Injury as Opportunity

January 31, 2011

When a dancer walks in the room it’s obvious. They are unusually glowing and fit, wearing telltale comfortable clothes and sensible, if not fashion-forward shoes. Their body and posture stand out from the crowd as somehow “more right” and confident than the people around them.

But each of our bodies also holds a map charting a history of preferences, patterns, and injuries from our journey in dance. The high right shoulder, the bruised ribs, the scar at the inside of the knee, the bunions, calluses, and endless splits all tell a story of time and place, of wear and use, of pride in accomplishment and the trauma of injury.


Every injury is an opportunity. It might be emotional and inconvenient (not to mention painful), preventing work for a while. But in the long term one can learn about the limb or joint in question: how it is built, how it operates, and how it works in harmony with the rest of the body. The healing process can bring an awareness of your body at the doctorate level!


Every injury asks two questions: How did this happen, and how will I approach caring for and healing it? Healing comes first. From the common mandate for a simple sprain—rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE)—to the use of anti-inflammatory medication; to when to apply heat; to working through pain; to chiropractic, massage, acupuncture, or surgery, there is a world of choice and you alone are the master of these choices.


Injury is a time of vulnerability and stress. You just want it fixed—now! For every piece of advice saying, “You must do xyz for this injury,” it can be asked, “What is the alternative?” The type of medical professional you’re asking will determine the point of view. Doctors are trained to medicate, surgeons to operate, chiropractors to manipulate, masseurs to dig and rub. Physical therapists work muscles mechanically, physiotherapists can repattern muscle habits that are harmful. Other therapists who work on “energetic levels” move energy.


For each injury, choose your weapon from an informed place, not from one of panic. If you can, find a dancer who has been through a similar injury and assess their results.


Remedies in response to a specific injury—a sprain, tear, or spasm—often address only the emergency. The focus is on the part rather than the whole. I’ve found excellent, often startling results with therapies that take into account the whole system of the body and not just the site of trauma. Here, the why of the injury may be found.


Every body is a system that operates uniquely in the world, with its own way of navigating physics. We have habits, inclinations, and preferences. Are we left- or right-handed? Do we turn better to the left or right? Are we quick and light, or bound and strong? We are whole when we are dancing, so it seems logical to look at our whole system when injured. (Eastern medicine has assumed this for centuries.)


We have daily experience of the connectedness of our physical and emotional body. Why is it still a surprise when knee pain is traced back to an origin in the pelvis/hip? Yes, we are a connected whole! But we head for the eternal manifestation of the pain for treatment (should I brace my knee?), ignoring the patterns that might be the cause (perhaps a pelvic adjustment from the chiropractor?).


When a prognosis leads quickly to a solution as definitive as surgery, wait and look again! There is a cult of glamour around extreme treatment for injuries sustained during extreme activity. I have found that 95 percent of the time, a little curiosity, patience, and research go a long way. Often, as in the creative process, when you think you are up against an impenetrable wall, a small chink of light opens up and another path is revealed.


In 1995 I tore the cartilage in my right knee (medial meniscus). First ice, elevation, and rest, followed by a trip to the doctor for an MRI to image “the damage.” A week later, armed with my films in hand, I showed up at the orthopedic surgeon for a consultation. After a quick viewing, he told me that he would schedule surgery immediately “to clean up the ragged cartilage.” Then we would discuss “eventual replacement of the joint.” Replacement?! Still in my dancing prime, I thanked him, took my films, and walked out. My knee pain miraculously disappeared in a matter of days, and 15 years later my knee is functioning better than ever.


I am not saying that all surgery is avoidable. Perhaps the fear of it had a placebo effect on me. But in my search for alternatives, I discovered ways to reduce inflammation, keep my hamstrings long and supple (they govern the alignment of the knee), and keep my alignment as a whole in enhanced, functioning order. My knee now operates beautifully with careful practice of a regime that is both gentle and effective.


I was fortunate in many ways to begin dancing as a conscious adult at 18. I first entered the world of dance through improvisation. This included an association with body awareness and alternative approaches to how the body functions. Anatomical information became integral to my investigation of dance. This launched me on a journey to the cutting edge of thought on how to care for the instrument of my craft—my body.

I’ve been involved with numerous paths to enhance the efficiency, form, and function of the body through the incredible work of leaders like Susan Klein/Klein Technique, Bonnie Cohen/School for Body-Mind Centering, Irmgard Bartenieff/Bartenieff Fundamentals, and F. M. Alexander/The Alexander Technique. They all developed sophisticated approaches to moving with power and grace. Zero Balancing, Feldenkrais,


Craniosacral Therapy, Myofascial Release, Reiki and Pilates are also invaluable systems to tune the body for optimum use (see sidebar).

Waiting for an injury to learn about the body isn’t the ideal way to treat the instrument we depend on to make our art. A car gets regular checkups, but so often I hear from dancers, “I can’t afford to get treatment.” Even as a young and poor dancer, I insisted on regular bodywork. I saved, bartered, and swept studios if I needed to in order to continue my treatments—and it paid off enormously.


My craft and art would never be as rich without this ongoing maintenance, research, and repair. One characteristic common to all these techniques is their potential to break through limits previously experienced as the body’s maximum range. When my body is not working optimally, it’s a mechanical limitation. When there’s energy flowing freely through it, the impossible becomes possible. A plié is just an exercise. How you execute it will determine the difference between a mundane career and a magical one.

Tuning the Body

Alexander Technique
is a tool for identifying harmful movement patterns that have developed over time. Practice includes learning how to release unnecessary tension, reeducating the body.


Bartenieff Fundamentals
applies Rudolf Laban’s movement theory to the progression of human development. Concepts include alignment, breath and core support, initiation and sequencing, spatial intent, and weight transference.


Body-Mind Centering
is a creative process using movement re-education and hands-on repatterning. Developed by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, it applies anatomical, physiological, and developmental principles through movement, touch, voice, and mind.


Craniosacral Therapy
aims to stimulate the body’s self-healing capabilities through the craniosacral system—the membranes, cerebrospinal fluid, and related structures that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord.


The Feldenkrais Method
reconnects the body to its natural movements, focusing on the relationship between motion and thought. It works with the nervous system, rather than the muscles or bones, to improve everyday motion.


Klein Technique
helps align the bones using the muscles that support posture (psoas, hamstrings, external rotators, and pelvic floor).

Myofascial Release uses soft-tissue therapy to treat chronic pain and rehabilitate injuries. This is accomplished by relaxing contracted tissue, increasing circulation, and stimulating the stretch reflex of muscles.


helps develop, maintain, and restore movement range and function, especially in the face of aging, injury, disease, or environmental factors.


therapy is a Japanese technique for stress reduction. It uses the power of energy transferred from the hands of the practitioner to the patient, generally without touch.


Zero Balancing
is a body-mind system that focuses on the body’s key joints. The practitioner uses finger pressure and gentle traction to engage the energy and create relaxation, internal re-organization, and improved function.


—compiled by Stephen Petronio and Kristin Schwab



Stephen Petronio is the artistic director of the Stephen Petronio Company.