The healing power of touch
By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT
Feeling achy? Are your feet tired and sore? Did you tweak your back demonstrating a step? Where do you go for relief? Many people find that massage can work miracles. But what can it do? How does it work? Who does what, and where can you find a reputable massage therapist?
Feeling achy and sore is to be expected. Dance teachers’ hours are long, and laden with inherent physical demands: musculoskeletal overuse issues, sustained postural positions (standing and sitting), and sheer fatigue.
Fatigue sets in when dance teachers are unable to sit during long stretches of class or rehearsal time. Stress in the classroom takes its toll. Repeating exercises and combinations day after day, year after year, can cause recurring pain. And then there’s the pain from old injuries, residual or perhaps reignited by those long hours of standing, sitting, and demonstrating.
Furthermore, teaching often comes as a second or adjunct career after or alongside performing or other jobs. By the time many of us embark on a teaching career, our feet, legs, and low backs have already endured many hours of punishment. By the end of each day, and even more so after teaching a multi-day intensive, rest and restoration are definitely needed.
Conditioning builds and sustains strength and flexibility. It also means more activity, and more activity often means more wear and tear. This is where massage comes in.
Maintenance is essential. And maintenance includes conditioning. Conditioning builds and sustains strength and flexibility and keeps joints functioning properly. Unfortunately, conditioning means more activity, and more activity often means more wear and tear.
This is where massage comes in. An important and often overlooked component of a maintenance routine, massage shouldn’t be considered exotic or indulgent. A teacher’s comprehensive health-care agenda should absolutely include hands-on bodywork.
There are many different types of massage, all offering relief from most of the things that ail us as teachers. Some massage therapists offer a hybrid, using techniques they think will best meet a client’s needs. Here are a few to consider.
This Japanese massage technique involves applying pressure along many of the same energy meridians used in acupuncture. This is done with the client fully clothed; the practitioner uses her fingers, hands, and elbows to apply pressure, rotate joints, and assist in stretching. Medical trials have shown shiatsu to be effective in treating nausea, menstrual pain, insomnia, and low-back pain, among other conditions. For a dance teacher who is dealing with everyday or long-term fatigue, the best news may be that shiatsu is also known to enhance energy and create a sense of vitality.
Deep tissue massage
This technique uses deep compression and strokes to release and realign the deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue. It may be especially helpful in treating chronic tension, such as low-back stiffness, tight necks, and sore shoulder muscles. Many practitioners recommend it for treating injuries, as it increases range of motion and breaks up scar tissue.
Characterized by long strokes, kneading, circular motion, tapping, and vibration, this type of massage has been found to be effective in treating the kind of chronic pain and stiffness caused by wear and tear. A recent study about its effect on patients with osteoarthritis pain in the knees found significant improvement in joint function and flexibility, as well as reduction of pain. It has also been widely used to counter the effects of both new and old injuries. Another study found that immediate treatment of overused muscles reduced inflammation and tissue damage. As we begin to feel the years in our bones—and the sprains, strains, and tears in our muscles and connective tissues—Swedish massage can both offer relief and speed recovery.
Reflexology practitioners stipulate that there are areas on the feet and hands that correspond to various organs and systems, and that stimulation of the peripheral nerves in the extremities sends calming messages to the rest of the body, releasing congested energy and creating balance. A reflexology session normally requires no disrobing. The client lies face up on a massage table, and the therapist uses techniques such as holds, finger pressure, kneading, rotation, and rubbing of the hands and/or feet and calves. While skeptics question its efficacy, some studies show that reflexology improves blood flow and relieves anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, and pain. Reflexology centers are now cropping up in many areas and are usually less costly than a full-body procedure.
What to look for
When you’re ready to seek help, ask around for a recommendation. Most dance communities have connections to well-regarded massage therapists. Be patient. Even with recommendations it may take trial and error to find the right fit for you.
Communication is key. The therapist should be receptive to and respect your preferences about depth of stroke or type of massage (if the therapist practices various types). Find out whether the therapist is licensed, where she trained, and how extensive her knowledge of anatomy and physiology is.
Look for a clean and welcoming environment, and don’t return to practitioners who pressure you into buying products or services or push lifestyle choices on you. Beware of quick diagnoses, whether psychological or musculoskeletal. This is your time, your money, your service.
Quick, relaxing, and less costly alternatives can be found in unexpected places. Some nail salons offer complimentary forearm and calf massage along with a massage chair experience, although the masseuse is unlikely to be trained or certified. And some food markets offer chair massage, often by trained and certified practitioners.
For another lower-cost option, try a massage school. Students always need bodies to work on, and these schools often offer low-cost services. Another option is a service trade; think about offering a couple of free classes in exchange for a massage.
Dancers are creative and resourceful. You don’t need to be a shah to afford the services, and the benefits are immeasurable. Be the creative creature you are, and pass it on to your students by staying in the game for the long haul.
I have faith in you.