Making It Happen: Injury Meets Innovation

November 28, 2011

Pfeffer and Apostolos with USC student Kasia Wasilewska. Photo courtesy Cedars-Sinai/USC School of Theatre Dance Medicine Center.



She was a dancer with a passion for dance medicine. He was an orthopedic surgeon with a passion for dance. Their coming together was “serendipity,” says Margo Apostolos, director of dance at University of Southern California’s School of Theatre, about her meeting Dr. Glenn Pfeffer, director of the foot and ankle program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The partnership had immediate synergy; the goal was mutual. Together Apostolos and Pfeffer co-founded the Cedars-Sinai/USC School of Theatre Dance Medicine Center, the first of its kind in Los Angeles. Opened in March 2007, the center provides comprehensive injury treatment, rehabilitation, and preventive care designed for professional and recreational dancers.

Like many great ideas, this, too, had been incubating for years. Apostolos, who has a long-standing interest in sports medicine, received her Ph.D. from Stanford in physical education/dance. She has been director of dance at USC since 1986 and developed the dance minor program there. She currently teaches a senior seminar in dance medicine.

“I promote this field to my students,” says Apostolos, “because it’s something they can do to stay involved with dance even after their dancing stops. I encourage dancers to perform while they can but make sure they’re prepared for life after. There are several students in medical school now because of this course.” She believes that since dance students already have knowledge of human anatomy and biomechanics, they are good candidates for becoming the next generation of dance medicine doctors.

The center’s team consists of eight doctors, including Dr. Pfeffer, with varying specialties, as well as three physical therapists.

When not on campus teaching, Apostolos is at Cedars two and a half days a week. She considers herself a liaison in the organization. “I first meet with the dancer and connect them with the orthopedic surgeon, who makes the diagnosis,” she says. “Then we bring in the physical therapist. It’s scientific validation—not speculation. The idea is to get dancers back to work as soon as possible. Last year we treated people from the touring show In the Heights and several dancers from Ballet San Jose and L.A.’s Media City Ballet.”

Prevention is another goal at the center, which features state-of-the-art equipment, as well as a treatment room with two ballet barres and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. “It’s not that dancers are in denial,” says Apostolos, “but they generally come in when the injury is so severe that they have to get professional help.”

Pfeffer knows about pain firsthand. As an avid ballroom dancer growing up in New York, he lived with a foot problem that went undiagnosed for 30 years, until he ultimately diagnosed it himself.

 “It’s one thing to get a football or soccer player back to performance, but it really is different getting a dancer back,” points out Pfeffer. “The key is what we provide at the center—an orthopedic doctor to put everything back together, a physical therapist who understands what these needs are, and Margo, a professor of dance who understands injury and its prevention. All of us have learned from each other. You mix that together and come up with something amazing.”  

Pfeffer’s background came into play in another way: As a young medical student some 30 years ago, he was involved in George Balanchine’s heart surgery. He says at one point he was asked to hold the choreographer’s heart in his hand. The doctor recalls talking with Balanchine in the intensive care unit after surgery.

 “He said, ‘You’re very book smart, but never diminish the intelligence of a dancer and what they know and express with their body. It’s as brilliant as what you’re going to do with your life.’ ”

“What we’ve done at the center,” adds Pfeffer, “is to create a tangible optimism for dancers, and if there’s one dancer that can go on to a professional career or can get back to performing because of what we do here, then we’re a success.”