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Advice For Dancers

By Linda Hamilton, Ph.D.


Q: The local chiropractor has been giving what I feel is false information about the dangers of ballet to some of my students. The mother of one said he told her that “Tap is OK, but don’t let your daughter do ballet; it’ll deform her back.” Maybe he was referring to the old days when they put four-year-olds on pointe. Certainly, it’s not the ballet that I danced as a professional before opening my studio—or teach. Is there any way to set this guy straight before his antiquated thinking ruins my business?— Trapped in a Time Warp, Western, NY

A: Why not invite him to watch a ballet class and help him understand the benefits of this art form? Nothing in the scientific literature indicates that ballet deforms the back. In fact, many physicians recommend that girls with scoliosis (curvature of the spine) take ballet to correct muscle imbalances because it works both sides of the body, unlike sports such as baseball and tennis. However, steps that require an extreme range of motion like a port de bras, grand battement, or arabesque sometimes can cause back injuries. Building deep abdominal strength can help counter this, according to Marika Molar, PT, director of Westside Dance Physical Therapy in New York City. She evaluates dancers’ core stability by asking them to lie on their backs, legs straight, arms by their sides, and hands on their pelvis (“Where your pockets would normally be”). She has them lift each leg one inch from the ground to see if the opposite side of the pelvis rises, which happens when dancers aren’t strong enough to maintain a stable pelvis when they move their legs. To help correct it, dancers should do the same exercise after taking a deep breath, exhaling, and then contracting the muscles in the abdomen around and below the waist, making it easier to maintain a level pelvis when they raise a leg. Molnar recommends doing this ten times on each side, then repeating it standing up. Needless to say, never do this exercise if you are in pain.

Q: It’s been a year since my retirement from the Dance Department at Florida State University, when I decided to pursue a degree in Canada’s National Ballet School Teachers’ Training Program. This two-year course is similar to an MFA program. I study anatomy and delve into my own area, Cecchetti work. There are days when I think: “I can’t do this. I’m over the hill, Shouldn’t I have my mind examined?” Still, passion has a way of transcending the impossible, even when you’re 63. In short, I couldn’t be happier.
— Richard Sias, Toronto, Canada

A: Good for you! Life goes on, whether or not we want it to, so it’s refreshing to hear about a successful transition. You’re one of the lucky ones because you know what you want to do. However, it’s also normal to go through a period of uncertainty. In this case, the trick is to give yourself time to explore other options without feeling pressured to make a commitment. While dancers’ work ethic will always give them a competitive edge in other careers, the challenge for many performers is to discover something that’s equally fulfilling. This isn’t easy, even though dancers often have a wide range of talents. Fortunately, organizations like Career Transition For Dancers, which offers free vocational counseling, can help. Check out their website (www.careertransition.org).

Q: Is it right for my teacher to tell me I’m too thin and I need to stop dancing for a while? I know she’s spoken to my doctors, but I don’t see why she should dictate whether I can take class. Yes, my weight has gone down, but I feel like I can handle the problem. Why does everyone tell me what to do? — Carla, Orlando, FL

A: I know it seems like your teacher is butting into your business big time, but as long as you (or a parent if you’re under age 18) gave written permission to speak to your doctors, she is taking you out of class because she cares about your well-being. If you think that she is overreacting, you could clarify the situation if your doctors will give you a note saying that it’s OK for you to dance. Unfortunately, dancers who develop eating disorders tend to deny health problems, similar to people who abuse drugs. So, it may be difficult for you to grasp the impact of serious complications. For instance, a potassium deficiency, a typical side effect of anorexia, can lead to cardiac arrest. If your teacher’s concern is valid, please give yourself a chance to get well. Treatment for anorexia often involves a team effort with an internist, psychologist, and nutritionist setting a goal weight that helps your teacher know when you’re healthy enough to dance.

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