On Breaking Backs and Breakin' Boundaries

Renee's story could start in many places, but the launching pad to me, and what makes her a tough cookie, is that Renee’s story starts when she broke her back in a gymnastic training/teaching accident.

Spinal injuries are up there on my list of major fears. I think of Bane “breaking the Bat” in Gotham City (comic nerd alert!), and while Renee’s experience didn’t have the Christopher Nolan treatment, it was still unpleasant. She couldn’t feel her legs for six hours and didn’t know how long that would last, and when she was seen by doctors, she was told that she would need a spinal fusion (in fact seventeen separate doctors said that would be her only option). She was told she wouldn’t be able to dance or perform again (she’s a former junior Olympic gymnast who had put years of sweat and tears into training) and that she would be unable to have a natural childbirth and to expect difficulties during pregnancy.

But, like I say, Renee is *ONE TOUGH COOKIE*. She wouldn’t hear no for an answer, and in the process she learned a lot about what it takes to heal yourself and others. The healing process was long, but she beat the odds and did it her way. Fast forward to today, and Renee runs her own dance studio and fitness center, Breakin Boundaries. She has two little boys who are four and a half and two years old (she delivered both naturally and continued to teach/dance up to 8 months into both pregnancies). As a Certified Movement Analyst (CMA), her expertise is in helping individuals with serious injuries through movement therapy. She’s also an Applied Behavioral Analyst (ABA) and has extensive experience in working with children with autism, which she was inspired to do after her cousin was diagnosed at two years old.

Her business’ goal is to inspire people not to be afraid. Her studio is known for Zumba, but offers an array of classes from dance-related (Hip Hop & Capoeira), aerobic-focused (boot camps & kick boxing), wellness and fitness-inspired (pilates & barre), to downright playful (wanna learn Burlesque with me at Rock N’ Stilettos, anyone?). The classes all have something in common: get ready to do some self-healing work, to literarily and figuratively let your hair down, sweat it out and make some friends.

Renee and her husband come from large Italian families, so we met at her newest local Piadine, an Italian coffee shop, lunch spot and specialty good store all-in-one. Here’s my Q&A with Renee:

After your training accident, seventeen different doctors recommended that you get a spinal fusion that would have required a lifetime of follow-up surgeries. How did you decide to ignore their advice, and what tools did you use to recover yourself?

Surgery would have limited my range and mobility.  Over time, the wear and tear of a spinal fusion would put tension on the rest of my spine, which would eventually need attention that I was not mentally or physically prepared for. I researched all types of pilates until I came across IM=X Pilates (Integrated Movement Xercise), and used this form of rehabilitation. I called the Institute and became certified myself so that I could understand the fundamentals (the owner of the facility had a similar story). At the time, I had completed my pre-requisites for LIMS and began my first module at Laban Movement studies program.  I used techniques from the Bartenieff Fundamental Exercises which help re-pattern the body, with themes such as internal/external intent, learning to let go, using space harmony and spatial awareness to move through the environment. I incorporated these methodologies, and still do, into my everyday life.

You became an Applied Behavioral Analyst (ABA) after caring for your autistic cousin. How did you make that decision and how has that helped in your Certified Movement Analyst (CMA) work?

Watching a child struggle day in and day out made my back injury seem so small. I was off work at the time (due to my injury) and it gave me the opportunity to give myself to someone else. Learning about Autism from multiple clients, I began to understand their wants and needs before they did. I was doing great work that I was actually good at, and I was helping children and families who needed it more than I did. For the first time in a longtime after my injury, I felt alive again! The power and beauty of these children gave me the courage to regain confidence in myself. I didn’t know what to expect when I entered into the Laban Movement Analyst program. I think my initial expectations were that I would do some exercises and learn how to move better and move on. But, this was way more than I ever imagined it would be, and it took me to a place of vulnerability. Yes we moved, and cried (oh I cried) as each layer was peeled away. What most don’t realize is that trauma (physical, emotional or mental) creates a barrier that blocks you from healing. It can be paralyzing. It was for me. As I was finishing up my 5 year module program to become a CMA, I decided to write my thesis on Autism and the application and theory of Laban and Bartenieff Fundamentals.  One of the greatest things I learned was that children with autism and I shared a common truth – we were afraid of the unknown.    

Due to your former injuries, you were told that you would need to use pain medications through both of your childbirths and that a cesarean might be the only option. What did you use as pain-management techniques to avoid both, and how had your prior healing/training helped?

Due to my injury, I was more afraid of an epidural then I was of having a natural birth! I physically and mentally prepared myself for the most amazing experience and what our bodies were built for. I continued teaching classes until I was eight month pregnant, as staying fit and moving while pregnant is helpful for having an easier birth. I continued to utilize my breathe support in all my classes, and I implemented certain Laban/BF techniques in my everyday life - for example I utilized imagery and visualized the baby moving under the pubic bone with my breath, and allowed my breath to take the baby where he needed to go. I also made a lot of conscious changes in the way I moved: walking with my legs hip width apart, with vertical alignment, and dropping my sacrum while walking up the stairs. I prepared myself for a c-section in an emergency if it was for the best and the safety of my newborn. But, for those who really want to know, I couldn’t sit still – I was actually dancing in the labor room! Second position plies and stretching was what my body needed for the all-natural birth. We are stronger then you think. I call it mind over matter!

You had two little boys after you launched your own business. How did you juggle motherhood demands while expanding your business?

This had to be one of the scariest things at the time. All I could say every morning was “How? How am I going to do this today?” But, when a fire is burning inside and passion takes over, I believe anything is possible. Life happens!  My first-born was there from the moment I opened my doors. I offered classes for children in addition to my already established adult classes. And yes, there was the pack n’ play in the corner – my boys are great at sleeping through blasting music! Managing time and scheduling meetings with a breast-feeding newborn was a struggle. I am not one to sugarcoat anything, so I chalked it up to “this is me, take me for all I have or nothing at all”! When the time was right all would fall into place. Fast forward, now that both of my angel faces are in school, I am able to offer morning classes as well. 

Finally, if you had 3 tips for other mothers that you wish someone would have told you, what would they be?

  1. Give yourself permission! Permission to let go, permission to forgive yourself and permission to be present!
  2. Stay true to yourself, believe in your abilities, and don’t be afraid. JUMP and, when you do, jump high!
  3. Self-care is the key to a successful rich, full, happy, life! Have NO regrets. It all meant something!

You can take a class with Renee or at Breakin Boundaries by checking out their class schedule online, or following her on Facebook and Instagram.

GREAT DEAL: Renee is offering a *FREE CLASS* to any new clients who shows a copy of this post. Now go get your dance on!