Advice For Dancers

July 19, 2007
Former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., is a lecturer, a psychologist in private practice, and the author of
Advice for Dancers
(Jossey-Bass). She has been offering advice to Dance Magazine readers since 1992.

My hip has been hurting off and on for the last year. I wasn’t worried at first because I could perform all my roles. The problem is I have to baby it in class by backing off certain steps. Is there any way to tell how long is too long when you’re recovering from an injury? —Sore Hips, Chicago, IL
 I know dancers are tough, but even pros need to step back and say “No!” after 12 months of pain. My fear is that you’ve skipped one of the most important steps in the healing process—getting a correct diagnosis. Without it, you’re basically playing Russian roulette with your body. You may assume that your pain is work-related, but a variety of health problems, from ovarian cysts to hernias, can lead to a sore hip. A dance injury requires an expert’s eye. According to specialists, both bone and soft tissue injuries should begin to heal with proper treatment in 8 to 12 weeks. It’s time to talk about other options with your doctor, especially getting a second opinion.

I want to become a professional dancer but am expected at home to do sports. I don’t want to hurt my chances when I audition for dance programs. What should I do? —Laura Hanson, Wild Orchid, CT
 Many successful dancers, including French star Sylvie Guillem, have a sports chapter in their past. For her, a background in gymnastics helped develop her strength, flexibility, and balance. It depends on what sport you’re doing. Track can be problematic for dancers with hypermobile knees who are prone to shin splints and tendonitis. When in doubt, ask your doctor about the most benign sport for you.
After reading the autobiography of Maya Plisetskaya and seeing a picture of her on pointe at age 65, I’m wondering if her genes allowed her to have such a long career, or if it was her strenuous Russian training? Also, why is there this dogma that a ballet career must end between 35 and 40? Personally, I am most interested in a ballerina’s expressiveness and technique. These attributes don’t vanish into thin air just because she’s hit her thirties. —Curious and Enraged, Milwaukee, WI 
I wholeheartedly agree that a mature dancer has much to offer in terms of artistic expression, though her technique may be diminished. Still, Clive Barnes, DM’s senior consulting editor, likens a ballerina’s body to a “Stradivarius violin that chips away over time.” Even with the best Russian training, few dancers perform longer than their Western counterparts. Plisetskaya’s longevity (despite declining technique) was a notable exception, due perhaps to a combination of good training, less demanding choreography, and luck. People also age at different rates, according to the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging, which has tracked over 1,000 people since 1958. Given the inevitable impact of age on the body, it pays for dancers to practice healthy habits that can prolong their careers. For instance, a balanced diet rich in calcium helps protect female dancers’ bone density, reducing the chances of stress fractures and osteoporosis. Regular aerobic exercise benefits dancers over 25 who are more likely to become winded as they grow older. Muscle strength can also be improved through weight training. While this won’t stop the number of muscle fibers from shrinking with age, it will increase the size of each fiber, adding to strength.  Finally, older dancers require longer warm-ups with shorter periods of total layoff. While aging is a fact of life, there’s a lot dancers can do to extend their health, well-being, and careers.

Recently, one of the dancers in my company was put on leave to take care of her eating disorder. I’m grateful that she’s finally receiving the help she needs to overcome her illness. It also makes me relax about my own weight and stop trying to be the skinniest dancer in the room. —Grateful Dancer, NY, NY
 It’s amazing how much artistic directors and teachers can accomplish when they send a clear message to aspiring or professional dancers that health—not thinness—is a top priority. The key is ensuring a dancer with an eating problem gets help. Casting healthy dancers also underscores this message. Common signs of disordered eating include avoiding food, constantly drinking caffeine, or immediately going to the bathroom after meals. It helps when companies have a health care consultant who specializes in treating eating disorders on staff. The Renfrew Center offers a national referral service of eating disorder specialists, as well as various treatment programs for eating problems (800.736.3739;