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Back to the Footwork He Loves

Back to the Footwork He Loves

Spine Surgery at Cedars-Sinai Helps Emmy-Nominated Choreographer Return to Dancing, Drumming and Keeping the Beat

Fred Tallaksen is a performer and choreographer with 35 years in the industry and four Emmy nominations under his belt. But for more than a decade, between dancing and drumming and teaching others to step to the beat, he hid terrible pain that threatened to end his career—until spine surgery at Cedars-Sinai got his back, back on track.

Tallaksen’s pain came from spondylolisthesis, a condition where one of the vertebrae—the bones in the spineTiffany Perry, MD—collapses and the bone above slips forward onto it. According to Tiffany Perry, MD, assistant professor of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai and Tallaksen’s physician, the resulting pressure on nerves can cause severe back pain, leg pain or numbness.

“Spondylolisthesis can be a glacial process, developing over many years,” Perry said. “It doesn’t disrupt some patients’ lives, but for patients like Fred, who are very active, the pain can be devastating, keeping them from work and from pastimes they enjoy.”

Tallaksen’s life is certainly active. He has worked in film, television, theater, commercials and music videos. He has choreographed dancers, singers, actors, musicians, skaters, drummers, BMX riders and a host of performers, including Madonna, Maya Rudolph, J.K. Simmons and Bryan Cranston. He has even worked with Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

Damage to his neck and back after a diving accident when he was 16 went undetected for years, but in his mid-40s, in the middle of a busy career, the results caught up with him. Spondylolisthesis in the lumbosacral joint at the base of his spine began causing unbearable pain radiating from his lower back down into his leg and foot.

“When you have severe pain and you have to go to work every day and you're a choreographer and you have to tell everyone what to do and be positive and happy, you ignore the pain and you just get through it,” said Tallaksen, most recently nominated for a 2022 Emmy for his choreography in the Amazon Studios show Goliath. “And then when you get home, you suffer in silence. And it's something that's very debilitating and it can put you in a really, really dark place.”

Medical attention outside of Cedars-Sinai and lifestyle changes weren’t enough.

“Of course, I went to a doctor and a chiropractor, but I also tried massage and acupuncture and physical therapy and ice and sleeping better and eating better,” Tallaksen said. “I tried everything, and although all of those things helped, ultimately, I needed surgery.”

Tallaksen consulted with Perry in 2019, and she performed a spinal fusion procedure. She placed an “expandable cage, like a car jack” under the slipped disk in Tallaksen’s spine and used it to raise the disk to the proper level.

“As we increase the height from this jack, it reduces the slip at that level,” Perry said. “And then all we have to do is lock it in with screws and a rod to connect those screws. The ultimate goal is to stop the abnormal motion at this level, L5-S1, where the slip was located.”

Over the next 12 months, Tallaksen’s bones integrated with the hardware to keep Perry’s work permanently in place. Perry also did a separate procedure to complete a partial neck fusion performed at another medical center.

Perry and Tallaksen have both heard others express their fears about undergoing spine surgery.

“I don't have a clinic that goes by that a patient doesn't say, ‘Well, I have a friend who had surgery and, you know, they're in a wheelchair,’ or, ‘I have a friend who had surgery and his pain is worse after surgery than it was before surgery,’” Perry said.

She explains to these patients that her job is to determine their individual diagnosis and the treatment—surgical or nonsurgical—that will give them the best possible outcome.

The patient’s bone quality (“Fred has amazingly hard bone because he is athletic and he’s been super active,” Perry said.), physical fitness at the time of the procedure, and attitude can all be factors, according to Perry. She said Tallaksen did an amazing job with recovery.

“He worked with a therapist very closely to ensure that he was strengthening his muscles and strengthening his core gradually post-op so that he could go back to work and choreography and dancing and doing everything that he does, including teaching, in a timely, safe fashion,” Perry said.

Tallaksen’s procedures improved things even more than he had imagined they would—allowing him to once again enjoy activities outside of the dance studio, such as rollerblading and Pilates.  

“I got really great results from my surgery,” Tallaksen said. “I was really hopeful and felt great and knew I could get back to work and my life as a busy choreographer. But what I didn't realize was that I was going to be able to start doing things again with my body that I had not been able to do for 20 years.”

For Tallaksen, the show will definitely go on.

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Expert Team Uses Latest Tech to Advance Spinal Fusion