‘Hamilton's' Mikey Winslow Talks Surgery, Stigma, & His “Bionic Debut”

by Michael Mahany | 6/10/2019 8:51 PM

Mikey Winslow. Photo credit: Chad Wagner.

“Please don’t look at my story like something out of the ordinary, for I am only human. We are ALL capable of accomplishing greatness, we have only to truly apply ourselves with honesty and accountability. Every day, every choice we make is a chance to build toward something.” — Mikey Winslow.

A little over a year ago, Dance Network featured Broadway performer and life-long dancer, Mikey Winslow, who’d just undergone a hip replacement surgery. Winslow, shortly after announcing his surgery via social media, declared it a personal goal to work toward reversing the “damaged goods” stigma seemingly associated with professional dancers in the industry who had suffered injuries.

“On March 15th, 2018, I got my left hip replaced,” Winslow wrote on Facebook. “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.”

The veteran actor, who's been seen on Broadway in shows like 'West Side Story', 'American Idiot', 'On The Town', and 'Charlie And The Chocolate Factory', was born with Congenital Hip Dysplasia — a condition caused by “abnormal formation of the hip joint during the early stages of fetal development.”

After Winslow weighed his options, he and his medical team decided the clearest path back to a life in dance would be through a full hip replacement operation. While this surgical option came with, all things considered, a pretty positive prognosis and a world in which he could envision himself dancing again, it left Winslow with the very real scenario of a long and painful recovery.

Moreover, this surgery and lengthy recovery would potentially mark Winslow with what, in the past, has been a sort of unremovable tattoo — that of an injured dancer. A view in the industry that can wash-up a professional dancer's career, creating a stain that seemingly cannot be removed. A stigma that has caused some to not just hide their physical pain, but even keep detrimental and debilitating dance injuries secret, sometimes for years, just to keep their careers alive. 

Mikey Winslow, however, is different than most. Determined to not only make a full and speedy recovery, Winslow decided to take this stigma head-on, so he chose Dance Network as the platform through which he would share his recovery, his challenges, his perseverance, and his story. To share, with anyone who would listen, that dancers are strong, tenacious, and resolvent creatures. To work to reverse this ridiculous stigma.

More: Re-read the original Dance Network Exclusive with Mikey Winslow; The Road To Recovery; How Broadway’s Mikey Winslow Is Working To Reverse The Stigma About Injuries In The Dance World

Winslow’s recovery, while remarkable and inspiring, has been a daunting and arduous task. In the months since his surgery, he’s spent countless hours in physical therapy, dance class, and at the gym building up his strength and stamina… and spoiler alert — it’s really, really paid off. The actor recently transferred over to the Chicago company of the monstrous hit musical ‘Hamilton’ — the same show where made what he called his “bionic” return to Broadway earlier this year when he joined the musical’s New York company.

Mikey Winslow, warming up for his return to Broadway in ‘Hamilton’. “Today was a really good day,” Winslow wrote on Instagram. Photo credit: @Mikeywinslow.

“Today was a really good day,” Winslow wrote on February 15th of 2019. “Here I am warming up onstage 11 months to the day after my hip replacement. This afternoon I had my first put-in rehearsal at ‘Hamilton’ Broadway.” 

“I am filled with humble pride and heartfelt joy as I prepare for my debut tomorrow afternoon,” the dancer continued in his post. “Learning this show has been challenging in the most rewarding ways… Tomorrow when I take my first bow back on Broadway as a #bionicman. I will be raising a flag for dancers everywhere who struggle with injury or pain.”

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Dance Network was able to reconnect with Winslow to check in on his progress, both in the way of physical rehabilitation and his work toward changing the industry-wide views on injury recovery. Read the exclusive interview below:

Mikey Winslow in his ‘Hamilton’ costume. Photo courtesy: Mikey Winslow.

Dance Network: Mikey, so, so great to check in with you. So, last we spoke, you were at the beginning stages of rehab; you were walking with a walker and a cane, couldn't jump for three months, and were extremely limited in what you were allowed to do as a dancer. Give us, if you would, a brief recount of your healing process.

Mikey Winslow: The healing process was accountability and accumulation. Creating patterns that served me to grow and progress in the direction of my goal. I started by taking walks in my neighborhood, and when I was ready for [physical therapy], the initial task was fixing my gait. 

We were able to fix my gait relatively quickly — which was key because walking in proper strides meant the muscles were then working in the ideal pathways and receiving the most strength benefits. The major need of the recovery was retraining my muscles to work in proper patterns, as I had a lifetime of neuromuscular patterns that were based on surviving with a dysplastic structure — so I had a lot of bad habits to break.

Mikey Winslow in for hip replacement surgery. Photo courtesy: Mikey Winslow. 

The next step was more physical therapy exercises, and this is where accountability came in. I recognized that I had the potential to have incredible success if I stayed diligent and treated my recovery with the utmost respect. I came to the conclusion that all I could do was what was in front of me each day, but keep in mind that each day’s activities and choices could accumulate towards a far off goal. Because it wasn’t easy to stay diligent with clam shells and heel slides and half squats, I started talking about it. It was vulnerable and strange at first, but it really helped me be accountable for the exercises.

More: An Interview With ‘Hamilton: Puerto Rico’ Dance Captain, Dashi’ Mitchell

I’m not sure when exactly, but I’d guess around three months in I started back with my yoga practice. At first, this was just at home, where I knew what my body was feeling and I knew what my limits were. Yoga presented such a great place to hone-in on changing these neuromuscular patterns because the movement is slow or still, and I could really focus internally on what was happening. Eventually, I did add actual yoga class back into my practice which was also very helpful.  I’d practiced yoga in a hot room for a long time, so that is what I went back to in my recovery. At first, I was very careful because I did not want to over-stretch anything, but I found over time that the hot environment was great, so long if I used it responsibly, for opening up some of the really tight and stuck places around my hip.

Mikey Winslow, directly after his hip replacement surgery. Photo courtesy: Mikey Winslow.

The next step of the recovery was I was supposed to get back into dance class — and this was a hard one. I hadn’t really ever taken much class in [New York City], or since college for that matter. In retrospect, it is something I wish I would’ve created a practice of long ago —  I see my peers who keep class in their lives and I can clearly tell that it benefits their lives and careers. 

So, about six months after surgery, I started to audition again; yes, before taking class… I know, I’m not exactly sure what I was thinking — but I just remember being freaked out. I was scared that, for whatever reason, I wasn’t gonna be able to dance anymore, or that I wouldn’t be good enough anymore. It was freaky and I was scared of dealing with the potential rejection. But, I found my way through all that and got in the room. I had some good auditions and felt pretty solid, all things considered, but I certainly didn’t feel 100% — and that was throwing me off in my head. I ended up in a callback day for ‘Fosse/Verdon’, (such a great show by the way), and I looked around the room and there I was with cream of the crop of male dancers in the industry right now. I had this momentary moment of pride, thinking, ‘I’m in this room with these people, and that must mean something.’ 

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…And then I got cut from the audition… and I’m not gonna lie, it sucked. I was hurt and pissed and felt myself caving in — I knew that my emotional life was really fragile already because of going through the recovery. I was panicking. So, I did something I had never done before, I went to a beginner ballet class at Broadway Dance Center.

So, there I am, in this class that is geared to teach actors basic ballet, and I’m taking barre, and there's a moment where the teacher clocks me in a balance and I can tell that she can tell that I’m not necessarily a “beginner” and I start to feel like I shouldn’t be there, but then I think, ‘no you have a new hip and that part of you needs to be here, not anywhere else.’ Then, I thought about the room that I had been in with all those incredible dancers, and that is when it clicked. At that moment I realized my identity. I needed to be in both of those rooms, the beginner ballet class and the callback with those dudes. That’s literally where I was as a dancer.

Mikey Winslow backstage at 'Hamilton'. Photo courtesy: Mikey Winslow. 

Being able to recognize and truly visualize that duality allowed me to have compassion for my situation and that’s when everything really took off. I was no longer afraid of what I didn’t know, I knew who I was in the moment and I knew where I was headed. I continued in that ballet class three times a week while adding in a jazz class here and there and continuing also with the PT and yoga.

PT visits slowed down a fair amount after the six-month mark, and after ten months, it pretty much stopped altogether. I still do my exercises and I’m still working on truly correcting those neuromuscular patterns, but that's just gonna be my life, I think.

The main chunk of the recovery is done and I feel so good about what I’ve gained from it. 

DN: How has your body responded to the surgery? Has all gone the way you and your team planned?

MW: Everything has gone extremely well. I ended up ahead of schedule for pretty much everything and the team was very pleased with all the outcomes.

Winslow was born with Congenital Hip Dysplasia. Photo credit: Judy Sopeland.

I will say this, though. Scars can be tricky, and though I know that we’re all made up slightly different, in my experience I found that some gentle massage techniques can be applied to scarring tissue and it can greatly reduce the stiffness and visibility of the eventual scar. I had no idea that was gonna be a part of the recovery, but my PT had me doing some slight manipulations on the tissue and it really worked. 

More: ‘Hamilton’ Associate Choreographer, Stephanie Klemons Is Reshaping The Way Art Can Heal With ‘Katie’s Art Project’ 

DN: You spoke a lot in our first interview about your changing habits toward self-care and preventative care. How has that worked out for you over the last year? Have you managed to maintain a more progressive view on how you care for your body as a dancer?

MW: This process has completely overhauled how I look at self-care and personal responsibility as a dancer. Now my whole life revolves around taking care of my body. I’m not saying that I’m in the gym 24/7 and only drinking green juice or anything drastic like that, I just mean I’m much more conscious of keeping my systems in really good working order so that high-quality capability and performance is the norm for my systems. 

On a daily basis now, I do PT exercises for any number of body parts — all of which I’ve learned over the years and had forgotten about or gotten bored with — but I’ve realized they are all important pieces in the maintaining of my instrument; how important it all is in terms of longevity. 

I know that earlier in my career I wasn’t considering getting older, I simply kept running full speed towards what I wanted to see. Now, I realize that in order to live this full life in the way I want, I need to make serious and committed decisions to the upkeep of my body and instrument. And, instead of being dragged down by that voice saying, ‘ugh, I don’t wanna do my exercises,’ I flip my mentality and think, ‘I get to do this, and it is enriching my life in the long run.’ And I like that.

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DN: So, here we are, a year later and you're back on Broadway's boards, this time in a once-in-a-generation kind of show. Tell us what it was like to first get that call to audition for 'Hamilton', what it was like to get the call that you got 'Hamilton', and what it was like to make your "bionic debut" in ‘Hamilton’.

Mikey Winslow. Photo credit: Jordan Matter.

MW: It’s been quite the ride. The audition process was long but I enjoyed it a lot… and, to be honest, I really didn’t think I was going to get ‘Hamilton’.  

So, when I did get the call, it was absolutely surreal. I was in Michigan at my parents’ house at the time, and I just completely broke down in tears of joy. I ran into the kitchen and hugged my mom, she was so worried something was wrong, but then I explained to her was happening and she too started crying — and then I think we both started laughing a bit hysterically. 

Getting that call was just such an affirming moment, you know? Like all the work and focus I’d been putting in — I knew for myself, I was going in the right direction — but to have the world turn around and look me straight in the eye and say ‘we agree, and we validate your work’, that was just such an incredible feeling! 

Then, fast forward to debuting in the show… I just felt so, so, so strong.  Strong and proud. I took that first bow with such reverence for the journey. With such appreciation for all those who had helped me along my way. And, with such respect for what we as humans are capable of — honestly, it was humbling. It felt larger than me. It was a moment that captured the very human task of overcoming an adversary and it was really, really powerful.

More: For ‘Hamilton’ Actress, Betsy Struxness, #PatioJams Is About Way More Than Just Dance

Mikey Winslow as Riff in ‘West Side Story’. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia.

DN: Last year, right before your surgery 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.” You made a big wave among dance fans through your bravery to boldly tell your story — so, as a result, do you think the stigma has changed in the industry at all?

MW: Yeah I do believe the stigma is shifting. I won’t say that I’m solely responsible for it, but I think I had the right message at the right time.  

The world is becoming more open-minded and this was one of many doors that needed to be kicked down. I’ve definitely spoken with a lot of people who read the first article and or followed my journey and now feel better about sharing their own experiences and pains. I think things are shifting and my sharing of my experiences adds a little to that shift.

For more on Mikey Winslow, you can follow him on Instagram.

Michael Mahany interviews Tony Award winner Sergio Trujillo at the 2019 Chita Rivera Awards.

Michael Mahany serves as Dance Network’s New York City correspondent. He is also a professional actor, singer, dancer, writer, and host. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, or Facebook.