended up becoming my surgeon. 

 

Enter Dr. Roy Davidovich. I sat down with Dr. Davidovich at the end of November, and we dove right in. He mentioned the option and execution of a full hip replacement, a surgery called arthroplasty. This option, with a full joint replacement, would ideally fix the femur growth, the labrum tear, and address the arthritis. He explained to me exactly what he does and who his ideal patients are, and luckily for me, I fell right into the necessary categories.

 

What was really cool was that I’d previously read about Dr. Davidovich because superstar ballerina Wendy Whelan had spoken very highly of him since she’d had the same surgery done and was back dancing very quickly. So, I was hopeful. Dr. Davidovich explained to me the prognosis, and then, really, left it up to me to decide. I took the information back to my AWESOME physical therapy team at Manhattan Physio Group, we discussed it, and ultimately decided to go for it.

 


Mikey Winslow. Photo Credit: Mikey Winslow

 

MORE: Watch Dance Network Host Michael Mahany's Exclusive Sit-Down Interview With NYCB Legend And Restless Creature Star, Wendy Whelan

 

As far as the road to surgery, after I decided to go ahead with the arthroplasty, my PT team and I spent months doing a lot of restructuring my musculature to prepare. I started to understand very quickly that the more I could do to strengthen the muscles in the CORRECT patterns before the new joint would be implanted, the better the recovery would be. That process was hard, because I’ve had these movement patterns and habits that I’d innately created to support the bad bone structure, and to work against those patterns was painful. It was a hard road, but like I said, I’ve known pain in that hip for so long, and I knew that the direction I’d begun taking was the right one.

 

The actual medical procedure itself was pretty incredible. Until recently, a total hip joint replacement required cutting through the glute muscles and taking a large piece of the hip bone out to access the joint. That old procedure was the Posterior Approach”. What I had done is called the Anterior Approach”, where the surgeon goes in through the front of the hip, moves the muscles aside, and is able to remove the head of the femur and the socket without severing the muscles. By moving aside all of that musculature and tissues it certainly created a lot of pain, but it allowed for everything to fall right back into its (swollen) place. I was required to walk with a walker, immediately after waking up from the surgery. It’s nuts to think about, but I did it, and every day the movement is a little easier and the swelling goes down a little more.

 

I’m very lucky to have been introduced to and get to work with a surgeon like Davidovich. He’s at the top of the game and is excited to be helping dancers and athletes to get their lives back.

 

Dance Network: It seems like it wasn’t an easy decision to do the arthroplasty, but ultimately, the right one to make?

 

Mikey Winslow: What it all came down to was this: I was at a very real crossroads. Choosing between forgoing my day-to-day life and comfort (which, to be frank, were quite shot at that point) and not being able to dance for a while— or keep going on the same track I’d been on, and risk never dancing again. It was time to make a decision.  The concept of surgery was scary, especially when there was this element of personal choice. It also meant taking a fair amount of time off… but, it would mean that I get another twenty years of dancing. So, I decided to go for it. 

 

I always aim to find a positive spin on things, and I started to look at this as a great opportunity to reinvest in other areas of my life, as well as a chance to stop and take the time to rebuild and reclaim my body. I started to see it as a second chance.

 

Given what I know now about self-care and creating healthy habits, what better opportunity is there to put all that ground work than a complete reset?  And at the end of the day, no matter what the outcome is, (and I believe the outcome is going to be great!), the crossroad was there, and I had to face the music. I was blessed to get the opportunity to do a West Side Story Concert in Palm Springs the week before my surgery, and I used it like a farewell performance to my hip. It’s very strange to say goodbye to a piece of my body that I’ve had such an identity with for the last thirty plus years…but, it was time. 

 

Dance Network: Now that you’ve had the surgery, what does your recovery look like in terms of time frame? What’s the next step? How do you go about building your hip and your body’s strength and stamina back up?

 

Mikey Winslow: The recovery process is long. I’m viewing it like a very large mountain I have to climb. I try not to look ahead at the cliff of sheer ice that is still months away, but, I’m hopeful. I hope to be back to high functioning dance by the end of the summer, and my doctors and PT are also confident that will be the case. Regardless, I still have to remember that I have to take it day-to-day, and to be honest, that is one of the most challenging things. To go from having the ability to move (albeit, in pain) to being restricted to short walks with a cane is really hard for me to handle. Remembering the long term and that I’m heading in the right direction now, that’s what’s key for me.

 

The general schedule for recovery will look like this. I’m currently spending two weeks just, simply, walking— with my cane. After that, I’ll start back with PT and we’ll begin to work slowly for about six weeks to really get the musculature calmed down and revitalized. After that, ideally the structure of the bone, implant, and surrounding muscles should be strong enough to get into the gym or yoga, or even dance class. I’m not allowed to jump for three months, (laughing) which as a JET is insane to think about! I’ll be in PT regularly for three months, building new awareness and changing muscular and neuromuscular patterns, and within six months I should be golden. Within a year, I’ll be fully” healed. 

 

 

Dance Network: You said on social media, “I want to share this experience with the world because I believe we do not need to suffer in silence and hide our injuries from our industry.” Why is it that you think there’s a stigma in show business about dancers hiding their injuries? Why do you feel so passionate about changing that?

 

Mikey Winslow: So this is tricky, I don’t want to anger anyone, but, I also think this should be discussed. I’ve heard of choreographers who say they won’t hire injured dancers. And look, I understand, if you’re casting a new broadway show, it doesn’t make sense to hire a dancer who is gonna need to take time out four weeks into the run. But, I also think this stigma, over time, has caused us to hide our injuries. I don’t believe that the creative teams are saying that a dancer who was once injured is always injured— but, I think that knowing there’s a stigma out there doesn’t play well into building an industry that embraces self-care. Show business is the already tough enough, sometimes it seems like we live in a constant crosswind of approval and rejection, and feeling like we have to hide our true selves makes it even harder.

 

I think it’s so important that dancers understand we are in charge of our own well being, and that you can not and should not be ashamed of taking care of yourself. I thought a long time about being public about all this, and at the end of the day, I settled on honesty being the best policy.  So I’m here to say, yeah, I got my hip replaced, and yeah that’s scary, but it doesn’t mean I’m down for the count. I know that I have the stamina and ability to come through this better than ever. Trust me, trust us as dancers, that we know how to take care of our bodies as we need to. Let’s embrace a culture of self-care. I’ve been an injured dancer my whole life, and I’ve been hired, even by the choreographers I’ve heard speak this way, and what really strikes me with fear is to think I’m possibly being categorized for speaking out about an injury. Really though, what’s the use in hiding? Hiding doesn't help healing.

 

The dance community is such a supportive community, and we should focus even more on celebrating the stamina, bravery, and passion it takes to do what we do. Hopefully, in doing that, the injury stigma fades, and instead of having to hide from pain, the industry can focus to build a culture that supports self-care, trust, healing, and empathy. I’m here to tell you, IT’S OKAY. IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY.  DO WHAT YOU NEED FOR YOU FIRST AND FOREMOST.  Get right with yourself, physically, mentally, emotionally, and then, show up and give it your all when you’re able.  We shouldn’t need to hide, we need to stand strong, accept ourselves as we are, love and support one another, and forge ahead to build an industry that empowers and values self-love.

———

 

Thanks to Mikey Winslow for his time. All the best to him on a quick and thorough healing process. We’ll be sure to continue to check in with Mikey, and will follow up in a few months on his recovery.