'I slept in the splits for years'
SLEEPING in the splits, one foot tied to each bedpost, was just one way passionate ballerina Jemma McGeachie tortured her body to be the best dancer she could be.
Dancing since the age of three, it was all she ever wanted to do.
In early primary school she practised for two hours most nights. As she got older that led to four-hour rehearsals almost every day until she left school at the age of 15 to dance full-time.
"It was my life," Jemma recalls fondly. "I was obsessed from the beginning.
"My Mum couldn't get me into netball or anything else - ballet is all I remember about my childhood, every day, and I never once said I didn't want to go.
"I loved every bit of it."
She commuted from the Central Coast to Sydney and spent four hours a day on the train, listening to the music of her concerts, going over performances in her head, memorising steps and perfecting technique.
She was disciplined. Laser focused. Obsessed.
"It was just magical - the classical music, the tutus, the movement - I was a happy kid but it was such a happy place I don't remember ever thinking, 'I can't go to ballet today'," Jemma said.
"You're already ingrained in the whole culture of ballet, so dancers are normally type A, organised, perfectionist types who do well at school - no one would smoke or drink, and boys are not on the radar.
"It teaches you so much discipline and it's a rigidity in your life that transfers to your school work and getting things done.
"There were some girls who were always dieting, a few with anorexia and there was bulimia around, but I fortunately missed all of that."
After leaving school after Year 9, Jemma danced six days a week and auditioned for the Australian Ballet School, only just missing out. Instead, she did famed Sydney dance teacher Tanya Pearson's tour of Europe, auditioning for international companies.
"I got accepted into the English National Ballet School and a few schools in Europe and I was very excited, but I really wanted to stay in Australia and go to the Australian Ballet School, so I decided to do another year of full-time dance and try again," she said.
But her body had other ideas.
"That's when I was going to the physio a lot and had more and more injuries."
It was clear that while other girls couldn't jump as well as her, she lacked the natural gymnastic-style body she needed to excel in her craft. Jemma, who had been seeing physios since she was 13, also did pilates to condition her body for greatness from a young age.
"I was constantly trying to stretch my hips out more and point my feet harder -
my body took the toll when I went full-time," she said. "The physios would work so hard on me and it probably gave me an extra two years in dance, but the stretching was painful.
"I used to tie my feet to my bedposts.
"If I had a lesson at 7am, I remember waking up at 4am and getting ready because I didn't want to be late and I would stretch and try and fall asleep in that position … and I did that regularly.
"I lived and I breathed it.
"All I wanted to do was be a ballerina - there was nothing else - and I honestly believed I would be."
The now 36-year-old mother-of-three would have done anything to be a professional ballerina - but it was not to be.
Her turnout wasn't enough. Her hips didn't stretch as far as they needed to. But as she worked tirelessly to make up for her body's natural 'shortcomings', her preparation all came down to one audition.
One audition that changed everything.
"I got to the final audition for the Australian Ballet School and the physio assessed my hips and said: 'You're doing so well with what you've got' - and that's when I knew," Jemma said.
"My feet were in a lot of pain and I couldn't rise on to my arches because I started to develop early onset osteoarthritis and my hips couldn't get in the position they would want; structurally I didn't have the rotation to allow for the range.
"It was all over. I was in so much pain and I knew what that meant - that it wasn't enough, and it was devastating.
"It was my life, so when it ended it was like someone died - it was pure devastation.
"My dream was crushed."
When she made the decision to stop dancing, Jemma went to Tafe and did Year 11 before returning to her old high school to do Year 12.
"I was good but there was a limit," she said. "I reached that ceiling at 16.
"Then I thought I really wanted to be a physio and help dancers, so I went to Sydney Uni."
Jemma, who now works at Physiocise on Sydney's north shore with young athletes and dancers, is about to start conditioning classes for children and teens, educating them about their bodies, their limitations, the importance of sleep and how to manage stress.
"I feel like I've come full circle," she said.
"I look after lots of young kids and seeing their hopes and dreams and making realistic goals for them is wonderful, and having three boys has helped me get over that because I'm not at ballet all the time.
"Even helping my own boys run faster and do what they want to do is amazing."
And while Jemma's dream of being on stage wasn't realised, there are no regrets.
"I don't regret any of it. I feel so blessed and grateful that was my childhood, I wouldn't have it any other way," she said.
"To me it was the perfect childhood and I feel like it taught me so much and has taken me to a career where I get to help people every day.
"It's healing in a way because you treat people's injuries that I had, and I feel so at peace.
"I only have positive reflections, looking back."