The Hurt Factor
Andrea Dawn Shelley navigates the controlled adagio of Spencer Gavin Hering's new work Ash with steady precision and understated femininity. No one would know she's struggled with knee pain most of her dancing life. Shelley, a former dancer with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater and co-founder of iMEE, a dance company in Santa Barbara, California, has been dancing with pain since the age of 14, when her knee cap dislocated coming out of a pirouette. Four knee surgeries later, Shelley finds she's in as much pain during rest or slow rehearsal days as when she's dancing.
Dancers know that pain comes with the profession. Each body is unique, and so is the discomfort that it can generate. Pain that lasts over three months earns the “chronic” label. It has a different character and different causes than acute pain, which comes from sudden injury or the post-surgical healing process. The fact that pain is an invisible aliment further complicates the situation. Dancers can be torn between fears of time off and a life lived in discomfort. Yet no dancer blindly accepts pain as a constant. Think of it more as a problem to be solved—and solved before pain patterns settle in. Aggressive research of pain’s origins, coupled with physical therapy, advances in surgery, and alternative treatment methods, have helped dancers break out of the pain cycle.
Know your pain
Diagnosis plays a key role. Chronic pain need not be inevitable, says Dr. Peter Lavine, an orthopedist who treats dancers in Washington, DC. He recommends rigorously sleuthing your pain's source. “Pain doesn't sneak up on you,” he says. “Usually it’s related to an injury you are extremely familiar with.” Dancers often accept an initial diagnosis without investigating further. “Never hesitate to get a second opinion,” says Lavine. “Sometimes you need a new set of eyes on the problem.” Understanding pain’s root makes a difference in the entire approach to treatment. For instance, Lavine makes a distinction between neurological pain, where damage to nerves is involved, and degenerative pain, a by-product of overuse injuries or inflammatory conditions like arthritis. “An epidural could help neurological pain, while it’s not effective for problems like arthritis,” he says.
Getting to the bottom of your pain profile involves a thorough physical exam. Sometimes pain traces back to a condition that has little relation to dance. Your primary care doctor can rule out sources of spasm such as ovarian cysts or irritable bowel syndrome. “Food allergies can be a culprit,” says physical therapist Marika Molnar, who treats New York City Ballet dancers. “Lyme disease is another one that is frequently missed.”
Dancers tend to avoid any kind of treatment that might take them off-stage even for a short period. New York City Ballet principal Joaquin De Luz danced with knee pain for nearly two years. Finally tests revealed a serious tracking problem in his knee. “Adrenalin is a powerful drug,” says De Luz. “When the spotlights come on, you go out there and think you can overcome injuries.” After researching the best knee surgeons in the country, De Luz opted for surgery. After four months, he was back dancing pain-free.
Habit and help
Sometimes pain stems from something as treatable as how you are working. Molnar has seen many a pain problem resolved by looking more closely at a dancer’s technique. Change the habit and pain levels can change as well. “It's possible to learn how to do things with the body in a way that changes the message to the brain,” says Molnar. (See sidebar.)
Even when technique doesn’t seem the culprit, alternative somatic practices like the Feldenkrais Method can yield real benefits. This uses gentle movement sequences that explore the brain-body connection and gradually alters habits that may be contributing to pain. Shelley investigated Feldenkrais early on in her professional career when she first began having pain. “While it didn’t make the pain go away,” she says, “it opened my mind to how relaxation is a factor in reducing it.”
Molnar has seen dancers benefit from less familiar alternative approaches, like skin rolling, also known as myofascial release, which is like massage. In this hands-on technique, the skin is lifted, stretched and squeezed. Because of the amount of nerve endings in the skin, practitioners say this permits new information to flow through the nervous system. “Lifting the skin can send a different message to the brain,” says Molnar, “and cut in between the pain.”
The emotional cycle of pain
There's a longstanding debate about pain’s mental aspects. What can't be seen is in your head, right? Yes and no. A dancer might feel more discomfort than the diagnosis indicates. Pain signals play out differently in each person. “What we tell ourselves about the extent of our pain can influence the amount that we feel it,” says Rachel Winer, Ph.D, a Houston psychologist and former dancer in private practice. “Pain can be facilitated or inhibited by attention, memory, and emotion.”
Unfortunately, Shelley eventually came to equate dance with pain. “I remember the day I realized pain was separate from dance,” she says. “I had assumed that everyone was in pain.” For Shelley, pain has been more about resolve than resolution. She takes a disciplined approach to managing it. Shelley found that aggressively icing sore limbs, occasional pain medication and a rigorous approach to warming up made dancing doable. So did taking hold of her artistic life. After several years with Houston’s Dominic Walsh and other companies like Miami’s Maximum Dance Company, Shelley wanted more control. She and her partner Spencer Gavin Hering recently started iMEE Dance Company. As co-artistic director, she decides what movement she can—and can’t—do. “I know my limitations,” she says. ”I don't need to go over a new phrase repeatedly, and I can stay away from movements that cause me trouble.”
At peace with pain
While few dancers manage a pain-free career, they can have more control over pain than they realize. “Dancers need to become good pain discriminators,” says Winer. “There's a big difference between good pain from learning a new movement and the kind that doesn't go away or gets worse with time.”
Many dancers act as though ignoring pain were a way to make it disappear. But pain is the body speaking directly to the brain. Though many dancers shy away from medication, thinking it can make them fuzzy, Dr. Peter Lavine finds traditional anti-inflammatories a good place for dancers to start. And for nerve pain, “Ultram and Lyrica have been shown to be helpful and are non-narcotic,” he says.
Lavine, Winer, and Molnar all agree that, in most cases, moving (correctly) improves chronic pain. “It's essential to life and pain reduction,” Molnar insists. “Movement circulates the blood and gets your body working again. Dancing is good medicine.” De Luz remembers his first pain-free plié post surgery. “My knee felt rusty, but it was amazing,” he says. Shelley maintains her resolve to stay a creative performer despite unpredictable pain. “Sometimes, I go through dark places,” she says. “I think I should quit because I have been dealing with it for so long. But then I step onstage and it's all worth it. I am not willing to give that up. I enjoy it too much.”
Nancy Wozny is a culture and health writer in Houston.
Photo by Nathan Sayers.
What you do makes a difference.
Poor technique can set a dancer up for prolonged trouble. Unless you change the pattern, the pain will remain. Ask a physical therapist to take a look at what you are doing at the barre that could be contributing to your pain. Remember that where pain feels like it occurs may not be its source. Pain often points to one place doing too much while another place is doing to little.
Marika Molnar, NYCB’s physical therapist, cites a dancer who came to physical therapy complaining of pain in the left knee at the infrapatellar junction (where the patellar tendon inserts). The pain began as intermittent, but had become constant. Molnar observed him do a series of basic movements such as demi-plié, relevé and tendus. “It was clear that he rolled in excessively on his left foot,” Molnar says. “He needed a greater awareness of the turnout of his left hip. Focusing on motor control of the hip, knee, and ankle maintains a healthy alignment and takes the stress off of the patella tendon.” The dancer felt a marked reduction in pain when he began to take a more holistic view of his body, concentrating on the connections between the foot, knee and hip joint.
To address similar problems, Molnar recommends doing 20–25 demi pliés in parallel while maintaining correct alignment. She then increases the neuromuscular challenge by having a dancer do the same movement with weight on just one leg, adding variety, complexity, and diversity to the neural system to gradually retrain the dancer’s work patterns. —NW
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
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.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."