From Risk to Recovery
Don't get waylaid by these five common dance injuries.
Photo by Nathan Sayers, modeled by Gabrielle Sprauve of Marymount Manhattan College.
No matter how careful you are, sporadic overuse injuries are an occupational hazard of professional dance. “Dance looks great because it’s an unusual movement—it’s not natural to the body, so your body may react negatively to it over time,” says Johann Howard, physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Langone Medical Center. Fortunately, you can minimize the occurrence of chronic problems if you recognize the warning signs and are prepared to let your body heal effectively.
- FHL Tendonitis
Also called “dancer’s tendonitis,” flexor hallucis longus tendonitis is an inflammation or tear in the tendon that travels under your calf muscle, inside the ankle bone and along the bottom of the foot to help point the big toe. “This is one of the few tendons that passes through a bit of a tunnel, so when it’s swollen and inflamed, it can get stuck,” says Nancy Kadel, MD, orthopedic surgeon and chair of the Dance/USA Task Force on Dancer Health. “Ballet dancers with FHL tendonitis will generally feel pain when going from demi-pointe to full pointe, since that bends the big toe down.” FHL tendonitis can also cause a “trigger toe,” meaning the big toe clicks or gets caught, sometimes requiring straightening out with your hand.
Risk factors: FHL tendonitis comes from repetitive pushing off with your foot during jumps or while going from plié to relevé. “The key is to have balanced strength and flexibility all around your ankle,” says Kadel, who adds that it can be helpful to be evaluated by a physical therapist to be sure you’re not overstretching or compressing the tendon while dancing.
Recovery: It usually takes four to six weeks (or longer for a tear) to recover, as long as you don’t ignore the pain and seek medical treatment. “If your pain is above a 3 out of 10, don’t dance,” Howard says. “Instead, ask your physical therapist for safe strengthening exercises.” Kadel has her patients gradually return to class, perhaps leaving out pointework, grand pliés or jumps until pain has completely subsided. She may also recommend ice massages to reduce inflammation, or sleeping in a night splint to keep the foot in a neutral position.
Prevent relapse: Dancers should be able to avoid relapse as long as they maintain proper foot alignment and continue strengthening and stretching the area throughout their career.
- Stress Fractures
Photo by Nathan Sayers, modeled by Gabrielle Sprauve of Marymount Manhattan College.
In dancers, stress fractures—tiny cracks in the bones due to repetitive overloading—are often found in the metatarsals (the long bones of the foot). “Dancers will describe a toothache-like pain on the top of the foot that gets worse when jumping or turning,” Kadel says. “In the beginning, you may not see any swelling or bruising, but it will gradually become more painful.”
Risk factors: Kadel suggests thinking of the long, thin metatarsal bones like wire hangers. “It won’t break the first time you bend it, but after bending it 50 times, it may,” she says. “Every time you load the bone beyond its limit, it has a reaction and then heals itself, but with overuse, you’re not giving that bone enough time to heal, so it cracks.” Stress fractures become more likely during periods of increased activity—like in preparation for a big performance or during a summer intensive—or for dancers with weaker bones due to poor nutrition.
Recovery: Katie Lemmon, certified athletic trainer at Athletico Physical Therapy in Chicago, says this injury may land you in a boot for several weeks, especially if it hurts to walk. “Dancers with stress fractures shouldn’t be doing weight-bearing activity, but I’ll often give them other strengthening exercises like Pilates, so it’s only a modified rest,” Lemmon says. You’ll be able to monitor your recovery by how much pain you feel, but you should still be under the care of a medical professional to determine when it’s safe to return to different stages of dancing. It may take three weeks or more before you’re able to try jumping on two feet, and longer before you’re able to safely perform grand allégro.
Prevent relapse: “Since stress fractures are often caused by a muscle imbalance, use the recovery time to look for the underlying cause, which will prevent it from happening again,” says Lemmon. As long as you listen to your body, bone heals without scar tissue, so relapse is unlikely.
- Lower Back Pain
Dancers are at especially high risk for straining their lower back muscles. This pain feels like a dull ache or discomfort on one or both sides of your spine (not directly on it), and may feel especially painful in arabesque.
Risk factors: “Lower back pain often comes when dancers are trying something new, whether it’s new choreography or a different style of dance, and when dancers have weakness in their core muscles,” Kadel says. “For example, dancers’ back muscles may get overwhelmed by all the penchées on one leg while rehearsing La Bayadère.” Too much repetition on muscles that aren’t quite strong enough may lead to the muscle fibers being stretched, torn or inflamed.
Recovery: Strains in the lower back can take quite some time to heal—according to Howard, up to two or three months. Depending on the injury, you may be able to take modified class throughout your recovery or need to suspend all dancing to allow for proper healing. When appropriate, a physical therapist may help you stretch the affected muscles and offer back and abdominal strengthening exercises, like planks and movements that target the lower abs.
Prevent relapse: “With lower back pain, you can almost guarantee it will come back,” Howard says. “So it’s important to self-manage and come back to physical therapy when you anticipate something will aggravate it or if you start feeling pain.”
- Ankle Sprains
“A sprained ankle means you’ve partially torn one of the ligaments between your ankle bones,” Kadel says. “They’re often caused by fatigue, and are by far the most common injury I see.” While ankle sprains usually happen suddenly, the precursors are often dwelling for some time.
Risk factors: The biggest risk factor for spraining an ankle is having done it before. Others include higher-arched feet, very flexible ankles and, like most chronic injuries, muscle imbalances. Kadel encourages dancers to spend just as much time strengthening the outside muscles as the inside muscles of the ankle—those you use for winging and sickling.
Recovery: Sprains are generally graded on three levels, with the least severe healing in about three weeks and the most severe taking up to 12. For bad sprains, Howard says dancing at all may be off limits, and you may have to wear a boot for a few weeks. “Some ankle sprains are so painful that there’s no way you could dance even if you wanted to,” he says. “In physical therapy, we’ll slowly start to introduce perturbation exercises, which means balancing on a pillow or wobble board to build ankle strength.”
Prevent relapse: Your physical therapist may recommend core workouts to build strength to help prevent future sprains. “Even after you heal, it’s important to keep doing those physical therapy exercises like a religion,” Howard says. Once you’ve had one sprain, you’ll always be at a higher risk to get another.
- Shin Splints
Shin splints, or medial tibial stress syndrome, describes a generalized pain on the inner edge of the shin bone (tibia). Shin splints may feel worse with certain movements, like jumping or pointing your foot.
Risk factors: Shin splints often occur during an increase in activity, which overworks the muscles, tendons and bone tissue. Hard floors can exacerbate the pain. Shin splints can be more likely in dancers with very high arches or flat feet. “We also see shin splints caused by dancers gripping their toes too hard on the floor,” Lemmon says. Teenagers are particularly at risk: When dancers grow quickly, their lower leg bones often grow faster than their muscles, which can lead to discomfort.
Recovery: With proper care, rest and ice, the pain of shin splints should subside in two to four weeks. “In physical therapy, we’ll work on core exercises, calf stretches and hip-strengthening exercises so dancers aren’t using their toes to keep their balance,” says Lemmon. “Usually we’ll start with less-weight-bearing exercises and progress to more-weight-bearing exercises over time.” Dancers can take a modified class, but as with any chronic injury, any movement that causes pain is preventing your body from healing and should be avoided.
Prevent relapse: Continuing physical therapy exercises and stretches long after you’ve healed can prevent relapse.
Rachel Zar is a writer based in Chicago.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
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Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.