Cirque Du Soleil performer stuns doctors
Within months of receiving a hip replacement, Sara Joel, a 53-year-old mom of four from Syosset, was already back to dancing and performing in shows and competitions.
Joel, a former acrobatic performer with Cirque du Soleil, was certainly up for the challenge of recovering quickly from a hip replacement. She had already been known to perform aerial fabric, underwater and pole dancing while pregnant. In fact, after learning the art of pole dancing for a year, she gave her first public performance in 2015 at the comedy and pole dancing show Schick a Pole in It while eight months pregnant.
“I had to modify things, because you can’t really do any intense forward bending or twisting when you’re eight months pregnant and you don’t want to fall,” Joel said. “I modified the choreography and did my first performance in front of an audience when I was eight months pregnant. It was so much fun. I figured the audience would be forgiving because how much are they going to expect from an eight-month pregnant woman. It felt like it lifted any pressure and it just was a lot of fun.”
Joel first began noticing pain in her right hip while performing at Cirque du Soleil. Her hip dysplasia allowed her to be more flexible and put her feet behind her head without warming up. And because her performance was equal partnering, she had to lift her partner just as much as he lifted her, which ultimately took a toll on her hips and lower back.
“But I left there in great shape,” Joel said. “I think child bearing was hard on my hips and back. I always counted myself lucky for escaping unscathed.”
Joel was 48 when she did her first competition in 2018 at the United States Pole Dance Federation. And around that time, even while rehearsing, her doctor recommended getting a hip replacement after a concerning MRI. She tried getting cortisone shots, but it ended up putting her on the fast track to a hip replacement.
Before getting the surgery, she was still dancing, but she had to modify her choreography. “I was walking to and from the pole with a limp,” Joel said. “I said, ‘you know what, it’s time.’”
A year ago, she got her hip replacement surgery, which requires removing the diseased part of the hip joint and replacing it with artificial parts, at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset by Dr. Sreevathsa Boraiah, an orthopedic surgeon.
Dr. Boraiah said Joel is a patient that surely sticks out. “I have people who do martial arts, I have people who play hockey who have the surgery,” Dr. Boraiah said. “But not this kind of extremes of motions.”
After the surgery, Joel said she had no pain in her hip.
“The other hip hurts now,” Joel said. “Dr. Boraiah was amazing. I liked that he’s young so he’ll still be around to do the other side when I need it done. I went in there asking for a certain type of prosthetic, a dual mobility joint, which is less likely to dislocate when I do crazy stuff.”
Dr. Boraiah chuckled when speaking with the Syosset Jericho Tribune.
“It is true,” Dr. Boraiah said. “Pretty much her hip should be as strong as a God-given hip.”
During recovery, she set up a space to take care of herself and she received help from friends and family. Three months later, she went back to the pole, while being careful. Now, she’s hanging from her right leg without even thinking about it.
“A lot of people do well with hip replacement,” Dr. Boraiah said. “I think as a surgeon you’re skeptical because you don’t have people who do this kind of dancing, and who want to get the surgery and go back to that… She’s literally doing acrobatics. In a way I was happy she was going to do well, but I was cautious and told her what she needs, because that’s what would make her happy, not just a great hip but what she wants to do.”
When asked what helped her recover quickly, Joel said practicing yoga and stretching.
“I did a lot of physical therapy [at Northwell STARS],” Joel said. “I try to work differently than I did before, because I felt like I was abusing my flexibility before the surgery.”
Currently, she’s a regular performer at Schtick A Pole In It. She also continues to perform in competitions. In April, she hopes to compete in Pole Art Italy, an international pole dancing competition.
“I spend a lot of time choreographing short pieces,” Joel said. “Whereas for Cirque du Soleil, I did 1,000 shows of the same piece. This time I’ll spend weeks or months creating a piece that’s only three minutes long, which seems crazy, but that’s how it works. I enjoy the process of creating new things.”
It’s true that when people hear about pole dancing, the first thing that comes to mind is a gentleman’s club.
However, there has been an uptick of interest in pole dancing as an art form or exercise. Around Long Island, there are several studios where people can take pole dancing classes.
“When I was in the show, it was Cirque du Soleil’s first adult show,” Joel said. “It was in Las Vegas. It was a little risqué, the costumes were minimal, but even in that situation, they talked about bringing in a pole dancer and I was so closed-minded. I thought it was going to make the show cheap and I had this idea what pole dancing is, especially in Las Vegas. But, if I had been open-minded, there’s some amazing acrobatic pole dancers there that have done competitions… I get the whole stigma, but pole dancing has its roots in strip clubs, but also Chinese acrobatics where it’s completely acrobatic. It’s usually male acrobats… In India, there’s a stand-alone wooden pole that goes back hundreds of years.”
Joel was a dance major at Colorado College and moved to New York City in 1993 with a scholarship from the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance.
“I had a boyfriend there who introduced me to yoga, so that helped me develop upper body strength and increase my flexibility,” Joel said. “And, then I created a solo with a little bed frame. I’ve always loved dancing on props or partners. That’s why pole dancing feels right at home. But, there was a man in the audience that saw me do the solo on the little bed frame and asked me to work on a duet. We created a piece. For about a year we worked on it and sent a video to Cirque du Soleil and they happened to be creating this new adult show. It’s a smaller venue, more cabaret style, and they were looking for a male and female duo and they liked our act. They hired us over the phone.”
Joel said it was an amazing experience performing with Cirque du Soleil. She left when she was 10 weeks pregnant.
“Ten years later I came back and they brought pole dancers into the show,” Joel said. “They were looking to boost ticket sales by having a celebrity actress come do a pole dance and they needed someone to rehearse in New York City. I never touched a pole before and they asked me to be rehearsal director. I took a class in Mineola and fell in love with it. I kept going and the woman never signed the contract, so they didn’t bring her into the show. So I never ended up rehearsing anybody, but I kept going.”
Joel said that despite her acrobatic experience, she still needed to develop more upper body strength. “I remember having elbow tendonitis for a long time and my fingers would get sore sometimes because you have to develop your grip,” Joel said. “You also have to develop calluses on your hands and legs.”
When asked what advice Joel has for young athletes, she recommended maintaining strength and flexibility.