Are dancers getting injured more? Part II: It all goes back to technique

We all know that scene in Center Stage: Juliette (Donna Murphy) finds Eva (Zoe Saldana) working alone in the studio late at night. She starts to coach her, and then comes that iconic line; she cups the barre with one hand and says, “It’s here.” She’s reminding her student that it all comes back to the work

In researching for this series on a rise in dance injuries (anecdotally, rather than empirically seen at this point), Dance Informa heard a similar sentiment from dance medicine and dance science professionals: it all goes back to consistent work on technique and artistry. That work requires patience (it can feel slow), intentionality and working in alignment with one’s own body

In this second installment of the series, we’ll deep dive into aspects of training, anatomy/kinesiology and dance medicine research with respect to injury prevention. As we look closely at if dancers are getting injured at a higher rate in this post-COVID lockdowns world, and why that might be, those are all important pieces of the puzzle. We’ll hear from the same accomplished experts. Stay tuned for Part III, where we’ll look at how we push back against this trend. Check out Part I here, if you haven’t yet!

Balanced conditioning for optimum dancer wellness

Sue Mayes, principal physiotherapist of The Australian Ballet, believes that basic knowledge on anatomy and kinesiology can go a long way toward dancers working in safer ways. She advocates for increased dance anatomy education and research. To get a keener idea of your dancing body and how it’s working, “look at the muscles that control the movement,” she advises dancers.  

Dr Sue Mayes
Dr Sue Mayes working with dancer Sara Andrlon. Photo by Christopher Rodgers Wilson.

For many dancers, part of that learning is coming to understand the importance of strengthening — for technique, for artistry, for career longevity and much more. Mayes explains how consistent stretching without strengthening can detract from one’s technique and artistry. “If the structures that give stretch and recoil [to your muscles] can’t do that, then those muscles have to work harder – and they’ll fatigue faster. You won’t have that spring in your dance.” 

She’s also quite clear that she’s “not saying ‘don’t go to end ranges [of flexibility]’ – just do it safely by also strengthening and engaging musculature.” That’s “mobilizing rather than stretching,” Mayes says – with “muscles engaged at all times and control at end range. That optimizes technique.”

Following all of that, Mayes reinforces for young dancers that if they want to dance professionally for a sustained period, they have to develop a hip strengthening program. That guidance comes from her research on dancers’ hips, which found that strengthening exercises help prevent hip injuries. Also as a result of from that research, Mayes and her team teach dancers “a toolbox of exercises to dancers that they can choose from.” 

The result? “We’ve markedly reduced injuries, and also increased the longevity of [dancers’] careers,” she notes. Further, she adds, such strengthening work has also helped dancers finish their careers safer and heathier – versus hobbling out with a slate of injuries. Such dancers “have listened to the education and found out what works for them,” Mayes believes. 

What works for dancers often “doesn’t need to be difficult.” She recommends a few fairly simple exercises: sets of rising to relevé and lowering with control, stair running (“fantastic for strengthening feet and ankles,” Mayes says), weight lifting with control at end ranges of motion. Arguably, with the potential to help dancers do what they love stronger and longer, the only real question is “why not?”

Joshua Honrado, Doctor of Athletic Training with NYU Langone’s Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, reminds us of key principles for safe, informed pedagogy – principles to inform that conditioning work. Some of this might feel like a refresher for many well-informed readers – but that never hurts! It’s important for dancers to strive for “neutral alignment,” and for teaching artists to guide them in that direction, for one. For two, observe and respect the limitations of anatomical structure. “We know, from dance science literature, that safely increasing flexibility/range of motion is a long-term goal,” Honrado affirms.

He also underscores the importance of proper, consistent warm-up and cool-down. Time your deep stretching more toward the cool-down end of things, and even better toward the end of the day, he recommends – because static stretching actually fatigues muscles. Muscles need energy for executing technique exercises and choreography in a fully supported, safe way. “Fatigue closely correlates with injury; it can make it all too easy to lose [sound] alignment and support,” Honrado notes.

He also encourages dancers to get sufficient and periodic rest and recovery. At the same, “active downtime” is most beneficial, he notes: with continuing to set and reframe goals, as well as (along with rest) working towards them. There’s actually dance science research demonstrating the benefits of not completely resting during times off from dance (or at least with time in the studio significantly reduced), Honrado shares. 

Learning technique and learning to question

Some could laugh off that aforementioned Center Stage moment as a little cheesy, yet for Zac Jones of Heal Yourself and Move, everything really does go back to technique. As he’s working with clients, he immediately has them apply their kinetic learning to their technique. He asks them to “test everything they’re doing [for conditioning] against their dancing…is it improving it?” Evidently enough, if the answer there is “no,” then there’s not much point to doing whatever exercises they’re doing. 

That question could be meaningful for dancers following less-than-sound conditioning guidance from social media; if they recognize that something they’re doing isn’t helping them, they may very well stop doing it before they get hurt. In a larger sense, this is also building a “value system” – as Jones defines it — of critical thinking, investigation and balanced rigor. Those are values that can truly serve dancers on their artistic path. 

He also encourages dancers to feel what’s going on in their body on a deeper level as they go through exercises and technique – to key into their interoception (inner feeling) and their own body’s wisdom. All of that can help them see the advantages of the quieter independent work, without the “fanfare of class,” Jones says — focused, quiet time and space that can bring a good deal of that meaningful learning of one’s own body.

From there, dancers can start to connect what’s happening in class with all of the work they do outside of class; it all gives dancers that patterning that makes technique feel as natural as breathing, as Jones puts it. As such, establishing that patterning gives you a sincere advantage toward accelerating your technique and artistry, he adds.

At minimum, those skills and mindsets can guide dancers to know enough about their own body to recognize how attempting an oversplit might not be the best idea for them – even if it wowed them when they saw a favorite Instagram influencer do it. Jones reinforces a key truth that we discussed in the first part of this series: when we see things on social media, we don’t know the context. 

With dance-based images and shapes, that context includes that person’s innate skeletal system, how that person prepared for it and how they got into it. Without taking that context into consideration, dancers often “want to push through an obstacle,” Jones describes. That doesn’t work, he notes – rather, it “just magnifies the obstacle…because the body says, ‘What are you doing?! Stop!’ It’s our evolution as humans.” 

A more useful process – Jones details, echoing Honrado – is learning to “to respect the obstacle,” and then investigate it. “Find the resistance point, and over time work around it and dissolve it.” From there, it goes back to the technique and the vocabulary, Jones reiterates. It all becomes connected, the technique and somatics inextricably linked in supporting dancers toward being the strongest artists that they can be. 

All in all, pursuing something that might not be right for your body could be “shape-chasing,” as Jones calls it. In contrast, integrating the shapes of dance technique and choreography into your own physicality is true learning, he notes. Then, it becomes “as easy as breathing.” Our body is beautifully complex, more than any one step or phrase of movement vocabulary could be. “Start to tap into that!” he advises. 

Getting “buy in”: Engaging students in their own wellness 

You can lead a horse to water…you know the saying. We can educate dancers and encourage a certain way of working, but they’re the ones who have to keep doing the work: consistently, patiently and mindfully. How can we get “buy in” from them, as Mayes puts it, that this kind of approach will truly get them to where they want to be as dancers? 

Both Mayes and Jones point to “the proof in the pudding” — the great results that a more informed, safer approach can bring. Dancers notice that strengthening can actually increase range of motion, for one, Mayes says. Dancers Jones has worked with “have come back [from injuries] stronger technically,” he notes. “With the right information, they can go into their bodies more – really focus and find more possibilities.” 

Tracking progress also helps dancers concretely see how they’re improving, week to week – which only helps that “buy in,” Jones affirms. Essentially, if dancers can see that it’s helping them become stronger technically, they’ll most likely do it. 

Jones also believes that how he works with dancers helps engage them. He says that the simple question of “how do you feel?”, while they execute a certain exercise, helps a dancer feel “seen and heard.” Feeling like that helps them “really respond…and it becomes more of a dialogue – a circular dialogue between teacher and student.” Reflective questions for students, to be pondered and answered after class, can enhance such a dialogue, Jones adds.  

The idea of “it’s the journey, not the destination” can feel like the most cliche Instagram inspiration – yet cliches become cliches because they contain truth. As another time-tested aphorism, there are many paths up the mountain. “There are so many ways to get to the technique [aims that dancers want],” Jones reminds us. Those ways are as numerous and diverse as we are. Perhaps the investigation of all of those paths, to find what will help us reach our dance goals, is its own kind of reward. Enjoy the exploration, dancers. “Put the feel before the ideal,” Jones quips.  

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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