Dancers today are smarter about their bodies than ever before. Advances in the field of dance medicine have revolutionized our approach to dancer health. It has become common for companies and schools to offer cross-training, nutrition advice and access to health professionals as the dance community has become more focused on health and wellness.
Still, the injury rate remains high. Dance remains a tradition based on aesthetic, not the limitations of the human body. Although we may have a better understanding of our kinesiology, today’s increasing expectations and focus on hypermobility put dancers at greater risk. Here are a few things that dance medicine professionals are still seeing as bad habits among dancers:
Starting with Static Stretching
A lot of times, our first instinct when warming up is to stretch. Experts, however, suggest dynamic stretching (such as lunges or large movements that increase blood flow to the muscles) as a much better approach. “We know from science that static stretching temporarily weakens muscles, impairs coordination, reduces balance and jump height,” says Dr. Nancy Kadel, co-chair of the Dance/USA Task Force on Dancer Health. “Static stretching is not warming up. It’s much better to walk, or do anything else to elevate the heart rate.”
Misunderstanding the Core
“The core” is an essential term in dancers’ vocabulary, but sadly, it is still not entirely understood in the dance community. When we say we need to strengthen “the core,” that often translates to simply doing ab exercises. This can lead to key weaknesses in supporting the whole body in action. “Core control is much more than just abdominal strength,” says Jan Dunn, a former president of IADMS and current dance wellness editor of 4dancers.org. “It refers to back stabilization, and involves the coordinated effort of several different muscles in the torso to stabilize the spine.” In order to truly strengthen our core, we need to perform other exercises that will strengthen antagonistic muscles such as the back and pelvis.
Forcing Unnatural Head Positions and Turnout
In Ballroom Dance, we often see girls with neck and back problems from putting their heads out into unnatural positions and trying to hold them there while they dance in frame. A close study of ballroom technique will show that this is not only incorrect practice, but it will begin to put unnecessary stress on other joints and muscles, forcing an unbalanced posture and gait. It is important that dancers do not try to copy what they see (as it is mostly an illusion) and that they listen to what their bodies are telling them. The same hold true for stretches meant to increase hip or feet turnout. Pain is your bodies’ way of telling you that something is wrong and it should not be ignored.
Self-Treating with Ibuprofen
Your dance bag should not be a drugstore. While it’s tempting to treat every ache and pain with a pill, it could backfire. “Inflammation is your body’s way of dealing with injury and we don’t always want to suppress it,” says Kadel “Studies tell us that taking ibuprofen when not necessary can impede soft tissue and bone healing.” An anti-inflammatory habit could also cover up something more serious. “If you have three days of consecutive pain, see the doctor,” says Kadel. “You may end up back onstage sooner.”
Skipping Aerobic Work
Dancers need to do more than what is done in class to stay injury-free. The stop-start nature of most classes and rehearsals doesn’t build the stamina necessary for performance. “Dancers need to do some form of aerobic exercise that keeps their heart rate elevated for 30 minutes at least three times a week,” says Kadel. “You should be sweating but still be able to speak.” Elliptical, cycling, swimming and running are all excellent choices. Not only can this reduce your risk of injury, Kadel says studies show that dancers who complete supplemental conditioning programs show improvement in aesthetic performance: “Stronger, fitter dancers use less effort, have better core control, fatigue later and thus are better able to dance full-out and take more risks onstage.”
As a graduate in Exercise Science at Brigham Young University, I have learned that these professionals’ suggestions are valid and that they are exactly what we need to hear as dancers. I have been guilty of most of these malpractices before, but educating myself has helped me take care of my body and dance to my full potential. As dancers, taking care of our body and eliminating these bad habits should be our number one priority. After all, research can only do so much—it’s up to us to follow experts’ findings and advice.