Reinvention After a Health Scare: From Ballerina to Autobiographer

Reading: From Ballet Dancer to Autobiographer

Second Acts

From Ballet Dancer to Autobiographer

A horrible accident almost robbed me of my entire identity. Instead, it introduced me to my next act

by Antonia Deignan

“Is it too late for me to reinvent myself at age 55?” I am asked. 

“A million percent yes, mama, you’re too late!” was how I would have answered that question, had I been asked it back when I was 20. 

Today? I look around, and it’s happening all around me — women in the second halves of their lives are finding their newer and best selves

I never had a plan to write a memoir. In fact, having barely attended high school, the only memory I have of submitting a creative writing essay back then is accompanied by my writing being returned to me with every sentence slashed horizontally in RED. 

Every single sentence.

But on June 17th, Father’s Day of 2018, mere days after moving from Ohio to Indiana and into a community where I knew no one, I went down shockingly and unexpectedly in a terrible bicycle accident. I suffered a compound fracture (think bones poking through skin) through my right elbow, and a neat break that split my left wrist in half. Between the two limbs I accumulated four surgeries, two titanium five-inch brackets, 30 screws, many months of round-the-clock opiates, and the real kicker: the inability to fully move my body. 

The accident happened not in my twenties or thirties, during my career as a professional ballet/jazz dancer. Nor did it occur in my forties, when I was dabbling in weekend competitive running races, duathlons, triathlons, and obstacle course competitions. The Father’s Day accident blindsided me six ways from Sunday when I was 55 years old. 

The radical takeaway ended up being, without movement in my wheelhouse, who was I? What next?

The drugs did not help my ability to be introspective, clear headed, or goal oriented. At first, Family Feud and Steve Harvey were the only remedies I had for survival. I craved his smile daily and could follow the structure of that game show with relative ease. And… well Steve Harvey is hella funny. With cable, I could watch it/him all day. 

But eventually, partially titrated from Oxycontin, I addressed my heart, and began to write

It was my childhood that came pouring out of me and onto the page. It was facing the abuse of my parents, naming it and claiming it, that helped me better understand why I had turned so completely inward, why I had had so much difficulty standing up for myself, or believing in my own worth. Why I had sabotaged friendships, careers, and true love. The impact of surviving sexual trauma in my childhood had lodged in my bones, and was buried in my cells. The emotional responses that went hand in hand with those experiences laid there as well. 


Writing became a daily habit, a daily need. A creative pause, an opportunity for reflection, butt in the chair, fingers tapping (arms were still in fiberglass from shoulder to knuckles, so laptop pecking was my best option). The words fell into sequences, sentences, episodes. They became poems, explorations, and difficult truth-telling. Slowly a story unfolded and unearthed the woman I had longed to be. Unafraid. Confident. Worthy. Free from blame. Allowed. Loveable.

I made a vision board, a one-year, five-year, even a ten-year plan. I’d share my writing, submit an essay, publish. Putting one foot in front of the other eventually meant I could walk (at first my 15-year-old son held my arms aloft to help me keep them elevated, one on his shoulder as he walked in front of me, the other he held in his hand). Our walks got me thinking, and eventually I decided I would hike the Camino, the coastal Portuguese route. The following spring, one of my daughters and I did exactly that. 

As my health returned, everything felt possible, and my time in the past of escaping into a dancer’s wordless and wonderful silhouette transformed into my 60-year-old self realizing, for the first time, I had a lot to say. 

Antonia Deignan is the mother of five grown children — three young men and two young women. But years before the adventure of motherhood, she parlayed her childhood years of theater into a professional ballet and jazz dance career. Her memoir, Underwater Daughter, is her first book.

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