Dancing professionally should come with a warning label: Beware of aches and pains, muscle fatigue and cramping, joint discomfort, and crackly popping sounds. To manage pain and keep moving, dancers often turn to foot rollers, foam rollers, and balls. These handy self-massage tools can relieve aching muscles during class or rehearsal, but they are not interchangeable. Here's how each can help.
Roll It Out
Foam and wood rollers are the most commonly used tools among dancers. “Rolling is great for lengthening and pulling apart fascial tissue, especially plantar fascia on the bottom of feet, and the iliotibial band (IT) along the side of the thigh," says Julie O'Connell, director of Performing Arts Rehabilitation at AthletiCo in Chicago. Fascia, a soft connective layer between skin and muscle that helps support the body's structural integrity, tends to tighten and get more rigid from use. O'Connell recommends spending 3 to 5 minutes rolling during breaks in a long rehearsal day to feel some relief, until there's a decrease in tension and an increase in pliability. “Don't try to remove all of the fascial tension because your body needs that for postural support," she says.
Rolling iliotibial bands and feet can be very painful, so choose the roller's density (hardness) based on your pain tolerance. If the roller causes muscles to tense, switch to a lower density and work up to harder rollers. Half-rollers and skinny rollers are better for smaller muscle groups. To unknot the calves, try kneeling with a skinny roller lying on top of the calf muscle length-wise, sit back on it, and move gently from side to side.
Erika Kalkan, faculty member at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, suggests rolling once muscles are warm after class to reap the most benefit. However, if the muscle is irritatingly tight beforehand, the dancer may want to roll to loosen it up before she starts to work. “As you roll out, focus, breathe, and try to relax into it," she says. “If you only roll for a couple seconds while talking with other dancers, it may be completely useless."
Foot rollers are compact and unobtrusive enough to use in class, so many dancers keep one nearby during barre. During Jennifer Muller/The Works company classes, dancer Duane Gosa says, “I always use a wood foot roller when my feet cramp up, so I can focus on the combinations and not on my foot pain."
On the Ball
Tennis balls, racquet balls, rubber balls, and small spiky balls have become dance bag necessities in recent years. While rollers release tension in large sections of the body, balls are for local, trigger-point release. Balls can soften knots or muscular adhesions in the back, chest, hamstrings, glutes, and feet. For ballet dancers, O'Connell notes that calves and external rotators—specifically the piriformis, in the gluteal region—most often require release.
To release the piriformis, says O'Connell, sit on a ball placed under one hip, with knee bent in a relaxed turnout, and roll around on the ball. Kalkan also tells dancers to keep the ball in one spot for 30 seconds and imagine relaxing the muscles over the ball, then move to a different spot and repeat. “A relaxed muscle allows the fibers to lengthen, brings circulation to the area, and causes a release on a neuro-physical level."
There are more specific ball-rolling techniques, including Yamuna Body Rolling, that safely increase relief. Yamuna uses 6- to 10-inch balls of various densities to roll out the entire body in an anatomically correct manner, starting at the origin of a specific muscle and rolling to the point where the muscle inserts into the bone. Once learned, the technique can aid a dancer's post-class body maintenance (see yamunabodyrolling.com).
The Safety Dance
There are red-flag cautions for all self-massage techniques. Any numbness or tingling is a sign of pressure on a nerve. Kalkan warns about rolling on the pectoral muscles because the brachial plexus—a large network of nerves—is nearby. Also watch for tingling in the toes when rolling the peroneal muscles on the outside of the lower leg. A softer ball, less pressure, and not working the area for too long helps avoid nerve pain.
Also remember that a deeper roll does not mean more relief. “I am surprised at how many dancers bruise themselves and the bone from rolling!" exclaims Kalkan. Applying forceful pressure or spending too much time on one spot leads to painful inflammation and swelling.
But don't use these tools as a way to mask more serious body issues. “Don't use balls or rollers instead of seeking medical attention," warns O'Connell. “Early intervention can catch issues before they become serious injuries." Tools like these may help you continue dancing, but Kalkan believes in investigating the cause of pain, discovering why some areas are always tight, then striving towards a solution. Working on alignment and proper muscle recruitment can lead to long-term relief.