Dance Medicine: Issues in Training and Treatment

January 21, 2007

Bruised toenails, sprained ankles, mental blocks—you name it, dancing is tough. In fact, techniques such as ballet, can take a bigger toll on your mind and body than professional football. Fortunately, it/’s more possible than ever to avoid injuries and reach your potential if you/’re up-to-date on the latest scientific news from around the world. To find out more, check out the following highlights from the 13th annual meeting of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) held on October 23-26, 2003 at Laban in London, England.


Why can/’t I learn that combination?

Frances Lavington-Evans from St. Hilda/’s Studios in North Yorkshire, UK has discovered that to teach right, you need to think left. In the old days, there was only one way to learn a new step—practice! Start on the right side, then switch to the left. Don/’t get me wrong, repetition is still the name of the game. However, the difference is that you can actually boost your learning curve by practicing on your weaker side first. This technique is especially effective for young dancers. Why? Because, according to a series of studies, it creates an “overflow effect” that transfers new information to the opposite side, sort of like a mental rehearsal. To discover your weaker side, ask yourself which leg you prefer to stand on while executing steps with the other leg or foot? If the answer is your left leg, then you/’re like most dancers, whose right side is dominant. This preference usually occurs by the age of eleven. Switching sides may feel weird. The good news is that it not only enhances the learning process but also improves your confidence while dancing on your less-dominant side.


No more injuries, please!

We all know that dance injuries are a fact of life. What is less well known is that teenagers are especially prone to overuse injuries when they go through growth spurts, because the muscles and tendons don/’t develop at the same rate. Melinda Purnell, BappSc, and Dr. Debra Shirley from the University of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia have found that the first overuse injury tends to occur in 14-year-old dancers who practice more than eight and a half hours a week. The next point of vulnerability emerges at 15 for those who exceed ten hours a week of dance classes. To avoid overuse injuries, savvy teachers can supplement dance classes with cross-training activities. Janet Briggs, MSc from the Royal Ballet School in London describes how the first thirty minutes of each two-hour dance class now starts with thirty minutes of either conditioning or stretching exercises to enhance students/’ fitness, reduce injuries, and prolong their careers—beginning at the age of 11!


What about injuries in professional dancers?

Unlike their less-active friends, dancers may still experience growth spurts in their late teens, due to delayed menarche and amenorrhea (no menses for three or more months). As a member of New York City Ballet/’s medical team, I/’ve found that a busy ballet season puts young female dancers at risk for overuse injuries and stress fractures. Fortunately, cross-training activities such as strengthening and aerobic exercises, continue to increase dancers/’ overall level of fitness and health. To help reduce injuries, the NYCB has instituted a Wellness Program with comprehensive services for all dancers. The program includes orthopedic, fitness and bone density screenings, educational seminars on nutrition and stress management, and free memberships at the New York Sports Club, where dancers cross-train during vacations and rehearsal periods. Since the Wellness Program/’s inception in 2001, the total number of weeks lost to disability has dropped by forty-six percent. The current trend is injury prevention.


What Else is New?

Interested readers can get a full account of the IADMS meeting, which includes over sixty presentations, by ordering the Proceedings ( Additional topics range from how to get the most out of Pilates and the Theraband™, to ways to prevent social problems in boys (such as teasing) and performance anxiety in all dancers. Teachers can also find out how to help students cope with injuries, while providing a healthy classroom environment. Let/’s face it, all of us want to dance our best. The more you know about the latest advances in the training and treatment of dancers, the easier it will be to achieve your goals. The next IADMS meeting is scheduled for October 2004 in San Francisco.


Former NYCB dancer Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., is a lecturer, a psychologist in private practice, and the author of
Advice for Dancers (Jossey-Bass).