The Stress/Injury Connection
If you're sitting out of rehearsal today, chances are you're not alone: Dancers are among the most frequently injured of all athletes. The long hours of training, along with repetitive and wide-ranging movements, put dancers at an exceptional risk. But knowing you're not the only one on the sidelines doesn't make it any easier. “Dancers identify so strongly with their bodies. If something is inhibiting their ability to execute a tendu pain-free, that can create a lot of stress," says Suzanne Semanson, DPT, a physical therapist at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University's Langone Medical Center.
Yet many dancers don't realize that stress and injuries can sometimes raise a question of chicken-or-the-egg. Stress has both psychological and physical components, and the two are not easily separated. While stress usually results from injury, it can sometimes be part of the cause—and the reason why it takes so long to heal. Nadine Kaslow, PhD, past president of the American Psychological Association and psychologist for the Atlanta Ballet, advises: “If you find that your body is just not serving you well—it's shin splints this month, you hurt your shoulder next month—you need to stop and look at what might be going on for you emotionally."
The Body on Stress
How can an emotional state affect your body? When we feel stressed, our nervous system goes on high alert, and our brain signals the release of a hormone called cortisol. This ancient physical response can be helpful when we need to, say, quickly outrun a saber-toothed animal. But cortisol can cause problems if ongoing stress means our bodies are exposed to too much of it. “Cortisol needs to come in waves," says Brad R. Moser, MD, founder and director of the Minnesota Dance Medicine Foundation. “When it is released for too long at a very high rate, it can cause injury to cells and tissues."
Cortisol decreases bone formation, an essential part of the healing process when bone is injured, bruised or broken. And it triggers an anti-inflammatory response, which affects the immune system, making it harder to fight illness. “It can also lead to depression and fatigue, which eventually lead to more frequent injury," says Moser.
Physical symptoms of excessive stress can include dizziness and loss of balance, putting dancers in danger. Additionally, we tend not to sleep or eat well when distressed, compromising our strength.
In a catch-22, injury itself is one of the leading causes of stress among dancers. For a study published in the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science in 2013, researchers in the Netherlands surveyed more than 150 injured dancers. The subjects answered questions about a variety of psychological symptoms, including trouble concentrating, paranoia, anxiety and feelings of inferiority, as well as physical symptoms like dizziness or loss of balance. About 60 percent of the respondents had psychological symptoms far enough out of the norm that they warranted referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist for treatment.
Dance culture isn't helping. “Dancers often don't pay attention to the signals that their body is hurting," says Kaslow. “They've learned that they have to keep going." The injured dancer, she says, is afraid to be viewed as weak. “When a dancer has to take time off because of a bad injury or they need surgery, they feel like they have lost everything," she says. Often, injured dancers are forced to give up roles or take a hiatus from the company, compromising their personal identity, and compounding the stress further.
So what can a dancer do? The key is to lower your stress baseline before you get injured. Stress builds on itself: With each new stressor, “that baseline just goes up and up," says Kaslow. If you can lower your stress level a bit each day, new problems that arise—like a sprained ankle—won't take as big of a toll.
Start by taking your breaks. During heavy rehearsal periods, dancers will often chat with each other or keep dancing during their lunch or 15-minute rest periods. “Your body actually needs a break," says Kaslow. “Learn how to do some relaxation training. Go into a quiet space in the studio, and focus inward." Use the time to squeeze in a few minutes of meditation or mindfulness while letting your muscles recharge.
Also learn to wind down at the end of the day. “It's usually hard to go to sleep after a show," says Semanson. “The nervous system needs a chance to transition from that heightened state of performance to calming down. The muscles need to relax so that when you go to bed, your nervous system levels out." Semanson teaches her patients cool-down exercises that combine deep breathing with gentle body movements (see sidebar below). This combination cues tense muscles to relax and dials down the nervous system.
Kaslow also recommends researching meditation books and tapes. “Find something that fits the way you think about the world: You are more likely to use it."
But if the stress feels like too much to handle on your own, don't be afraid to seek out a psychologist. Make sure you're getting the best medical attention possible from an expert who understands the demands of dance. Just the way you take care of injured limbs, take care of your emotions, too.
Write It Out
In 2013, researchers in New Zealand found that expressive writing for 20 minutes three days in a row sped healing in healthy adults who underwent biopsies. Study authors believe writing about our thoughts and feelings can help reduce stress.
Exercises to De-Stress
Each of these sequences, recommended by physical therapist Suzanne Semanson, starts by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
Full Complete Breath
Place one hand on your lower abdomen, the other on your chest, and close your eyes. Take a full breath. With the inhale, expand your abdomen and chest. Notice how your body responds. What moves first? What is not moving? As you exhale, notice how your chest and abdomen soften back toward the floor. Repeat for 10 slow breaths.
Rest your hands in a triangle on your abdomen, the heel of your hands on your hip bones, and your fingertips pointing toward your pubic bone. Inhale and gently move into an anterior pelvic rock where the triangle is pointing down. Exhale and tuck your pelvis under so that the triangle points up as your back flattens against the floor. Repeat 10 times.
Place your arms at your sides, palms down. On an exhale, press through your heels to lift your hips up. Hinge through your hips so you're not tucking or rolling your spine. Pause at the top for an inhalation. Exhale and lower your hips back to the ground. Repeat 10 times.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
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.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
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.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.