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Aerial dancer keeps the bar high

 Karen Newell Young

Nevada City Advocate 

“Once I hit the ground, I knew it,” Tresa Honaker said of the 2012 injury that left her paralyzed. “I couldn’t move.”

The aerial dancer was rehearsing for a routine at the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley when she fell 15 feet from the ropes, severing her spine and paralyzing her from the waist down. She was airlifted to Sutter Hospital in Roseville, spent two weeks in the ICU and four weeks in rehab. 

Much of the past seven years Honaker has spent relearning dance skills that she had spent her career developing, as well as a host of issues involving movement and strength training. 

“Most people think that if you’re paralyzed, it’s just that you can’t move,” she said. “But it’s a lot more than that. There are the organs that may be affected, skin issues, pain management, then the aging issues, and it’s hard to know the difference between what is aging and what is the injury.” 

As the founder and director of AirAligned, the theatrical dance company that consists of formally trained performers, Honaker has spent most of her adult life dancing. She began focusing on aerial dancing after forming AirAligned.

“I had to decide emotionally whether to leave it behind,” she said. “It might have been easier to quit, but I wanted to leave a legacy to share what I’ve learned and continue the art.” 

She said that in addition to sharing what she has learned in her career it has been “bittersweet to choreograph and direct but not be able to perform.”

“I had found happiness in that part of my life,” she said. “One of the hardest parts of adjusting to life after the injury was the lack of vitality, the lack of movement.”

The nuances of the injury that would alter the course of her life, her career and her future were multi-faceted, time consuming and psychologically challenging. Because broken ribs and the dislocation of her spine required surgery, rehabilitation from the surgery as well as recovery from the injury itself was slow going.

“You go back to being a toddler,” she said. “In the dancer world, you’re constantly working the body as a whole. So if that’s lost, you’re relearning all of that. Then your upper body is taking over and the body is not designed for that.”

Honaker said she learned to take it moment to moment because the enormity of her situation was overwhelming. “It was hard to keep my spirits up. It was a lot to juggle. If you look too far into the future is can be daunting.”

Doctors don’t have a lot of answers to questions on nerve damage, Honaker said. Also, her particular injury was complicated by the surgery, her age (47 at the time of her injury), and the physical and emotional challenges of recovery. 

Over the years, Honaker has sought a variety of treatments to address paralysis, pain, movement and mental health. She’s been involved with yoga, acupuncture, crossfit training and support groups, but only crossfit training has been really helpful. She said pain medication has been minimal and did not provide much relief.

Honaker has “test piloted” a few bionic exoskeletons designed to improve limited movement. The applications have motors that mimic the function of stepping. Although Honaker envisions a day when the devices are more affordable and convenient than they currently are, she has found them not useful for every day use. They also require great coordination and strength. 

She said most therapy, both physical and emotional, was sometimes difficult for caregivers and supporters to provide.

“The time it takes to do things becomes astronomical; for one thing. People don’t think about how society views us. It separates us; it cages us in in a way.”

“If you haven’t been through it, you can try to be in the other person’s shoes, but you can’t really.”

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n Sacramento in 2015, Tresa Honaker presented a TEDX talk about her aerial dancing and subsequent injury, with musician David Taylor Gomes, who wrote and performed the music for the event. Also joining her on stage were Giorgi Khokhobashvili on violin and Tony Ledesma David on piano.

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Honaker’s principal AirAligned dancers perform in Sacramento, from left back row, Marni Marshall, Sebastian Merrick, Sophie Wingerd, Honaker, Anastasia Armeanu, and front row, Joe Simms and Elana Hierman. 

Photo by Alicia Berardi