Setting the Stage: Career-ending injury leads dancer to new passion at TWU

Natsuko Oshima mid-jump during a ballet performance.

A professional ballet dancer whose international career was cut short due to a series of injuries is pursuing a degree at Texas Woman’s University to help others avoid the same fate.

“In my experience, it is extremely rare to find physical therapists who are educated and sensitive enough to a classically-trained dancer’s needs, as most of them typically work with sports athletes,” said Natsuko Oshima, who, in 2019, enrolled in TWU’s doctor of physical therapy (DPT) program after a lifetime of dancing. “Ballet is an art form, so physical therapists need to understand the methods and traditions intrinsic to ballet, as well as the style of ballet.”

Eight years ago, Oshima, was living out her dream career as a professional ballet dancer when she experienced the first of three career-threatening injuries.

I was completely heartbroken, and it was difficult for me to accept the fact that I would not be able to continue a career that I had been training and pursuing for the past 20 years. I felt like I had lost my identity and was no longer myself.

While preparing in Florida for the World Ballet Competition, Oshima fractured the sesamoid bone in her left foot. She competed—and won—on that broken foot, but not without a cost. The bone had to be removed through surgery. Two years later, while dancing at the National Opera Theatre in Romania, Oshima suffered a stress fracture on her left shin, and a second surgery was required. While recovering, Oshima learned she’d been accepted to dance at the prestigious Ballet Nacional de Sodre in Uruguay. Like many dancers, she refused to say no. 

“I pushed myself to dance under less than ideal circumstances, which led to the worsening of my condition,” said Oshima, who by then had a front row seat to how little attention had been given to dancing-related injuries. 

From the surgeons to the physical therapists on her medical team, few were sensitive to her artistic needs. Her own doctor made diagnostic decisions based on the cases of basketball and volleyball players. As a result, Oshima said, he underestimated the effect of torsion induced by turning legs out, and she reinjured herself.

“While similar to an athlete’s body, a dancer’s body should be treated differently in several ways,” she explained. 

After the third surgery in November 2014, Oshima’s dancing career was over.

“I was completely heartbroken, and it was difficult for me to accept the fact that I would not be able to continue a career that I had been training and pursuing for the past 20 years. I felt like I had lost my identity and was no longer myself,” said Oshima, who had been dancing since the age of five.

In my experience, it is extremely rare to find physical therapists who are educated and sensitive enough to a classically-trained dancer’s needs, as most of them typically work with sports athletes. Ballet is an art form, so physical therapists need to understand the methods and traditions intrinsic to ballet, as well as the style of ballet.

A change in direction

Born in Osaka, Japan, Oshima said she fell in love with ballet when her grandmother took her to see the world-famous Bolshoi Ballet perform Swan Lake. A few years later, Oshima performed dream roles on stages around the world. In 2008, after extensive training at the Osaka School of Music and the Academie de Ballet Kyoto in Japan, the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Russia, Oshima moved to North America to pursue a professional dance career. She attended the Alberta Ballet School pre-professional program in Canada before moving to the United States for more opportunities and to train under former Bolshoi principal Tatiana Berenova. Along the way, she picked up more than a few awards, including the Diploma of Honor for the Opera Nationala Romana Iasi in Romania in 2013 and the bronze medal as a soloist at the World Ballet Competition in Orlando in 2010. 

That was the moment I felt that I was becoming a real artist,” said Oshima.

Despite the loss of dancing, Oshima found a new way to embrace her love of ballet.  She earned a bachelor’s degree in health and exercise science in 2017 and was accepted into five physical therapy schools across the country. She ultimately chose TWU’s doctor of physical therapy program after visiting the TWU Dallas campus and researching the program.

“DPT at TWU is a well-established, accredited program with a high licensure exam rate,” said Oshima. “It has ranked repeatedly among the top PT schools in the nation and has multiple options to pursue advanced educational opportunities, such as DPT to PhD Fast Track and Neurologic Residency. I also loved the fact that TWU has unique learning opportunities, such as the supplemental learning lab, and the availability of the cadaver lab just for DPT students.”

Undergoing this catastrophic experience ignited a new passion for physical therapy that can incorporate my dual experience as dancer and certified Tui na massage therapist, in order to better serve my colleagues and prevent career-threatening injuries.

Additionally, TWU professors are not just experienced researchers, but “passionate educators who truly care about their student’s success.”

She also discovered PT professor and associate director Mark Weber, PhD, was on the USA World Ballet Competition medical team the year she competed. “It is a daily source of inspiration to learn directly from a professor who does exactly what I want to pursue,” she said. 

As a result of her experiences, Oshima plans to use her extensive knowledge in dance—as well as her Eastern medicine knowledge as a Tui Na massage therapist—to provide specialized care that helps dancers extend their careers and enrich lives through the art of ballet.

“Although the field of exercise science and physical therapy for dancers is slowly growing, it is still considerably less developed and researched compared to the sports field,” said Oshima. “As a clinician, I want to give back to my patients and colleagues, so they do not make the same mistakes I did, and as a researcher, I would like to conduct research on dance-specific movements. Undergoing this catastrophic experience ignited a new passion for physical therapy that can incorporate my dual experience as dancer and certified Tui na massage therapist, in order to better serve my colleagues and prevent career-threatening injuries.”

 

That was the moment I felt that I was becoming a real artist.

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Page last updated 10:12 AM, October 24, 2019