Dance smarter, not harder

Growing up as a dancer, we spend so much time training in the studio for performance, exams and competitions, working for those forever moving ‘goal posts’ as technique and choreography get more challenging.

Our bodies are finely tuned, we become managers of micro movement in order to create the perfect shape, sustain the impossible balances and move effortlessly through space to make it look as if we were just born that way.

Although for many dancers the habit is to keep moving, get stronger, jump higher etc. unfortunately the repetition can take its toll on the body. Incorrect technique, overuse, insufficient rest and poor nutrition result in the shocking statistic that 90% of dancers will suffer an injury at some point in their career. Almost all dancers retire due to injury.

This unfortunately was the case with me. I tore my hamstring at age 14 after repeatedly jumping into the splits on my “bad side” for a school concert. I was training for an exam too, and when I got the to the end of my exam and started a controlled split on my left leg, my hammy snapped like a whip cracking and I was scooped up of the floor and out of the exam room  because I couldn’t stand up or walk on my own.

The years that followed were unpredictable. I floated between being confident in my leg and “pulling” it again, and over time the muscle got shorter because I was afraid to stretch it too far. Eventually I lost my confidence and now as a physiotherapist I can see that I was in a pattern of chronic pain – something that at the time physiotherapists didn’t know much about. Although I sought treatment and tried lots of different exercises I didn’t ever feel confident that my leg was better. One specialist told me “it isn’t strong enough” – he was right, but at the time anything I did to push it was painful and I was afraid of hurting myself and ultimately feared that it would end my career, and it did. It took going back to university for me to truly understand the cause of my pain, and this is a huge motivator for me to help dancers be educated, to listen to their bodies and to understand how to look after themselves.

Teaching dancers to recognise technical deficits before they become an issue and helping students understand the difference between good and bad pain is where to start. We need to build on the “feedback loops” – the signals that come in from our body to our brain are interpreted and then an output, or action is decided on. We are so output focused in dance … “jump higher, stretch your legs” … that we aren’t listening to the input, and yet this mindset is where we can address technique, strength, quality of movement and timing with concentration, at low load and without pain! We become those micro-movement-masters again, finely tuned neurophysiological athletes that hear our body’s signals, respond better and, hey presto, execute movement with perfection… sounds good doesn’t it?

Dance science is the strongest it has ever been. There is no excuse to not use the knowledge we have now to create intelligent dancers that respect their bodies. Dance classes are great for learning choreography and for applying technical principles, but every dancer needs to dedicate a portion of their education to focus on principles of body conditioning and injury prevention.

We need to learn how to listen to our bodies and pay attention to our strengths, weaknesses and imbalances. Even before injury strikes we can apply principles of biomechanics to alter our alignment and change what may have been the path to injury. The emphasis is still on pushing harder and doing more, when we simply just need to make smarter choices about what we feel…

For more information on our dance specific services at Excell or to arrange a physiotherapy appointment please look at the dance services section of the website or call 33957155

Anne Wilby, Physiotherapist and ex-contemporary dancer

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