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Karen Lynn Smith

Dancing healthy.

Smith, Karen Lynn: "Dancing healthy", 16th International Congress on Dance Research, Corfu, Greece, 30/10-3/11, 2002.

While the human body has the potential for outstanding achievements in movement, it is limited by lack of flexibility, strength, energy and endurance; by injury and slow rehabilitation; by faulty alignment; and by unnecessary tension - emotional or physical. Since humans tend to push themselves "for the sake of their art", the musculoskeletal system is subject to misuse and to structural weaknesses that can increase the problems of inefficient movement and the potential for injury.

Most dancers concern themselves solely with technique or the choreography they are learning and performing. Often the idea of conditioning, fitness, nutrition, and psychology do not even enter the picture until the dancer is injured, stressed, or emotionally distraught. Then suddenly diet, injury prevention, stress relief, rehabilitation, or psychological counseling become a necessity.  Frequently, dancers lack the physical or emotional strength to reach their full potential. By looking at the full complement of factors that impact on healthy dancing, dancers can improve their technique and energy while reducing the likelihood of injury.

Specific to training and conditioning are the following items: Warming up/Cooling down, Stretching, Endurance/Aerobic workout, Strength training, Specificity, Overuse problems, Muscle imbalances, Proper alignment & technique, Conditioning, and use of alternative techniques such as Alexander®, massage, Pilates®, Feldenkrais®, Imagery, Bartinieff Fundamentals, etc. Proper technique requires upper body strength training for men who are lifting ballerinas and for all modern dancers, male & female, who frequently do contact or lifting work. A dancer may sacrifice correct alignment in order to solve a movement problem temporarily, but the bad alignment soon becomes habit "forcing turnout, twisting the hip in arabesque, thrusting the ribs forward" which not only may cause injury but also may affect the aesthetics of the choreography. 

Proper alignment allows the body to move in harmony with its structural architecture thereby reducing wear & tear on muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, and cartilage; producing an efficient instrument; and allowing one to dance better for longer. Poor alignment puts strain on bones, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments, resulting in chronic pain and injury. Use of pointe shoes too early and forcing turnout are the predominant hazards in ballet training. Lack of knowledge of physiology, biomechanics, and kinesiology impacts on how teachers teach; some fail to recognize that technique is not absolute, that it must compensate for physical limitations of an imperfect instrument (the human body) and that each body is unique.

Conditioning better prepares the dancer for class, rehearsal, and performance. Most dance techniques do not develop equal strength and flexibility in all muscle groups.   As examples, pointe work leads to tight calf muscles, tendonitis, and ankle instability; students who kick one leg higher or turn better to one side tend to do those activities that they do well and neglect the weaker side, thus developing asymmetry. Strengthening compensatory muscles produces musculoskeletal balance and tends to reduce injury while repetition of movements that create muscle imbalance encourages injury.

Technique class usually does not develop endurance and cardiovascular capacity although choreography often requires dancers to perform continuously, so separate aerobic training is a necessity. Overuse injuries are common in season, especially with repeated performances and/or two performances a day; out-of-season usually translates as out of condition.  Exercise physiologists estimate that there is a 35% loss in strength after one month of not being in training. Dancers who condition the body come to the studio or the theater with an instrument ready to dance, and they are less likely to be injured.  Since injury interrupts, shortens, or ends careers, extending the dancer's performing "life" is a desirable objective.

Nutrition is an area that is often overlooked by dancers who strive for excessive leanness. Proteins and carbohydrates are essential for optimal performance and rehabilitation. Anorexic or bulemic behaviors can lead to deficiencies, making it difficult to build, maintain, and repair tissue. These dancers also suffer from delayed or absent menstruation or menstrual irregularities, increased risk of stress fractures, calorie & iron-deficient diets, and electrolyte imbalances. The greatest obstacle to efficiency and stamina is dehydration. Dancers who fail to intake sufficient quantities of fluid (primarily water) will be fatigued. Those who substitute caffeinated products for water are promoting dehydration, as caffeine is a diuretic.

Psychological factors affecting dancers include the tendency to push to excel, to overcome pain, to persist, to persevere. Knowing there is always someone in the wings waiting to take their place motivates dancers to perform even when injured, ill, or fatigued. The physical price of sacrifice is rarely equal to the artistic reward.  If the stresses of a dancer's life overpower the joy of those moments when the dancer merges with the air, floor, audience, and music (the dancer's high), in the end a dancer may reach a point of psychological burnout requiring time out or even termination of a career.

What do you do when you have to stop dancing because of age, injury, or burnout?  This point comes too soon for many dancers, so optimizing training helps to prolong the career and make it a satisfying and healthy one. In the final analysis, one must remember that dance is primarily an active, participatory activity where fitness as well as artistic training allow the dancer to perform more efficiently. Young bodies are supple and pliant; they easily achieve movements and positions that older bodies cannot. They cope with disasters such as falling or tripping, heal quickly, and soon return to the studio while the over-20 dancer begins to see the ravages of time and all the errors (injuries) of youth begin to reappear. As dance educators, it becomes our responsibility to educate our students, to teach them to train the whole body and mind. This may be accomplished through detailed study of anatomy and physiology, inclusion of fitness training within and outside of the technique class, regularly scheduled adjunctive conditioning (strength training, Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF), and aerobic conditioning), a nutritious diet and adequate fluid intake, appropriate mental and emotional health, and use of Pilates®, Alexander Technique®, Feldenkrais, Chi Gong, massage, or other alternative therapies.

The real key to healthy dancing is to become knowledgeable about nutrition, anatomy, physiology, injury prevention, alternative therapies, and healing treatments. Dance may be spectacle, art, recreation, fitness, divine or social expression, representation of cultural mores, or simply human activity; but regardless of culture or purpose, dancers who are healthy maximize their training, performance, artistry, career longevity, enjoyment, and aesthetic presentation.

Suggested references

Benjamin, Ben E. & Borden, Gale: Listen to your pain. NY, Penguin Books, 1984.

Cohen, Kenneth S.: The way of Qigong: The art and science of Chinese energy healing. Ballantine Books, 1999.

Garripoli, Garri: Qigong: Essence of the healing dance. Health Communications, 1999.

Howse, Justin & Hancock, Shirley: Dance technique and injury prevention. NY, Theatre Arts Books, 1992.

Jahnke, Roger: The healing promise of Qi: Creating extraordinary wellness through Qigong and Tai Chi, Contemporary Books, 2002.

Nagrin, Daniel: How to dance forever: Surviving against the odds, NY, William Morrow, 1988.

Ryan, Allen J. & Stephens, Robert E. (ed.): The healthy dancer, Pennington, NJ, Princeton Books, 1987.

Taylor, Jim & Taylor, Ceci: Psychology of dance. Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics, 1994.

Watkins, Andrea & Clarkson, Priscilla: Dancing longer, dancing stronger. Pennington, NJ, Princeton Books, 1990.

Karen Lynn Smith, M.A.




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