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Dance at Your Own Risk

I believe there are two types of dancers in this world: those that have gone through an injury, and those that haven’t gone through an injury yet. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic but dance (or any physical activity) has its risks. The more active you are as a person the more likely you are to find yourself with some bumps and bruises along the way. Now if you’re a dancer who’s reading this and thinking to yourself “but Becky, I’ve never been injured. Are you saying I’m destined to break something and end up in a boot for eight weeks unable to walk, let alone dance!?” that is not what I’m saying. And please do not curse me for jinxing you if you do ever find yourself in that position - I’m knocking on wood that you don’t. When I say the word injury, I’m referring to the grand spectrum of injuries: everything from broken bones and torn ACLs to small bouts of tendinitis and bruises from rolling on the floor too hard in a modern class.

On this spectrum of injuries there are two general types of injuries that we can talk about: acute and chronic. An acute injury is when a specific event (or trauma) causes the injury. You fall on the ice and break your ankle. A lift goes wrong in a partnering sequence and you pull a muscle. You misjudge how warm you are, go for a switch leap and tear your hamstring. While acute injuries can sometimes be more severe and require a much longer recovery process than their chronic counterparts they are much easier to talk about. Generally speaking, people understand that shit happens. Accidents happen. Dancers get injured and it sucks but it was a one time thing and it won’t happen again.

On the other side of the injury scale we have chronic injuries. This is what I’ve been dealing with since around October…or maybe September…I’m not really sure. And that’s the thing about chronic injuries, they have no real definitive start date. If you fall on the ice you know exactly what date that was. If you get dropped out of a lift you know exactly when that happened. If you switch leap and feel that muscle snap, you could look at the clock on the wall and know at exactly what time the injury occurred. Chronic injuries are muddier. Usually because the first time we feel any sort of pain we brush it off as being nothing. Dancers are used to hurting. Our tolerance for pain is much higher than that of the average muggle. It is not unusual for me to be in a dance class, feel the pain of a muscle cramp, take a second to roll it/stretch it out, and then go about my business as usual. We do shit like this all the time and that’s exactly what I did when my calf first started bothering me.

Let me be clear: injuries, no matter what kind, suck. If you’re currently dealing with an acute injury I do not mean to dismiss your struggle or your recovery process as being easy. Any type of injury is upsetting for a dancer and there are challenges in all types of recovery. I am merely writing about my personal experience as someone who has dealt with both kinds of injuries. Your experience may be different than mine. I respect that. I support that. And I’d love to talk with you about it.

Here’s the thing about chronic injuries: they develop over time due to a wide variety of possible factors. In my case I learned that my right tibia (AKA a bone in my lower leg) is rotated 30 degrees out of what is considered typical alignment. Anatomists consider any tibia rotation 15 degrees or under normal, which puts my 30 degrees outside of that category. This is the kind of thing that usually develops in the womb. Think of it like a birth defect that only dancers or athletes would know and care about. Additionally, I have very little external rotation in my hips, something that I have known and worked with my entire life studying ballet. Again, this is due to the literal structure of my bones and pelvis. When a child is first learning how to move about in the world that child’s body figures out how to compensate for various structural strengths and weaknesses. My physical therapist hypothesized that my overly rotated right tibia caused my left hip to compensate by strengthening its ability to rotate inwardly. So now, not only do I have uneven alignment below the knees but also uneven alignment in my hips as well. And this is the beautiful body I am blessed to learn to dance with.

I am proud to say that I grew up at a very strong dance studio. We were taught the old school way. At the time my dance studio was affiliated with a professional ballet company and so all the ballet classes ran in conjunction with that company’s training and faculty. At my dance studio you weren’t allowed to be in the intermediate or advanced level theater dance classes if you weren’t up to a certain level in ballet. We understood that the basis of all forms of dance was a strong ballet technique. By the time I was in 7th grade I was taking four two hour ballet classes a week in addition to all the “fun” classes like theater dance, tap, company repertoire, and others. I worked my little booty off both in class and outside of class, driving my parents crazy by practicing in the dining room non-stop, sometimes at risk of falling and crashing into the dining room table. But I loved it. And there was no stopping me.

My training got even stronger when I went to college and minored in dance, taking not only the dance technique classes but other important classes like Anatomy & Kinesiology. In fact I took that particular class twice. The first time as a sophomore, completely unsuspecting of how mind blowing I would find learning about this stuff. And I took it again my final semester senior year as part of an independent study project, where I acted more as an assistant to the professor than an actual student in the class. And even with all of this training and knowledge about muscles and bones, joints, tendons, ligaments, etc. I still ended up with an injury that has probably been brewing for quite some time now.

That’s where the stigma against injured dancers comes into play: smart, strong, well trained dancers don’t get injured. Except that they do. We do. And there’s a great deal of shame that surrounds those injuries just waiting to latch on to a self-conscious, self-doubting, dancer who has just lost his/her ability to do the thing that makes up his/her identity. My physical therapist explained it to me in the best way possible and I’m going to share what she told me with all of you but she deserves the credit for this. A professional dancer is like a professional athlete. We train just as hard and take our development of skill just as seriously. However, professional athletes have one major advantage over the freelance professional dancer. They are part of a major club with daily access to personal trainers, coaches, physical therapists, acupuncturists, massage therapists, and many other types of recovery methods. Can you imagine being in a ballet class with someone watching on the side, giving you undivided personal attention, making sure you’re executing everything correctly and safely? And at the end of class that person gives you suggestions on what to work on at the gym, tells you which specific muscles you need to strengthen in order to become an even better dancer. These are the luxuries of being a professional athlete that we dancers don’t have access to. And even with Papa Bear analyzing their every move athletes still struggle with all kinds of injuries so how can we, professional freelance dancers, expect to dance through life completely injury free? It’s an unrealistic ideal.

So if you’re a dancer struggling with an injury, or a singer struggling with a vocal injury (because that is just as shame inducing) know that you are not alone. Trust that your injury doesn’t make you a bad dancer (or a bad singer). I can proudly say that I have rehabilitated my way through multiple physical and vocal injuries, always with the help of excellent doctors and therapists. It’s true when they say “what does not kill you makes you stronger.” I feel that way about each and every single one of my injuries. Because of that I am grateful for each opportunity I’ve had to gain more knowledge about my body, how it works, it’s strengths and weaknesses, and to gain more and more respect for its limitations.

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