The Stress/Injury Connection
Dancers' mental and physical states are closely linked.
If you’re sitting out of rehearsal today, chances are you’re not alone: Dancers are among the most frequently injured of all athletes. The long hours of training, along with repetitive and wide-ranging movements, put dancers at an exceptional risk. But knowing you’re not the only one on the sidelines doesn’t make it any easier. “Dancers identify so strongly with their bodies. If something is inhibiting their ability to execute a tendu pain-free, that can create a lot of stress,” says Suzanne Semanson, DPT, a physical therapist at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.
Yet many dancers don’t realize that stress and injuries can sometimes raise a question of chicken-or-the-egg. Stress has both psychological and physical components, and the two are not easily separated. While stress usually results from injury, it can sometimes be part of the cause—and the reason why it takes so long to heal. Nadine Kaslow, PhD, past president of the American Psychological Association and psychologist for the Atlanta Ballet, advises: “If you find that your body is just not serving you well—it’s shin splints this month, you hurt your shoulder next month—you need to stop and look at what might be going on for you emotionally.”
The Body on Stress
How can an emotional state affect your body? When we feel stressed, our nervous system goes on high alert, and our brain signals the release of a hormone called cortisol. This ancient physical response can be helpful when we need to, say, quickly outrun a saber-toothed animal. But cortisol can cause problems if ongoing stress means our bodies are exposed to too much of it. “Cortisol needs to come in waves,” says Brad R. Moser, MD, founder and director of the Minnesota Dance Medicine Foundation. “When it is released for too long at a very high rate, it can cause injury to cells and tissues.”
Cortisol decreases bone formation, an essential part of the healing process when bone is injured, bruised or broken. And it triggers an anti-inflammatory response, which affects the immune system, making it harder to fight illness. “It can also lead to depression and fatigue, which eventually lead to more frequent injury,” says Moser.
Physical symptoms of excessive stress can include dizziness and loss of balance, putting dancers in danger. Additionally, we tend not to sleep or eat well when distressed, compromising our strength.
In a catch-22, injury itself is one of the leading causes of stress among dancers. For a study published in the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science in 2013, researchers in the Netherlands surveyed more than 150 injured dancers. The subjects answered questions about a variety of psychological symptoms, including trouble concentrating, paranoia, anxiety and feelings of inferiority, as well as physical symptoms like dizziness or loss of balance. About 60 percent of the respondents had psychological symptoms far enough out of the norm that they warranted referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist for treatment.
Dance culture isn’t helping. “Dancers often don’t pay attention to the signals that their body is hurting,” says Kaslow. “They’ve learned that they have to keep going.” The injured dancer, she says, is afraid to be viewed as weak. “When a dancer has to take time off because of a bad injury or they need surgery, they feel like they have lost everything,” she says. Often, injured dancers are forced to give up roles or take a hiatus from the company, compromising their personal identity, and compounding the stress further.
So what can a dancer do? The key is to lower your stress baseline before you get injured. Stress builds on itself: With each new stressor, “that baseline just goes up and up,” says Kaslow. If you can lower your stress level a bit each day, new problems that arise—like a sprained ankle—won’t take as big of a toll.
Start by taking your breaks. During heavy rehearsal periods, dancers will often chat with each other or keep dancing during their lunch or 15-minute rest periods. “Your body actually needs a break,” says Kaslow. “Learn how to do some relaxation training. Go into a quiet space in the studio, and focus inward.” Use the time to squeeze in a few minutes of meditation or mindfulness while letting your muscles recharge.
Also learn to wind down at the end of the day. “It’s usually hard to go to sleep after a show,” says Semanson. “The nervous system needs a chance to transition from that heightened state of performance to calming down. The muscles need to relax so that when you go to bed, your nervous system levels out.” Semanson teaches her patients cool-down exercises that combine deep breathing with gentle body movements (see sidebar below). This combination cues tense muscles to relax and dials down the nervous system.
Kaslow also recommends researching meditation books and tapes. “Find something that fits the way you think about the world: You are more likely to use it.”
But if the stress feels like too much to handle on your own, don’t be afraid to seek out a psychologist. Make sure you’re getting the best medical attention possible from an expert who understands the demands of dance. Just the way you take care of injured limbs, take care of your emotions, too.
Write It Out
In 2013, researchers in New Zealand found that expressive writing for 20 minutes three days in a row sped healing in healthy adults who underwent biopsies. Study authors believe writing about our thoughts and feelings can help reduce stress.
Exercises to De-Stress
Each of these sequences, recommended by physical therapist Suzanne Semanson, starts by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
Full Complete Breath
Place one hand on your lower abdomen, the other on your chest, and close your eyes. Take a full breath. With the inhale, expand your abdomen and chest. Notice how your body responds. What moves first? What is not moving? As you exhale, notice how your chest and abdomen soften back toward the floor. Repeat for 10 slow breaths.
Rest your hands in a triangle on your abdomen, the heel of your hands on your hip bones, and your fingertips pointing toward your pubic bone. Inhale and gently move into an anterior pelvic rock where the triangle is pointing down. Exhale and tuck your pelvis under so that the triangle points up as your back flattens against the floor. Repeat 10 times.
Place your arms at your sides, palms down. On an exhale, press through your heels to lift your hips up. Hinge through your hips so you’re not tucking or rolling your spine. Pause at the top for an inhalation. Exhale and lower your hips back to the ground. Repeat 10 times.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you: