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Don't Let Your Survival Gig Take a Toll on Your Dancing

It is no surprise that a career in dance is physically demanding. But many dancers learn the hard way that their side jobs can be just as taxing on their bodies. Whether you're standing for too long or sitting too long or demonstrating too often, non-dance work can lead to muscular imbalances.

Unfortunately, most dancers need to take on extra work. According to a 2012 Dance/NYC survey, just 55 percent of the total income among New York City's dancers ages 21 to 35 came from dance jobs. And more than half of responding dancers reported working more than one non-dance job.

“The need to work so much outside of dance may detract from an optimal training volume needed to stay in peak form," says Dr. Marijeanne Liederbach, director of New York University Langone's Harkness Center for Dance Injuries.

But you don't have to let a survival gig take a toll on your dancing. Be proactive: Find out the common physical issues associated with your job so you can do your best to prevent them.

Food and Beverage Service

Flexible shifts in restaurants, bars and coffee shops have long been go-to side jobs for dancers. But spending so many hours on your feet doesn't allow your body as much time to recover from hours of dancing, says Christine Bratton, a New York physical therapist who specializes in working with dancers. “Also," she adds, “dancers who have to serve and handle trays often end up with shoulder and back issues." Liederbach says she has also seen patellar tendonitis, or inflammation in the front of the knee, from constant running up and down restaurant stairs.

What to do: Liederbach recommends good, supportive shoes and encourages dancers to stay alert for hazards, like slippery floors and stairs without railings. Bratton suggests building opportunities into your day to get off your feet, lying on your back with your legs up a wall or on a chair.

Dance or Fitness Instruction

Jobs teaching dance and fitness are a clear fit for dancers, building on the body intelligence you already have. But they can also amplify the physical stress of dancing. “The problem with all kinds of teaching of movement is that it is focused on the needs of others and can be draining," says Bratton. “It can take years to develop a sense of caring for your own body while focused on another person." She sees dancers in her practice who develop hip and low back problems from demonstrating repetitively on one side, or demonstrating full-out when not warmed up.

What to do: Bratton recommends developing a simple go-to stretching routine that you can do in between activities or before bed. Target muscles that get tight while you are working—a physical therapist or doctor can give you further guidance on what areas may need extra attention.

Desk Jobs

Administrative work gives you a break from time on your feet, but dancers are susceptible to the wrist, neck and low back issues that come along with desk jobs, according to Lieder­bach. Bratton points out that the increasing prevalence of remote work means that dancers are often sitting at home in positions that can be even more problematic than the traditional desk setup, like on the couch or in bed with a laptop. “Screen time and keyboard use feed into all kinds of postural syndromes, like forward head and forward shoulders, which are not good for dancers who are trying to be as tall and centered as possible," says Bratton.

What to do: “Seek jobs that allow for adequate rest intervals and posture changes away from your workstation," recommends Liederbach. Recognizing when you are sitting with poor posture and working to change that—whether by being more mindful or by finding a chair or desk that encourages better alignment—can also help.

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Courtesy Harkness Center for Dance Injuries

The Mecca for Dance Medicine: The Harkness Center Celebrates 30 Years of Treating Dancers

When orthopedic surgeon Dr. Donald Rose founded the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital 30 years ago, the average salary for a dancer was about $8,000, he says.

"It was very hard for a dancer to get quality medical care," he remembers. What's more, he adds, "at the time, dance medicine was based on primarily anecdotal information rather than being based on studies." Seeing the incredible gaps, Rose set out to create a medical facility that was designed specifically to treat dancers and would provide care on a sliding scale.

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