Jim Nowakowski during an ankle injury

Courtesy Nowakowski

4 Ways To Use An Injury To Actually Improve Your Dancing

It felt like something out of a movie. One week before our studio's yearly benefit concert, my dance friends and I stood awkwardly at a local high school party when the music to our competition-dominating jazz routine came on. Obviously, we had to perform.

Just as we finished with a synchronized strut, my flip-flop slipped out from my foot, twisting my ankle until I heard an unmistakable pop. My foot was broken.

The next six months passed in a blur of teen angst, casts, crutches and physical therapy. I'd once been told that a day off in dance was like a week off in any other sport, and my mind was constantly calculating the deficit.

It turns out that person was wrong. Roughly one year post-injury, I was back onstage performing with better technique than I'd ever had before. My movement was more fluid, my storytelling more truthful and my confidence more evident. A few months later I landed my first professional job with Odyssey Dance Theatre in Salt Lake City, Utah.

My story isn't an anomaly—in fact, according to Selina Shah, MD, sports medicine physician for AXIS Dance Company and Diablo Ballet, injuries tend to make dancers better than they were before.

Take celebrated choreographer Stacey Tookey. She experienced her first major injury at age 17 while representing Canada at the Royal Academy of Dance's Genée Awards. "I was jumping on pointe and I felt my shin bones bend," Tookey says. She had stress fractures in both legs.

"I was told if I took one year off, non–weight-bearing, I might be able to walk without a limp." She spent two months in a wheelchair and had to stay off her legs as much as possible for a year.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't dip into a depression," Tookey says. "I was afraid of how far everyone else was getting ahead. But what I learned from that moment is the power of the body. When you listen to it, it can do miraculous things." One year later, Tookey booked her first job, a position akin to an apprenticeship with Ballet BC.

Stacey Tookey teaches on stage, holding a microphone to her lips, reaching her right hand gently up to the sky

Stacey Tookey

Katie Graves, Courtesy Tookey

How is it possible for dancers to take months away from their craft yet come back even stronger than before? As it turns out, the benefits of injuries can be as real as they are unexpected.

Increase your versatility

For BalletMet's Jim Nowakowski, taking time off after surgery for a chronic ankle injury, and a subsequent reinjury, allowed him to explore other interests.

"I couldn't remember why I even danced," he says. "It wasn't fun—it was painful. So I decided to refocus my career."

When he was far enough along in his recovery, in March 2015, he auditioned for "So You Think You Can Dance." He placed in the Top 6, and spent two years working commercially before returning to ballet with his current position at BalletMet.

"'SYTYCD' was the perfect way to keep me busy and bring back my spark. It taught me so much about other genres. I grew to love dance again."

Fix technical weaknesses

When dancers come to Dr. Shah's clinic, she looks at their technique above and below their injury. "A lot of times dancers get injured because of imbalances in their muscles," she says. "While acute injuries are usually freak accidents, chronic injuries have to deal with weaknesses in flexibility, etc. I look for the cause found in their dancing so they can correct it and come back stronger."

Strengthen your determination

Tookey, who has dealt with various painful and debilitating injuries throughout her career, says each one has tested her emotional stamina. "My injuries have given me so much resilience, perspective and determination," Tookey says. "They put a fight into my work."

Become a smarter dancer

"I work smart instead of hard now," Nowakowski says. "I prefer to have a solid hour-and-a-half rehearsal rather than three hours of killing myself. I've learned to work efficiently so that I don't get hurt again, and I can last longer in my career."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021