Your Essential Guide to Dancers' Back Injuries
Why do back injuries seem to be so common these days among dancers?
"It used to be that if you were in a company, you did all the work of that choreographer," says Rocky Bornstein, a New York City–based physical therapist who specializes in professional dancers. "Now companies feel like they have to bring in choreographers to work with the company, so the work is much more eclectic." More and more dancers are also building freelance careers, which forces them to hop between various styles. This is an unprecedented challenge for the body.
Dr. William Hamilton, who was an orthopedic consultant for New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre for four decades, adds that even big companies are getting smaller, which puts more pressure on each individual dancer. A minor injury in one member can cause a domino effect within the company: Other dancers need to do double duty, which puts their bodies at risk for injury as well.
Although back injuries may not be any more common than hip or ankle injuries, there are a few issues that show up over and over again in dancers.
Knowing common symptoms and risk factors can help you catch minor problems before they become major. Photo via Getty Images.
What Are The Most Common Back Injuries in Dance?
Muscle Pull in Quadratus Lumborum
Symptoms: In women, this typically happens in the lowermost part of the back, while in men, it occurs higher up, where the thoracic spine joins the lumbar. It feels like localized tenderness when you move (with no radiation down the leg).
Causes: In younger dancers, it's often caused by upper-body weakness. It can also happen to men when they lift off-balance.
Recovery: This injury heals easily with relative rest. "If it's achy, dancers can work with it," Hamilton says, "but if it's disabling, a week of rest helps." It can, however, become a chronic condition, persisting for several months. In that case, treatment involves a strengthening program, especially for the core.
Symptoms: The joints in the back get locked up, which generally feels like a spasm.
Cause: This happens most typically when forward or backward bending is combined with spinal rotation.
Recovery: This can put you out for a week. Acupuncture, massage and rest can help.
Stress Fractures of the Lower Back
Symptoms: Back pain might radiate up or down the spine and into the glutes. It will be particularly acute in an arabesque.
Causes: Overtraining, bad posture and mechanics (hyperflexibility in one part of the back, stiffness in another), or impacting the bone over and over during jump landings until it fractures. This is common among women and adolescent males.
Recovery: Physical therapy usually lasts for several months and involves a lot of reeducation and strengthening.
A related issue: There is a difference between a stress fracture and a stress reaction. "If you take a paper clip and bend it, it eventually breaks," Hamilton explains. That is a fracture. A reaction is "when you bend a paper clip, but it hasn't broken yet. If you don't stop, it will break." A fracture shows up on X-ray. A reaction will light up, but no crack will show, and it has a much faster healing rate. If you have a reaction, allow yourself relative rest, which means cutting back on—but not eliminating—activity. "Take away the activities that caused the reaction," Bornstein says. "You don't want a reaction to turn into a fracture."
Symptoms: When a disc herniates, the tear causes bleeding. The blood in that area of the body is attacked as a foreign substance and an inflammatory reaction occurs. The bigger the tear, the more inflammation, which causes nerve pain.
Causes: Bad mechanics or alignment, excessive movement in the lumbar spine or executing lifts improperly. "Or sometimes you just do the wrong move and tear the fibers of the disc," Bornstein says.
Recovery: A dancer can be out anywhere from nine months to a year. Recovery can involve physical therapy, acupuncture and/or cortisone injections.
Extrusion of the Disc
Symptoms: This is a more serious version of a herniation. The casing of the disc tears, fluid comes out, along with a small piece of disc. The symptoms can be almost identical, or it can cause excruciating pain that can render you almost incapacitated. The biggest red flag is a palsy—when you suddenly lose motor function in a lower extremity, most commonly in a foot.
Causes: Same as herniation.
Recovery: Steroid injections can help in the first three months. Surgery may be an option.
Side effects: This can affect the functioning of the nerves. "As long as dancers can do a single foot relevé, the nerve is okay," says Hamilton. "If the pain is very slow to go away and all of a sudden you can't do a relevé, see a neurosurgeon."
Dr. William Hamilton advises against anti-inflammatories, which can delay healing: "Mother nature is telling you what needs healing." Instead, don't do what hurts. Photo by Larm Rmah/Unsplash
What Are The Biggest Risk Factors?
How many times has a dancer heard, "Let me see you do that again?" Dancers—especially younger ones—typically have no control over how much they dance, says physical therapist Rocky Bornstein. In addition to not being able to determine days off or rehearsal length, they can go from having no schedule to a 16-hour day. This can lead to a dangerous amount of fatigue.
2. Inadequate Conditioning
Bornstein says that dancers who don't get somatic and biomechanical training in school may know little about the cross-training modalities like Pilates and Gyrotonic that enable a dancer's body to thrive over the course a long career.
Dancers are uniquely overly flexible in the back and hips, which can lead to instability if there is also a lack of strength and inefficient motor control.
4. Being Underweight
Not eating enough calories can have a huge impact on bone health.
Working on core strength can help stabilize the back and hips to help protect against injury. Photo by Getty Images.
What Can You Do To Prevent Back Injuries?
It is impossible to make a blanket statement about what exercises all dancers need to keep their backs healthy, but there are a few basics that can work for everyone:
Learn how to walk and stand correctly. Too often, dancers lean the pelvis too far forward of the heels and shoulder girdle, or walk with their feet turned out. Bornstein suggests using bony landmarks to assess if you're standing well. The pubic bone and the front bones of the pelvis should be on the same vertical plane. The breasts should be horizontal and over the pelvic bones. The tips of the shoulders should be at a 90-degree angle (not drooped down, which isn't good for the neck or shoulders). Knees should be pointed forward.
Go swimming or use the elliptical. A good cardio system will help you avoid fatigue.
Do basic pelvic-floor abdominal exercises. Lie on your back or side. Focus on your pelvic floor and lift your vaginal muscles (or, for men, the scrotum) into your body without bringing the sitz bones together.
Follow an upper-body strengthening program. Planks, push-ups and side planks are the most helpful, if you keep good posture. "Guys need to do squats with bicep curls, practice overhead lifts while maintaining pelvic position, and use their legs and arms at the same time," says Bornstein.
Cardio activities like swimming can build your endurance, helping you fend off fatigue. Photo by Marcus Ng/Unsplash
How Can You Recover Stronger?
After repairing an injury, remaining healthy requires going back to address the vulnerabilities that caused the problem in the first place. "It is a forever thing," says Bornstein.
An injury is an opportunity to get to know your body better. This is where a good physical therapist can come in. "Dancers need to learn movement strategies that are more effective and biomechanically safe," Bornstein says. "They need to learn what tissue and joint issues make them susceptible to the specific injury."
Jennifer Brilliant, a certified yoga therapist and medical exercise specialist, adds: "Not all things work for all people. If you need to take a private lesson so you understand something better, do it. Invest the time to understand why this is happening in your body. It is an indication that deeper work needs to be done, and there's no shame in that."
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
When American Ballet Theatre announced yesterday that it would be adding Jane Eyre to its stable of narrative full-lengths, the English nerds in the DM offices (read: most of us) got pretty excited. Cathy Marston's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel was created for England's Northern Ballet in 2016, and, based on the clips that have made their way online, it seems like a perfect fit for ABT's Met Opera season.
It also got us thinking about what other classic novels we'd love to see adapted into ballets—but then we realized just how many there already are. From Russian epics to beloved children's books, here are 10 of our favorites that have already made the leap from page to stage. (Special shoutout to Northern Ballet, the undisputed MVP of turning literature into live performance.)
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.