Patient Stories

Great Performances: Repairing a Dislocated Shoulder

At 28 years old and a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, David Hallberg has performed in dozens of demanding and majestic roles. Described as “noble in physique and style, and prodigiously fluent in technique,” Mr. Hallberg uses the power of his physical attributes with breathtaking results. Six years ago, however, just 22 years old and at the start of his career, he dislocated his shoulder while lifting his partner during a performance.

David Hallberg
David Hallberg, principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre

“During the lift, the bone of my arm came out of its socket at the back of my shoulder,” recalls Mr. Hallberg. “I’ve been blessed with a very flexible build, but it comes at a price.”

“Male professional dancers are at risk of developing shoulder instability,” says Frank A. Cordasco, MD, an associate attending orthopedic surgeon at HSS. “In most cases athletes dislocate the shoulder anteriorly – the humeral head or ball pops out the front of the socket. Since male dancers are required to lift their dance partners overhead, the shoulder is at risk of dislocating posteriorly – the humeral head or ball pops out the back of the socket, and this is the mechanism of injury that occurred in David’s case. This is similar to the injury that offensive linemen sustain in professional football.”

Mr. Hallberg came to see Dr. Cordasco at the recommendation of William Hamilton, MD, who has served as the “team” doctor for the American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet for more than three decades. “It was clear that David couldn’t perform with his shoulder instability,” says Dr. Cordasco. “A principal male dancer in a company like ABT has to be able to lift other dancers.” In December of 2004, Dr. Cordasco performed arthroscopic surgery to stabilize David’s left shoulder joint, repairing the tear of the posterior labrum that reinforces the back of the joint and tightening up the posterior portion of the capsule that surrounds the shoulder.

“When you look at our shoulders placed in awkward positions, or our hips and our knees, which we often can turn out in grotesque ways, most would say that we can’t do that; it’s not natural to our bodies,” says Mr. Hallberg. “Well, what we’re doing is not natural for our body; we’re forming it into a ‘sculpture’ in essence. So you need a doctor and healthcare team that really understands that. These doctors do exist, one being Frank Cordasco. I wasn’t aware of how good HSS was when I was injured. I’ve since learned how great an institution it is.”

Mr. Hallberg returned to the ABT stage five months after surgery. “He’s been in great shape ever since,” says Dr. Cordasco. “He really is a testimony to what an extraordinary athlete can do when given the ability, from a structural standpoint, to carry on.”

“As dancers, our careers, like for many athletes, are not very long,” says Mr. Hallberg. “Time is ticking along and we’re always anxious to get back. What needs to be understood in healthcare is that these are our lives. I didn’t choose this profession – it chose me.”

This story first appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Horizon, the HSS news magazine.