To help you avoid this disappointment, we tapped Daniel Cuttica, D.O., an orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon with The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics and consultant to The Washington Ballet, for expert advice on how to keep your body healthy, safe and injury-free this summer.
Listen to Your Body
Arguably the most important rule for any dancer is to be your own body's advocate. After all, you're the only one who truly knows how it feels. So don't ignore signs of injury or overuse, and resist the temptation to dance through pain—no matter how minor it may seem.
"Most injuries in dance are overuse injuries," Cuttica says. "Minor pains can turn into more serious injuries if they're not quickly or properly addressed." At the first sign of injury, alert your teacher or an advisor in your program, who will likely refer you to a physical therapist or doctor if they think it's necessary.
Summer intensives usually involve long hours in the studio—sometimes more than what your body is used to. "This increase can put you at higher risk for fatigue or overuse injuries," Cuttica says. "Cross training allows the dancer to build strength and endurance in all parts of the body."
Getting started on a cross-training regimen a few times per week before your intensive starts will prepare your body for long hours and allow it to stand up better to weakness. Cuttica recommends a focus on core strengthening and aerobic training.
During intense training periods, eating a well-balanced diet and taking in adequate fluids to stay hydrated is crucial. "Dancers are often under a particularly high level of stress to maintain a specific body image, which can lead to unhealthy eating habits or calorie restriction," Cuttica says. "This behavior can result in poor nutrition and bone health, thus increasing the risk of injury."
We know one of the best parts of a summer intensive is being social and eating with new friends, but don't take your food cues from them; their bodies may have different needs. Instead, opt for healthy, protein-packed snacks and meals—and don't forget your H2O.
Wear the Right Shoes
Compile a checklist to make sure you have the proper dance shoes for each class, so you're not left wearing socks instead of character shoes in a Broadway rehearsal. And don't overlook your shoe choice when walking between classes—your muscles will thank you for electing tennis shoes or running sneakers over flimsy flip-flops. Taking the time before your program starts to go shoe shopping for the proper fit and style is well worth it to keep your feet and ankles supported.
Always Warm Up and Cool Down
"A dynamic warm up will raise your body temperature and increase blood flow to the muscles, preparing them for the upcoming demands of your class or performance," Cuttica says. He recommends static stretching and jogging in place for 5 to 10 minutes before your first class of the day.
"A cool down is just as important, as it will allow the body to recover and prevent the muscles from tightening up," he adds. Cuttica suggests slowly stretching, concentrating on your breathing and rolling out muscles with a foam roller. He specifically advises focusing on the hamstrings, calves, Achilles tendons, thigh muscles, lower back, torso and neck.
Don't Rely on Painkillers
Occasionally taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil for muscle soreness is fine, since they provide pain relief and help reduce inflammation.
"But their use should be discontinued as soon as possible in order to prevent any potential adverse effects on the healing process," Cuttica says. Don't rely on pain relief medicine for a real injury that would be more effectively treated by a doctor or PT.
Allowing ample downtime is not only crucial for the recuperation of your muscles, but also for your mental state. Utilize your free time at night to do anything you need to take care of your sore muscles and quicken their recovery, like a warm bath with Epsom salts or ice and heat treatments.
And don't forget to practice self-care and give your brain a proper break, too. If you recharge best by being around others, plan a game night with the other dancers on your floor or go see a local show to take your mind off of dance for a couple hours.
Admittedly, it can get a bit overwhelming to be in dormitory-style housing and constantly surrounded by other dancers. If you're the type of person that requires alone time to feel refreshed, don't feel guilty about skipping group activities or choosing to spend an evening alone. Your roommate will likely understand if you explain that you'd prefer to put headphones in and read a book to unwind at the end of the day.
Enjoy Your Experience
If you're having a rough day or feel like you're not making huge strides right away, don't let it put you in a bad state— one off day won't ruin your career. Reflect on how much you're improving, and take the time to appreciate all the valuable insight you're gaining from your instructors and peers. Work hard, but don't forget the most important part of your summer program is to enjoy yourself!