Your Body: The Rest Test

January 11, 2011

Katia Chupashko endured the rigors of learning Dana Tai Soon Burgess’ new piece Charlie Chan and The Mystery of Love last year without hesitation. She had worked with Burgess, a Washington, DC, choreographer, many times. But the work’s rigors, combined with all the repetition and emotion that go into preparing for a premiere, left Chupashko with a painful pulled calf muscle. “Setting a work is intense and unrelenting,” remembers Chupashko. “Fatigue set in.”


Whether it’s sudden or cumulative, fatigue has proved the culprit in more dancer injuries than any other phenomenon. Studies show that injury rates go up at the end of a rehearsal session, the end of a day, and the end of a season. Fatigue cannot be easily explained as simple tiredness, nor is it synonymous with burnout, although that can be a factor. It’s a complex physiological and psychological event, involving muscle use, stress hormones, and more. Fatigue builds over time, and each dancer experiences it differently. Knowing how to recognize it, and how to face “rest” straight on can be key to a dancer’s performing longevity.


Chupashko learned the value of rest from taking time off just two weeks before Charlie Chan opened at Washington’s Dance Place. “I needed to stop and think critically about what was happening to me,” she says. After seeing her doctor, Chupashko opted for a combination of chiropractic, massage, and time off her feet. “It could have easily turned out another way had I pushed through,” she says.


Most dancers wing it on adrenaline and caffeine, but the stats don’t bode well for that approach. “Fatigue is a hot topic of research right now,” says Marijeanne Liederbach, a physical therapist at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries in New York City. Liederbach has conducted studies looking at the correlation between fatigue and injury. In one, dancers who trained more intensively had an increase in the stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and catecholamine. These have been linked to numerous health issues from high blood pressure to immune system weakness.


Fatigue comes in two types: peripheral and central. The peripheral kind occurs locally when a muscle has exhausted its energy supply. “You might experience this after doing numerous jumps or any  kind of high-velocity or repetitive movement,” says Liederbach. “A quad just might give out. In most cases, it’s temporary and simply resting will help.”


Central fatigue is more global, and thus more worrisome. It can be the underlying factor in an array of problems, from traumatic and acute injuries like tearing an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) to repetitive use, slow-onset troubles. Symptoms include a loss of appetite, heaviness in the limbs, and a general feeling of lethargy. The psychological aspects include depression and irritability.


Rest plays a key role in recovery, but the concept of rest may need a makeover. Training without adequate rest is a bit like over-mortgaging ourselves, borrowing against resources we don’t have. “Rest and fuel are four-letter words in the dance world,” says Liederbach. Rest simply means stopping or pausing an activity. How long depends on what you are resting from—a grueling day, or a performance-heavy season.


Glenna Batson, PT, an associate professor of physical therapy at Winston Salem State University, has studied the value of rest in dance training. She has coined a phrase, “intentional rest,” to highlight its function for dancers. “Every sport offers a protocol to balance intense physical activity with metabolic recovery, and to avoid problems from overtraining,” she says. “The more current philosophy reflects the concept that injuries are not so much a consequence of ‘overtraining’ as they are ‘under-recovering.’ ” In sports, this concept of periodization, which looks at an athlete’s schedule over time, is well understood. “Athletes routinely balance the volume and intensity of work,” says Batson. “Activity-to-rest ratios have been defined for a variety of sports activities.”


Miami City Ballet corps dancer Rebecca King has come to a recovery approach on her own. Don’t get in the way of her nap on her day off! “I see my technique falter when I don’t nap,” she says. She cites an onset of exhaustion during MCB’s recent taping of a PBS “Great Performances” broadcast. “I will never forget the physical challenges I felt after that first day of filming,” says King. “I had to dance smart to survive it.” She made a point of not pushing through her breaks, but used each of them to recoup.


Dancers may not escape the grip of fatigue, but they can cope better. The cure is clearcut: Build in the necessary rest needed to keep your body functioning through everything from daily class  to the entire season. Liederbach adds a reminder to dance and survive by: “The performing body is blood and guts. It needs to rest to do its best.”


Nancy Wozny writes about dance and health in Houston.