Body Work in the Desert

June 21, 2007

What would you do in the middle of the desert if your car broke down and you had no road service? Body workers, like mechanics, work to balance and fine-tune the parts of the body to prevent a breakdown. Like a well-maintained, purring vehicle, your body has muscle groups that work in opposition to each other for overall strength and control. Learning about your body—or car—can help you get where you want to go.


Who better understands bodywork than a dancer? New Mexico attracts many dancers who have become bodywork practitioners. All of these experts, from Pilates to physical therapy, from Alexander Technique to Gyrotonic and Gyrokinesis, agree that if training doesn’t include the whole body, all tension goes to one joint. They chant a variation on the same three mantras: alignment, cross-training (to balance the muscle groups), and working intelligently (which includes listening to your emotional state). Here they discuss essential aspects of injury prevention.

Training-Specific Injuries

Maya Aubrey, Pilates studio owner and former Paul Sanasardo dancer, says she can often guess from seeing an injury which type of dance has caused the pain. Hip injuries may turn up with training in classical ballet styles that stress overly rotated hips. Graham-trained modern dancers, who must master deep contractions and sit in fourth position on the floor, may also develop hip afflictions. And any type of dance strains the hip if it requires the leg to be held in the air for a long time.


Aubrey, who is also a choreographer and instructor, points to knees that may get their knocks in jazz dance as well as ballet; ankles for hoofers; lower back, shoulders, and feet for flamencos; and for breakers, shoulder, neck, arm, and hand injuries.   


So heads up. Be aware of the potential for your chosen dance discipline to inflict injury, and notice your own weak links.


Alignment rules

Physical therapist Carolyn Stoklosa, who danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet, applies the same principles to both injured athletes and dancers.


“Whether a golfer, tennis player or dancer,” she said, “once you use improper technique, you can compromise the joint integrity.” For optimal alignment, she aims for a plumb line from head to heels, the arms and legs releasing away from the center, and the torso lengthening and widening as you move.

Working with choreographers: caution ahead

Melissa Matson, Alexander Technique practitioner and former dancer with David Gordon and Marta Renzi, puts her faith in Alexander Technique to find true alignment. The goal is to undo habits that compress the joints like over-using the right side in class or onstage, or tightening the lower back. She warns that choreographers often create movement that fits their own body, but the same movements may cause you, the dancer, to “ignore your own alignment and sense of personal movement style.” Her prescription? Take the time to warm up thoroughly.    


Chiropractor Mark Morgan, a former dancer with Atlanta and Dallas Ballets and North Carolina Dance Theater, notes that choreographers want to see the same work over and over in rehearsal, which fatigues a particular muscle group. “And then something has to give,” he says. “You can have a spasm, or pull or tear a muscle, or develop an ‘itis’ [tendonitis, bursitis, inflammation of some body part from overuse].” He describes chiropractic as “passive therapy,” meaning it treats immediate pain with chiropractic massage and physiotherapy. Eventually, says Morgan, the dancer needs to use an active therapy like Gyrotonic or Pilates to build up the opposing muscle groups.


Morgan urges dancers to report fresh injuries. “The mentality is, ‘Shut up and dance, and take some Advil,’ ” says the chiropractor. If dancers could address the problem by talking to the director or choreographer, or by seeing a bodyworker right away, the injury could be resolved sooner. “But most wait two to three weeks,” says Morgan, “and then it’s a big problem or becomes chronic.”

No body part is an island

A former Graham dancer, Echo Gustafson teaches Gyrokinesis (alignment exercises developed by Juliu Horvath) and Gyrotonic (the use of the machines that give a three-dimensional experience of centering.) According to Gyrokinesis, most dance injuries accumulate from years of “microtrauma.” The injury of one body part is a clue that the whole body is unbalanced and needs work. If a leg ligament is overstretched, Gyrotonics works to strengthen the energy connection through the center of the body including the abdominals. If a leg ligament or muscle is too tight, Gyrotonics teaches a functional stretch to realign the area. Gustafson, who also choreographs and performs for Moving People Dance Theatre, says, “People come off the equipment and feel like they’ve had a massage.”  

Hip hop and break dance injuries

Raymond Kurshals, Pilates master teacher and former Twyla Tharp dancer, says that in hip hop, the shoulder, wrist, and forearm muscles are extremely vulnerable, so developing strength slowly in those areas is essential. Breakers and hip hop dancers who do neck spins, then flip to their feet, need to develop strong connective tissue in the neck and shoulders. Kurshals urges dancers to be patient.” It takes years to get the joint fascia strong enough to sustain those moves.


Connect Your Spine to Your Mind

Each body worker has marveled at the extended careers of 21st-century dancers, mainly due to advances in knowledge of the body. But some wisdom hasn’t changed over time. Heed your inner mechanic and Matson’s advice: “The path is finding out who you are within your own anatomy.”

Janet Eigner is a writer and poet based in New Mexico. Her dance reviews and articles appear on