After waiting for two weeks for the swelling to go down, he had the surgery and faced another long wait on the couch before he could go back to work. A month later, he began treatment with Sue Mayes, the director of the company’s Artistic Health team, which has helped so many dancers and athletes overcome injury (including the company’s Artistic Director, David Hallberg, who credits the team with giving him a second act to his career). Initially, the work was about preventing the scar tissue from solidifying and making the foot rigid. It began with Sue wiggling Joey’s big toe. “She was so careful with everything. Even though it was so painful, she knew what she was doing the whole way through. She was amazing.”
A drastic injury took Joseph Romancewicz from top of the world to the depths of despair. With the help of the Artistic Health team, ‘tightrope’ surgery and two loyal spaniels, he worked his way back to the stage.
13 Dec 2022
Friday the 13th of August, 2021. Joseph Romancewicz, one of The Australian Ballet’s up-and-coming dancers, was doing company class. Towards the end, the men were enjoying themselves with some big jumps. “I was the last group. I’d done the exercise once, but I thought I’d do it one more time because it felt so good. I just got unlucky – I was doing a jeté menage, and my foot happened to slip on the floor and rolled under itself.” Unlucky is an understatement. He ruptured the thick lisfranc ligament that binds together the first and second toes, and ripped muscles from the bone with such force they took chips of bone off every joint in the middle of his foot. “It was like a nuked town in there.”
Excruciating hours later, Joey was on an MRI bed with tears running down his face, unable to believe that his life had been upended so suddenly. The injury he’d sustained is rare among dancers – it had never occurred at The Australian Ballet before – but more common among AFL players. Joey was sent to David Young, a specialist surgeon who often works with footballers. The foot had to be restructured, which is commonly done by inserting bolts and screws; however, this would have left Joey unable to point his foot and would definitely have meant the end of his career. Fortunately, a new procedure called ‘tightrope’ surgery was an option. In this, the surgeon drills through the bone and inserts cords, which mimic the structure of the ligaments and allow the foot to move more freely. Even so, there was no guarantee that Joey would dance again. At the age of 23, he faced the loss of the only life he’d ever known. “I was already so down because I was in pain, my foot was like a balloon, I couldn’t walk, and then to hear that even with the tightrope surgery I may not dance again – it was rough.”
Joey did three months of “slow, boring gym work” – toe lifts with elastics, calf rises – “it was the biggest, hardest grind.” After that, he went into the studio with Megan Connelly, the company’s rehabilitation specialist. For three months, Megan devised a ballet class each day for Joey, tailormade for his requirements. She continued to work with him as he slowly made his way back to company class, at first just at the barre. “At the very start, Megan said, “I’m going to make you into a new ballet dancer, a new man!’ – and I feel like she has done that,” says Joey. “She rebuilt me from the ground up. She told me, ‘Everything you thought you knew about ballet? Scrap it, we’re starting from the beginning.’ It was like being in my first ballet class again, starting with the plié. I now use muscles in my legs and upper body that I never would have thought of using before. I use my core differently. Instead of brute force, it was a concentration on small things: I’d use this tiny little muscle in my core and suddenly everything would work. I dance differently now, I feel more princely. She’s really helped me on my journey and I’m so thankful for her. Without her, I don’t know where I’d be.”
“my foot was like a balloon, I couldn’t walk” — Joey Romancewicz
The role that brought Joey back to stage was a significant one: Karenin, Anna’s husband in Anna Karenina, one of the pivotal characters in the ballet. “I remember stepping out on stage at the end of the performance for the curtain calls and I was holding back tears. It was the best feeling in the world. Six months of hard, agonising work, all the time thinking ‘Is it worth it?’ – and it was 100% worth it.” Even after returning to performance, Joey continued to work with Megan for almost a year to regain the full range of his technique. He has gone on to further milestones in 2022, dancing Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet and one of the principal pas de deux in Alice Topp’s Annealing.
Looking back at his months of recovery, Joey says that the mental side was just as hard as the physical. Without the endorphin rush of dancing and performing, his months of rehabilitation felt even slower. “You see all your friends having fun, doing all the things you’ve been training your whole life for, and you’re missing out on every single bit: every laugh, every great moment on stage.” He admits that he didn’t take as much advantage of the wellbeing resources at The Australian Ballet as he should have. “I’m very much a person who keeps their thoughts and feelings to themself, and obviously I have to learn to express myself more in that way. I find it hard to seek help, which is really silly.”
What did help was the company of Chester and Rusty, his two King Charles Cavalier spaniels. “They were my boys, they helped me through. They did not leave my side. I spent hours on the couch in bandages and a compressive ice boot, and they stuck beside me the whole time.” Another huge help was his mum, who came down to support him during his months on crutches, and who talked him through the “head noise” about quitting and giving up. “I love to see my parents proud of me – and they tell me every day they are so proud of me for pushing through and getting back on stage.”
“He’s now dancing better and more confidently than ever before” — Megan Connelly