Soles on Ice

For 20 years, prima ballerina Janie Parker's feet have been harnessed to the Houston Ballet. In one more month, she plans to set them free.

Normally, such flatness would mean a short career for a dancer. But Parker is so amazingly strong and flexible -- "Gumby body" is her phrase, "hypermobile" is her orthopedist's -- that she can muscle an arch into being, just as she can take legs that are naturally somewhat bowed and force them into a pleasing posture. When she was a kid, Parker says, she could sit down, stretch her legs out flat, set her heels and then bend her ankles and feet to where her toes also touched the floor. In recent years, though, her toes haven't quite reached, hovering a slight distance above the ground. "The muscles along the bottom of my feet have built up," she says. "I'm getting tight."

Of course, tightness is relative. Parker can still casually lift one leg to where it's pointing straight at the ceiling while balancing on the other leg and carrying on a normal conversation. None of this, though, comes without effort. Since she was around 13, she says, she's followed a fairly regular schedule that involves hours of exercise and rehearsal six days a week, every week. In the last few decades, that schedule has also included physical therapy, and then there are performances and public appearances and planning -- basically, what it's meant for the last 20 years is no life outside the ballet studio.

It's also meant more than a few injuries. There have been broken toes, which she danced on, and blisters too numerous to mention. There was a broken little finger, suffered when she pirouetted into a male dancer who had positioned himself too closely. And then there was the broken rib in Washington, D.C., when she leapt off a rock in the finale of Swan Lake into what were supposed to be the receiving arms of another dancer. Only her partner made the catch wrong, and a rib cracked. The next day in rehearsal she felt a stabbing pain; a trip to the doctor revealed the injury, and drew the admonition not to dance for a month unless she wanted to risk a punctured lung. But Parker was scheduled to perform the world premiere of The Miraculous Mandarin and wasn't about to hand that opportunity to anyone else. She tried to rehearse, but the pain was simply too intense. Standing in the wings and watching someone else dance her role was, she says, the biggest disappointment of her career.

It was not the most frightening time of her career, though. That had come earlier, when, during her third year in Houston, her feet began to hurt so much that she collapsed into tears after every class or rehearsal. She'd suffered a small tear in the tendon that ran down the back of her foot and connected her lower leg to her big toe. It was the tendon that let the foot point, the one used when she went up on pointe. Now, each flex caused agony. "I tried to dance through it, like I'd danced through everything else," she says, "but it was just too much. There were little egg-like swellings on the tendon, and there was just too much pain." So, in 1979, she had tendon reconstruction surgery, and for seven months laid low, dancing only non-strenuous roles.

She came back, she says, because what else was there to do? "It's not that you learn to dance with pain," says Parker. "It's just that's the choice you make. You dance or you don't dance. And people who want to dance want to dance. You just either do it, or you don't."

Parker has just done it, learning along the way the tricks of the trade: how to always cut her toenails straight across to avoid ingrown toenails; how to soak her feet in water spiked with table salt rather than Epsom salts, because Epsom salts make the feet soft while table salt toughens them like seawater toughens a sailor's hands. She learned to never, ever get near a pedicurist because "you want those ugly calluses on your toes. You don't want them smooth, you want that stuff to build up." She learned to tape her feet for support and injuries. She learned all about the levels of painkillers. "You learn you start with Tylenol," she says, "and if that doesn't work, you go to Advil. And if that doesn't work, you go to Naprosyn, and if that doesn't work, you go to Daypro. Man, we love Daypro here. I could live on Daypro. And I do."

But most of all, she learned to let none of this show. "It's really not the business of the audience to know about the injuries," she says. "We don't want them on the edge of their seats saying, is she going to make it? If I deem that I'm ready to dance, then the audience shouldn't see anything other than the performance."

One thing the audience will not see in her final performances are the large bunions that rise next to the big toe on each of her feet. The reddened lumps have grown over the years, curving the big toes so that they almost overlap their companions. Following her last turn, her last bow, in The Sleeping Beauty, Parker says, she has a number of things planned. One is to marry her fiance, graphic artist Dennis Sneed. Another is to honeymoon in Colorado. And then she plans to knock on Dr. Baxter's door and have him cut away at her feet. First the bunions will come off, then the bone of her big toe will be sliced, then it will be repositioned and finally a small metal screw will be inserted to tie everything back together.

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