Not many 11-year-olds can say with conviction what they want to do when they grow up. That’s where Callahan Conley, a 5th grader at Central Intermediate School in Wadsworth, is ahead of the game.
When his parents Kate and Gregg witnessed him regularly dancing around the house at age 5, they asked if he had any interest in taking lessons.
“His answer was a hard no,” joked Kate. “But we signed him up anyway.”
Callahan says he’s not really sure why he was so opposed to the idea, but his tune quickly changed.
“It was magical once I got there and started dancing,” he said. “I knew then it was something I wanted to do.”
As the youngest member of Northeast Ohio Dance Academy’s pre-professional ballet troupe, under the direction of Brenda and Christopher Stygar, Callahan spends 4 to 5 days a week in dance classes. The pre-professional program is designed to provide conditions similar to those a professional dance company or college dance major program requires. For Callahan, it’s a great training ground for his ultimate dream job – to dance with the New York City Ballet.
Since his feet are integral to his abilities as a dancer, it was disconcerting when he started experiencing pain in his heels during summer 2020.
“At first the pain would come and go, we attributed it to growing pains,” said Callahan. “Eventually it started to radiate up into my knees and hips and it got to the point where the pain was unbearable.”
Although he was able to still participate in classes, which in addition to ballet included jazz, tap and modern, the pain lingered long after he was done dancing. At-home remedies like icing the area didn’t help much. That’s when the family made an appointment with Dr. Julie Kerr, a sports medicine physician, who diagnosed Callahan with Sever disease, a swelling and irritation of the growth plate in the heel that was brought on by a growth spurt.
“Callahan had a big growth spurt and it happened so fast that his muscles didn’t have a chance to catch up with his bones—leaving everything tight,” said Kate.
In November 2020 Callahan began physical therapy at Akron Children’s Sports Rehab in Medina with therapist Dan Norman.
“Callahan was referred to me with the diagnosis of Sever disease, knee pain and weakness of the hips,” said Dan. “Treatment for Callahan started with looking at his entire alignment both standing still and with functional movements.”
Dan says factors that can affect a person’s alignment and mechanics are muscle tightness, weakness or imbalance, poor neuromuscular control and movement patterns, foot hyper pronation (rolling to the inside) or flattening of the arch, and poor ability to stabilize and balance through the core and the arch of the foot.
“We focused on stretching Callahan’s tight muscles, and strengthening his hips, core and lower extremities including the arches and intrinsic foot muscles, as well as balance and neuromuscular training,” he said.
Kate was very impressed when Dan brought in a physical therapist with a dance background to work specifically with Callahan.
“We have therapists who specialize in different aspects of functional movement and diagnosis,” Dan explained. “When getting a higher-level athlete closer to their functional sport (after addressing underlying strength, mobility and flexibility issues) we try to touch base with our specialty therapists to address sport specific movement patterns that may be affecting the patient’s specific diagnosis.”
“I loved that they treated him like a dancer and not like a soccer player or other athlete,” Kate said. “The therapists helped develop exercises specific to his needs like strengthening his hips and working on his turnout which involved the intrinsic muscles of his feet.”
During this time Callahan’s dance teachers cut his dance schedule in half and modified the difficulty to allow him time to heal. COVID also played a role in his recovery.
“Due to COVID we have slightly reduced our appointment lengths and placed emphasis on the home program,” said Dan. “Our jobs are to educate, and a major focus of Callahan’s treatment has been to educate him on what he needs to do at home to get himself better. Patients who take responsibility for their specific condition and do their home exercises do better and get better quicker.”
Kate says Callahan would have normally participated in numerous rehearsals and shows for his studio’s December performance of the Nutcracker, but due to the pandemic everything was cut in half.
“COVID worked to our advantage,” said Kate. “He was able to miss more than normal which allowed him more time for therapy, rest and recovery.”
Dan describes Callahan as a picture-perfect patient.
“He is a very motivated young man with a passion and drive toward his art,” he said. “He has been very compliant, and I am hopeful that he will go on pain-free and unrestricted in his already successful dance career.”
Callahan is looking forward to things returning to normal post-pandemic. After being accepted in Ballet Met’s Junior Summer Intensive in Columbus last summer, it was cancelled due to COVID. He plans to try again this summer.
“I am going to keep working and doing what I need to do so I can be ready to go,” he said.