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A Dancer's Second Act

Story by
Nancy Joseph

It only took a second. A lift gone wrong in a dance rehearsal. When Anna Zemke fell from that lift, shattering multiple bones in her foot, her future was forever altered. She just didn’t know it yet.

Zemke (BA, Dance, Biochemistry, 2013) was in her second year at a prestigious East Coast dance conservatory when she injured her foot. It would take another year for her to give up one dream and pursue another, this time at the University of Washington. Before graduating from the UW in June, she was named 2013 A&S Dean’s Medalist in the Arts.

Anna Zemke Portrait

"I will always miss dancing at the leveI I was at before the injury,” says Anna Zemke, “but I’m lucky in all that I still can do in dance." Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

“When that injury happened, I kept repeating to the paramedics and the dance teacher that I wanted to be a dancer,” recalls Zemke. “I didn’t know how bad it was. I had multiple fractures and all five metatarsals were dislocated. My x-rays
looked like someone had stomped on my foot.”

After surgery, Zemke finished out the semester at the conservatory (minus any dancing), then took a leave of absence and returned to her home in Seattle. Between physical therapy sessions, she took courses at the UW in calculus, political science, and chemistry—the latter being a favorite subject in high school. “I was still using crutches at the start of the quarter,” she recalls. “I was lucky that all the classes were around the fountain. I never would have made it across campus.”

As Zemke continued to heal, her quarter at the UW turned into a full year. Along with physics and math courses, she enrolled in dance classes, taking care to protect her still-fragile foot. “Everyone was really supportive and understanding,” she says of her UW dance instructors. “I felt like they were looking out for me.” This was in stark contrast to the environment at the dance conservatory, where while faculty were still supportive, dancers would hide injuries to remain competitive.

Yet Zemke was still set on returning to the conservatory. She did so the following fall, and quickly discovered that it was not meant to be. “The focus there is strong, athletic dance,” she explains. “That wasn’t going to be my strong point anymore. I felt I could improve on the performance aspect, but I needed to be in an environment that allowed me flexibility to modify classical technique.” She officially transferred to the UW and rethought her career plans. “I finally accepted that dance was not going to be my main focus for a career. Dance was going to be for pleasure.”

In the past, Zemke had imagined medicine as a possible second career, after she retired from dance. Now she worked toward finishing the prerequisites required for medical school, ranking at the top of the class in courses ranging from electromagnetism to anatomy. She also spent a summer in India, shadowing medical professionals through a study abroad program that focused on public health and community medicine in urban and rural settings. She has since shadowed primary care doctors in Seattle as well—a requirement for medical school. Both shadowing experiences have strengthened her interest in medicine.

Anna Zemke Portrait 2

Anna Zemke. Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

“I like the patient interaction and the problem-solving aspect of it,” says Zemke. “It combines counseling and science and elements of physical therapy. Every person you see is different and expresses their concerns

Zemke has completed degrees in biochemistry and dance, with plans to apply to medical school next year. She hopes to combine her interests, possibly specializing in dance medicine—a field that is not yet well recognized. “I know so much about dancers and about the body already,” she says. “And with my injury, I understand what it means to tell a dancer how their injury will affect their life.”

R. Daryl Pedigo, principal lecturer in physics, has no doubt that Zemke will accomplish her goals. Impressed by Zemke’s “indefatigable spirit, resilience, and boundlessly positive attitude toward life and her fellow human beings,” Pedigo anticipates great things from his former student.“My guess is that within a decade or so she will bring the field of dance medicine, which is now not even a recognized specialty, into the celebrated status of sports medicine,” says Pedigo. “She has that kind of persistence and talent.”

Thinking back on the split second when her life changed, Zemke chooses to see the glass as half full. “I will always miss dancing at the leveI I was at before the injury,” she says, “but I’m lucky in all that I still can do in dance. I can’t do certain jumps or turns, but I’ve been able to figure out modifications so that people who don't know I injured my foot can't even tell. The faculty has been totally supportive of these adaptations. I’ve had the chance to perform solos on the large stage at Meany Hall and to choreograph in the Dance Majors Concert. I'm proud of what I've done, and I’ve gained so much confidence at the UW. Looking back at what’s happened, I have no regrets.“