Keeping Dancers on Point

Keeping Dancers on Point

By Glenn Antonucci

It was a broken foot that steered Michelle McLaughlin Reilly, DPT’08, BSHS’08, into her life’s work.

She’d been a dancer since the age of 3. Through her grade school years and into her teens, dancing remained a constant. Her first love, happily discovered as a toddler, steadily grew into her passion.

In eighth grade, while dancing in a production of The Nutcracker, Reilly suffered what would prove to be a life-altering injury. She had fractured her foot.

Recovery — getting back on her feet and, more importantly, back on the stage — would necessitate a stint in physical therapy. And that’s when everything changed.

Enter the physical therapist who not only helped fix her, but would set her on a new, wholly unexpected course.

“I’d found a PT that was really aware of what I needed to do as a dancer,” Reilly says, “and worked really hard to make sure I could get back to those things. That’s what really got me passionate about PT — that I could help people get back to the things they cared about.”

Back to dancing she would go, but the career in performing arts she had begun to envision faded. Stepping into the spotlight was a new, very different dream: to become a physical therapist, like the one who helped mend her.  

First Steps

Reilly’s first determined steps on this new journey took place during her junior year of high school. Over spring break, she and her dad embarked on a tour of campuses, setting out from their home in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Their first stop was Creighton. The other 13 schools on the route, as it turned out, just wouldn’t do.

“I walked into St. John’s with my dad, and I looked at him and I said, ‘Dad, I’m going to get married here.’”

Indeed, she met her future husband, Matt Reilly, BSBA’06, in 2002, while they were freshmen on Creighton’s campus. They married in August 2009. At St. John’s Church, of course.

But well before that prophesized matrimony, Reilly, whose maiden name is McLaughlin, would earn her undergraduate degree in exercise science and gain acceptance into the physical therapy program at Creighton’s School of Pharmacy and Health Professions.

As she progressed through the rigors of the program on her way to her professional degree, she began homing in on the specialty she yearned for.

“I remember talking to my clinical advisor — ‘Hey, I would love to get into a clinical before I graduate that would expose me to performing arts therapy,’” she recalls. “But they were few and far between. There was not a lot of it out there.”

Compounding the scarcity, she says, is the natural reticence of performers — and athletes in general — to show any whiff of weakness.

“It’s almost secretive,” Reilly says, “because it kind of ruins the façade of what performing artists are. They’re beautiful, they’re on stage, they’re ethereal. So to think of them as fragile and breakable and having those problems is almost not shared with the public. So they’re pretty protective of who they let backstage and behind the scenes to really see what’s happening.”

Breaking In

Her break came once she’d earned her doctorate in physical therapy — also from Creighton — and started her residency. A mentor connected her with a clinician, Mark Longacre, who was working with the Omaha Ballet Theater.

Reilly asked to shadow him, but Longacre reported that the ballet was on sabbatical. Maybe in the fall, she was told. Before that could materialize, however, she wound up getting hired at Longacre’s clinic. And, as it turns out, he was ready to hand off his ballet work. Right place, right time.

“I said, ‘Please pick me,’ and it worked out. The rest is history,” Reilly says.

That was 2009. A decade later, she is still working behind the scenes with the very same company, whose name changed to Ballet Nebraska and, just recently, American Midwest Ballet. The company performs at the Orpheum Theater, Joslyn Art Museum and Iowa Western Community College. (“Wherever they can find a stage,” she says.) Some of the dancers have been there since Reilly started working with the ballet. She says that’s one of the things that keeps her coming back.

“I know what things pop up with them really frequently,” she says. “I know their habits. I know which things they’ll do, which things they won’t do, and how to get their buy-in into what I want them to do.”

Long-tenured and brand new to the ballet, Reilly treats them all. She typically visits them every other week at rehearsals, giving each dancer a “quick” 20-minute evaluation. Most often, she encounters foot and ankle problems. Overuse issues are common, including Achilles tendinitis, posterior tibial tendinitis and “dancer’s tendinitis,” or irritation of the flexor hallucis longus.

“And then back pain,” she says. “They’re folding themselves in half, this way and that.”

The important thing, Reilly notes, is to take care of issues preventatively in those biweekly visits.

“I really love it when I can catch issues before they progress to something like, ‘Man, you need physical therapy for about six weeks to take care of this,’” she says. “Honestly, one of my biggest roles is to say, ‘Listen, you can’t self-treat this anymore. It’s time to go see a doctor.’”

That’s tough to hear for some of the dancers.

“They love to self-treat, and they will frequently dance through the pain and just assume that things are going to get better,” she says. “So it’s just being able to have these really honest conversations about what their goal is and what they want to be able to do.”

A Matter of Trust

Trust, Reilly says, is key. As both a fixture behind the scenes of the ballet, and as a former dancer herself, the company members trust her implicitly.

Kelsey Schwenker is in her ninth season with American Midwest Ballet. Reilly has been treating her for that entire run. At a recent rehearsal, she was eagerly first in line to see her longtime physical therapist. Her first concern was a troublesome ankle, but she had “a few other aches that needed to be addressed,” too.

In having Reilly on hand, Schwenker and her fellow performers “are definitely privileged,” the dancer says.

“What makes her special is she was a dancer herself,” Schwenker says. “She knows the mechanics of our bodies and can anticipate things better than others.”

In addition to trust, Reilly also relies on creativity to treat her performer patients. She often employs pool therapy — “because I can get them in the water and let them do dance-specific things that are much less demanding on the body” —  along with instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization and dry-needling.

There are plenty of parallels to “traditional” PT, too. Reilly’s dancers often get homework to do on the side. She says they take that homework very seriously.

“Compared to the other patients I’ve had in PT, they are the most dedicated patients,” she says. “If I tell them to do an exercise, they will do it, without fail. And do it as many times as they need to — and probably more. They care about it that much.”

Reilly’s work with performers doesn’t stop at Omaha’s ballet company. She also treats members of traveling companies who come through town with touring Broadway shows. The transient nature of that work can make it challenging.

“They see a different PT in every city,” she says. “This PT tells them this thing, and this PT tells them that thing, so sometimes it’s hard to crack that shell. I have 20 minutes total with them, and I never see them again. The continuity of care there is my biggest challenge. I don’t get to make sure everything’s going OK.”

The source of their ailments is often different than her regulars, too.

“With those clients, it’s a lot of neck pain, because they’re traveling a lot,” she says. “They’re in buses and planes and different hotel rooms every night, so I’m helping them manage the stresses of a touring life.”

Therapist, Teacher, Wife, Mother

Much has transpired since Reilly broke in with the ballet. She took a clinical position with OrthoNebraska (formerly Nebraska Orthopedic Hospital), started a teaching career in 2010, became a board-certified specialist in orthopedic physical therapy in 2011 and joined Creighton’s physical therapy faculty in 2016.

She and husband Matt have two boys — Cooper, 7, and Landon, 4. Another boy is on the way, due in August.

Matt, an attorney, is fond of her work with the ballet.

“He really likes this gig, because we get to see a lot of shows together,” she says. “My clinics are usually before the shows, so we’ll come downtown, he’ll drop me off, go meet a friend for dinner or something and then meet me right before the show, and we’ll go in. Usually through the backstage entrance, which he thinks is pretty cool, too.”

As an educator, she says she loves “seeing the light bulbs go off” in her students, and seeing them make connections between the classroom and their clinical work.

“Seeing them make those connections to what life is going to be like when they’re a PT and how they can apply (their classroom work) is really exciting,” she says.

Reilly regularly brings students and residents with her to her backstage sessions with her dancers.

“It’s those students who had a dance history or have had a past with performing arts who tend to gravitate toward wanting to do those things,” she says. “Then they see it, and they get pretty excited about it. I think it’s important that they see what I’m doing and my involvement in the community, then also that they get some exposure to what PT can look like.”

With a full teaching load and a family, does she see staying connected to performing arts?

“Absolutely,” she says, without hesitation. “And my chair (Kirk Peck, PT, PhD) is very supportive of it. He thinks it’s imperative.”

Full Circle

So, the young girl who first found her passion in dancing has come full circle, finding her calling as a physical therapist and an educator — vocations through which she has become an integral part of the performing arts.

“I’m a clinician at heart,” she says. “Being able to treat patients and spend time with patients is what I went to school for, it’s what I was passionate about, and so even as I moved to academia, the idea of giving that up was really hard.

“I love that I have this outlet where I … can still keep a hand in patient care,” she continues. “And I think having a hand in patient care makes me a better teacher, because it means that I am seeing things clinically and trying things out clinically, and I have some kind of real-life application stories to share with students, which I think makes that content really come alive. It makes them understand it more.”