“I did a death drop, and I broke my ankle in three places,” says Brandon Wilson, an Atlanta-based drag queen who goes by Ramona Towers. “It felt like a thousand bees were stinging directly into my ankle.”
The next week, she wheeled herself out on stage wearing a cast. After a few months in a cast, Ramona Towers is back in the heels doing crazy stunts and death drops—one of drag's most iconic moves where a performer drops to the floor into a struck pose (a split or with one leg bent back). It's part of the lifestyle, she says.
“My ankle is better now, and every time I step on stage I take precautions. But at the same time I’m an entertainer so that’s what I have to do,” Wilson says.
While the abundance of sequins might imply a lot of smoke and mirrors, drag is not just about looking pretty and mouthing songs. Drag can sometimes be more like an extreme sport for the performers. ‘Rupaul's Drag Race’ queens, for example, are the current all-stars of the American drag world, and their injuries certainly mirror those of pro sports stars. Eureka O'Hara tore her ACL on the set of RDR during a gymnastic challenge. Shangela broke two leg bones when she landed a death drop too hard on a metal floor. Thorgy Thor threw her back out during a number that required her to fall down stairs, and she ended up having to perform in a wheelchair until she could walk again.
Injury prevention and treatment for drag performers
Drag dancing falls into a style known as “vogueing” which involves physical stunts, stretching, contortion, and mime in extremely energetic performances, says Joshua Honrado, an athletic trainer at NYU Langone’s Harkness Center for Dance Injuries.
“Vogueing is a kind of dance that is often passed down by word of mouth, and today younger dancers are going to social media to learn how to vogue. But not everyone is ready to attempt these moves, and they may not know how to get there. For example, if you can't get into a jazz split, you should not attempt a death drop,” Honrado tells me. He adds that there are some basic precautions a drag queen, or anybody really, should take before vogueing and trying stunts like death drops.
“Make sure to do everything to mitigate any variables,” Honrado says. “Know your surfaces. A sprung floor is the best surface to dance on. If you’re dancing on hard concrete, then maybe don't do a death drop. If it’s hot where you are performing, take care not to overextend your limbs.” He urges drag performers to know exactly how their costume, wig, and heels will work with the dance moves. And if you have trouble walking in a certain pair of heels, he says, then don't try to dance in them.
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“The illusion of vogueing comes from the manipulation of weight and momentum,” says Lauren Elson, physician and instructor of sports medicine at Harvard Medical School. A former professional dancer herself, she went into her field so she could help other dancers with their craft. “Don't watch something on Youtube and try it without thorough mental rehearsal. Know exactly how you will do something before you try it. You have to get those basic moves down.”
Elson recommends dancers practice movements with slower and smaller attempts and then work up. She says it's vital for dancers to build mental confidence in a routine before performing it. Of course, it important for any dancer, drag queen or not, to see a doctor if they experience any extreme injuries.
“If you have some minor swelling from an injury, and you can move comfortably, give it a rest and ice. If you are in extreme pain or can't bear weight on an injury, go see a physiatrist or a sports medicine clinic immediately,” Elson says.
Tucking's potential effects on the balls
There's a not-so-secret secret hidden under that drag queen's gown. Many of them “tuck,” which means their testicles are pushed up into their inguinal canals (a.k.a the “ball caves” where the testicles retract when it’s cold). Then the empty scrotal sack and penis is tucked in the perineum to give the illusion of having a vagina.
“Certainly mild contusions would be possible,” says Alexandra Hall, a physician at the student health center at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, who’s interested in supporting the health of trans and gender-nonconforming students. Sometimes this means sharing information about how to tuck safely, and what the risks are. “Usually people worry about penile fracture, which is a rare but horrible injury, but that only occurs when the penis is erect, which is incompatible with tucking,” she says. “If you suffer a mild contusion, you would have pain and possibly bruising, and the treatment would be rest, elevation, and ice. Lying down and putting the scrotum and penis up on a throw pillow with a bag of frozen peas or corn on them can be very helpful.”
There is one possible, but rare, complication of tucking which can be life threatening: twisting of the spermatic cord. “The blood vessels to and from the testicle travel through the inguinal canal. On occasion, they can get twisted and, like a hose that is kinked, blood cannot flow,” Hall tells me. “Without blood flow, the testicle will die. This is can happen spontaneously and in response to trauma—mechanical forces, such as getting squeezed, sometimes even lifting something heavy—and has even been known to occur in response to tucking. I’ve seen one case report in the medical literature and a few cases on message boards, so it’s definitely a thing.”
Aging gracefully in drag
Drag injuries can be just as intense as anything that happens on a sports field, says Joel King, a non-binary drag performer in San Francisco who goes by the stage name Vanilla Meringue. “I've definitely fallen down stairs, off raised platforms, cut myself, gotten tons of bruises, sprained ankles from wearing super high heels, and given myself a long term knee injury from intense choreography.”
At age 36, King has consciously scaled back on the physicality of their performances. Like any extreme sport, there's a point where your body can wear out from drag, and the applause isn't worth the pain. “I have frequent pain in my right knee from landing drops,” King says. “As much as I love doing these things, I realize that the audience reaction is very fleeting and the consequences for buying those cheers and gasps could mean long-term effects on my body. My drag needs to evolve beyond shock value if I want to have longevity.”
Ultimately, King believes that drag queens in general should consider moving past the extreme performance that RDR has reinforced in the scene. “Find something that makes you unique beyond the typical ‘lip sync for your life’ style of being extra,” they say. “Death drops are great, but they are getting predictable and even boring. Making your audience connect with an emotion can be just as powerful. Make them think, laugh, or cry. And maybe, just maybe, you'll be able to walk without a cane when you're 70.”
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