Are dancers getting injured more? Part III: Pushing back against the trend

We’ve all been there — you see something flatly wrong on social media, and you pause for a moment. After a sigh, perhaps a facepalm, you consider a choice: do you engage, or just move on? If you do engage, what’s the best approach for pushing back against false information? As we’ve discussed in this series on an (anecdotally seen) rise in dancer injuries post-COVID lockdowns, social media (and the internet more broadly) may very well be playing a part. 

What’s the best way to push back against false information on conditioning and stretching, that seems to be guiding some dancers down dangerous roads? How do we equip dancers with the tools to spot faulty advice? How do we make mindful, intentional and informed approaches more appealing – so that they become the natural choice? How might we need to refine pedagogical practices to accommodate realities of this internet and social media age?

In this third installment of this series, we’ll look at those important questions. The same experts will guide us: Sue Mayes, principal physiotherapist of The Australian Ballet; Zac Jones of Heal Yourself and Move; and Joshua Honrado, doctor of athletic training with NYU Langone’s Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. Check out Part I here and Part II here!

Pedagogical practice for 2023 

One could argue that it all starts in the classroom – so we’ll start there. Toward working against less-informed, potentially dangerous approaches, Jones starts with a fundamental question: what’s the outcome that you’re after? He’ll present that questions students and parents alike. The next question then is (as a callback to Part II): is the work that you’re doing going to get you closer to that outcome – and if not, why do it? Jones also guides students to notice the “pushback,” or response, from the body after the work at hand.

Speaking of pushback, Jones has had some candid conversations with studio directors. They agree with him that a safe, informed approach is indeed the approach to take – yet, they also have to grapple with the competition and business realities. If students want to be pushed toward the extremes that they see on social media, and where they are isn’t offering that, they’ll go elsewhere, studio owners will say.  

Yet, Jones doesn’t think that there needs to be a tension there; there are ways to teach that are aligned with the science, with important safety principles, but can also keep students continuing to come back for more. “Offer something that satisfies what the dancer is looking for, through the technique,” he councils — through the rigor of proper placement, mechanics and movement pathways. 

Attention spans are what they are these days, due to internet and social media culture, Jones also notes. He suggests checking in with students to capture their attention and re-engage them in the work of their own technical and artistic development. “Stand and deliver less,” he advocates: engaging students more and lecturing at them less. When we can engage students in these ways, they’ll gravitate toward rigor and good information – at least more consistently. The quick fixes and misinformed approaches will more often get left in the dust.

Media and scientific literacy: Spotting “red flags” and more

Pedagogical practice is one thing (a truly important thing), and what students do after they leave our class is another. We can’t control how students engage with social media when they walk out of the studio. Yet, we can arm them with the tools to recognize faulty information when it comes up in their Instagram feed or Google results. 

Honrado notes a couple of “red flags” for false information. One is if anything is promising any particular result in a certain period of time – for example, “you’ll get your splits in a month if you do [x]!”. As noted in Part II, we know that safely increasing range of motion is a long-term process and no kind of quick fix. 

Also noted in Part II is because stretching can fatigue muscles, we want to reserve deep, sustained stretching for the end of the day (remember that fatigue closely correlates with injury). Honrado notes that if resources you’re seeing are recommending that sort of deep, sustained stretching in the morning or in between classes, that’s guidance to disregard. “Anecdotally, this is [often] when we see injuries,” Honrado says — when dancers time their work in ways that fatigue muscles and don’t set them up for safe work. 

He also advises a skeptical, critical eye toward stretching and conditioning devices out there, often advertised to dancers (social media algorithms know that we’re dancers, and maybe even about our conditioning and technique goals). For example, some of these devices claim to help dancers achieve oversplits. 

Honrado underscores another important point there: the sort of hyperextension and hypermobility that we see in social media oversplit images (yes, that’s what it is, hypermobility) is actually not muscular flexibility. Dancers in these pictures are “working into joints…[whereas] you want to work into muscles,” Honrado explains. So, one could reasinably question why achieving something like such an image should be such a coveted goal anyways. 

Another path is to work on your muscular flexibility and keep your joints safe, so that you can dance long and strong. Yes, safely increasing your range of motion takes time, and it can be tempting to rush the process. “Develop your artistry within your [current] limitations,” Honrado recommends.

Balancing out the false with the true: Putting good information out there 

When it comes to reducing the harm of faulty information for dancers on social media – in addition to helping dancers have greater scientific and media literacy – we can be on social media, too, Mayes reminds us. We can share good information to, at least in part, drown out the Siren call of those flashy images. “We can join forces and have a strong voice together,” Mayes says, “and we are starting to have that strong voice!”

Toward building that strong voice even further, networking is key, adds Mayes — developing a network with people in your area but also around the world. “COVID showed us how many tools there are to connect and share information. We need to get busy getting information out there,” she says. We can also translate that information into formats that work well on social media — videos and infographics detailing the latest research, for example. 

Social media is a key way in which information disseminates nowadays, but it’s by no means the only way. Honrado advocates for dance professionals continuing to update their knowledge “on the most evidence-based practice”: through journal articles, conferences, workshops, and related forms of continuing education. 

As an example of information getting out there in those ways, Harkness offers injury prevention workshops and lectures at studios/schools and companies. It’s a key space for discourse on dancer health and wellness, Honrado believes. Important with such events is “knowing your audience,” he adds; presentations for young dance students don’t look and feel exactly like those presented to professional dancers. 

It is important for teaching artists and studio directors to keep their knowledge current in these ways – because it’s their responsibility to disseminate it to students. Yet, students have a responsibility here as well, Honrado affirms — to remain open, curious and diligent. With all of the complex factors at work in this issue – and we’ve really just scratched the surface in this three-part series – it really does come back to the technique, the artistry and the connection of teacher and student, Jones reminds us. It’s here, at the barre, as Juliette from Center Stage would remind us.    

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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