WELLNESS IN DANCE
Dance is a demanding physical, emotional, and mental art form. Dancers today are required to push their bodies in ways that wouldn’t have been imagined 50 years ago. Increased athleticism and physicality demanded by choreographers and teachers place dancers at a higher risk of injury, fatigue, and calls for greater stamina and a wider array of skills. The phrase “Dancer Wellness” is a complex idea and there are many areas that contribute to the wellness of our young dancers, this ranges from nutrition to psychological, and covers all aspects of health.
Any repetitive activity will place the body in a situation where overuse injuries can occur. Muscles which are overused become strong, whilst other areas become weakened; this in turn will result in postural change. Our postural ‘type’ creates specific strengths and weaknesses within our body, which can lead to muscle imbalances. Any imbalance in the body is a potential site for injury to occur. Areas commonly affected by overuse in dancers include the shin, ankle and knee, hips and lower back. A physiotherapist or Pilates instructor, with a good knowledge of dance, will be able to identify areas of weakness and overuse, and be able to design a programme to help understand technical challenges, create goals, and develop a personal conditioning programme.
Recovery from Injury...
Allowing students adequate time to recover from injury is an important part of dancer wellness. This is a difficult period for a dancer, particularly dancers who are in full-time training. It is very difficult to watch classmates continue to train, receive roles, or perform, when you are side-lined with an injury. Having a comprehensive treatment plan with targeted goals regarding a gradual return to activity is vital. Strong support from teachers, and others involved in the rehabilitation process is a must. Be realistic about your return from injury. It is often said that you will return from injury, as a better dancer. Often this is a time when you will learn a lot about your body, and have time to really work on areas of weakness, hopefully leading to less chance of the same injury reoccurring.
Cross Training is also an efficient way to help counter overuse from repetition, as well as being a useful tool during times of injury, illness or rehabilitation. Cross Training could include activities such as Yoga, Pilates, swimming or cycling, but should be chosen carefully, as to not exacerbate any areas of the body that are already overactive, or recovering from injury.
Aerobic activities can help to build endurance for dance. Injury rates increase with fatigue, so improving a dancer’s endurance may potentially help prevent these injuries from occurring.
Look to include different dance styles within your training. This will help your body have a break from doing the one type of dance style, and will also create diversity and a different dimension to your dancing. Taking acting or singing lessons can also be a fabulous idea, and has the added benefit of an additional skill set to add to a dancers resume.
Healthy Body Image...
Dancers, particularly ballet dancers, have for a long time, been known as a section of society where eating disorders or unhealthy body image is rife. The fact remains that dancers are expected to be aesthetically pleasing, and often requires young students to attain unrealistic, unhealthy and unachievable body expectations.
A young dancer who has decided, or been told to lose weight, may often just decide to drastically reduce their food intake. This unfortunately is the worst thing to do, as it will cause the metabolism to go into ‘fight or flight mode’ – or a stress mode – which raises the cortisol level of the body, and will often have the opposite effect to that intended.
Schools such as the Australian Ballet School and the Royal Ballet School are well known for their comprehensive dancer wellness programmes, assisting their students to make well-informed nutritional decisions. As a parent myself, I urge all parents of prospective full-time dance students to ask questions of your intended school. Ask what support their dancers have in terms of nutrition. What will they do if an issue arises?
Food is fuel, and is integral to maximise performance, recover from strenuous activity, and recover from injury. Students training for multiple hours a week, during a period of time where growth is taking place, have very specific nutrition needs. Consulting with a qualified nutritionist or dietician about providing your body with adequate nutrition for your bodies output may be wise. Your body is your instrument, and cannot be expected to perform to a high standard without the correct ratios of carbohydrate/protein/fats and hydration – however this is so individual, that there is no one answer that will suit all students.
Managing dance training during growth...
Growth spurts in adolescent dancers often happen at a time when training load is increasing, both in hours and complexity – for example, the introduction of pointe work. In general, our bodies do not grow evenly, with the bones of the arm and leg often growing prior to the trunk. This challenges the stability needed for a stable torso, so integral for balance and control. Modifications may be needed for the student's class load; for example: decreased jumping and pointe work, lower extensions, and more focus on artistry and musicality. An excellent resource paper is available from the International Association of Dance Medicine (IADAMS), entitled The Challenge of the Adolescent Dancer.
Students should be encouraged to develop friendships and activities that take them outside the dance world – photography, learning an instrument, or learning to cook!
Having adequate time for rest and relaxation, away from the dance studio, is vital for both a healthy mind and body. As students are moved into full-time study earlier and earlier, adequate time must be set aside for the continuation of school study. A dance career is fickle, and can be short lived for a variety of reasons, and having a strong education as a backup is a must.
Developing other interests, such as photography, cooking, or learning an instrument, can also be a great way to develop other friendships and skills.
With a life-long interest in dance, Sarah originally trained as a professional classical dancer. After an injury ruled out a career in ballet, she turned to Pilates for rehabilitation. The effectiveness of the sessions inspired her to pursue a career in Pilates.
Sarah is a fully certified STOTT PILATES™ instructor. Her areas of speciality include the rehabilitation of back pain, recovery from hip and knee injury/surgery, diaphragm and pelvic floor function, and pre/post-natal Pilates.
"I enjoy helping people to re-discover their ability to move their bodies freely, without pain and stiffness. I have seen so many clients empowered by Pilates - reducing pain and giving them back their freedom. It is a very rewarding career."
She has a special interest in Pilates and wellness for dance students. Sarah is passionate about helping young dancers, providing support during times of injury and rehabilitation, as well as working to develop individualised programmes to create strong, injury-free dancers.