Overuse injuries are a reality for any dance teacher. Here’s how to avoid them.
By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT
How many tendus do you think you’ve done in your lifetime? Hip circles? Battements? Scary, isn’t it? Dance training requires countless repetitions of the same movements, and performing and teaching careers often follow. And all those ronds de jambe and arabesques add up. Tack on the number of times a teacher demonstrates a step, and we’re looking at some potentially serious overuse issues.
The body is extraordinarily strong and resilient. No artificial hip, knee, or foot has ever been able to reproduce the durability of the human anatomy. But as strong as the body is, dancing takes its toll, and teaching can be responsible for much of the accumulated damage.
So what can you do today to lessen the wear and tear teaching inflicts on your body? Making mature and wise decisions about your body and your work ethic takes willingness and practice, but it will serve you well. Those decisions include when to demonstrate and when it’s time to delegate.
The three main tools that will help you keep moving are staying fit, taking good care of your joints, and taking time to heal after any injury.
In the dance world, “rest” can actually mean “relative rest”—and is better by far than nothing.
A strategy regarding demonstrating is a critical part of this toolkit. Keep in mind your studio’s overall philosophy regarding how much demonstrating is expected from teachers, and tailor your teaching style accordingly. Additionally, have a plan in place in case injury, a condition such as pregnancy, or simple fatigue drastically curtails your ability to show steps.
Think ahead about which types of exercises or combinations you can talk through, which you can mark lightly, and which you’ll have students demonstrate. Know which students you’ll use, and where their particular strengths lie. It’s not only the most advanced dancers who can be useful in your classroom; the best technicians aren’t necessarily the best teachers. Dancers of lesser ability who are good at teaching and monitoring can be very helpful in a large class, sparing you from doing all the hands-on work. In younger children’s classes an aide can help keep order and correct as directed, as well as demonstrate simple steps.
Remember that finding a good demonstrator takes time and patience, since the arrangement can be a potential mentoring relationship. Selecting a demonstrator can either be helpful to the student or detrimental to their performance progress. Pointing out a student’s poor execution of a step or phrase could prove devastating for a dancer with low self-esteem, while being made a positive example might cause a dancer with perfectionist tendencies to stop taking risks for fear of falling off a perceived pedestal. Choose wisely and responsibly.
The first tool, staying fit, is essential for teachers who hope to stay happy and healthy teaching for any length of time. An all-too-common mistake teachers make is assuming that demonstrating alone will keep them in prime teaching condition. Although demonstrating one’s whole class is a way to maintain muscle tone and flexibility, repetitive motions over time can cause overuse problems such as arthritis, nerve injuries, or meniscal (knee) injuries.
For this reason, all athletes, even dancers, need cross-training. Much dance emphasizes weight-bearing and hyperflexibility in the lower legs, with the result that most reported injuries occur in the feet and legs. So it’s best to focus your cross-training on strength exercises done off your feet, such as cycling, weight training for the arms and upper body, Pilates or similar core training, and re-coordination classes such as Feldenkrais. It is true that if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. But while keeping your demonstrating skills fresh is important, showing steps and combinations in class shouldn’t be your only physical program.
Taking care of the joints doesn’t always come naturally for those who are trained to display dance-over-nails toughness. Find an approach that doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You don’t have to act like a fragile flower, but do acknowledge that you only get one anatomic set of joints per lifetime.
One sign that our joints are in need of relief is when we begin to notice cracks and pops in joints that were previously silent. Overly tight musculature pulls on joints and often makes them crack and pop as the bones are pulled into improper mechanics.
In addition to paying attention to joint overuse, it’s important to remember that muscle tightness can put stress on joints and that reducing emotional or work stress reduces muscle tensions.
I sometimes recommend—only half in jest—that clients try to live as if they’re on vacation. This can be as simple as indulging in a warm bath with Epsom salts, taking that ferry ride you save for out-of-town visitors, or sunning in a park every once in a while. Indulging in such mini-breaks, along with allowing more demonstrator and/or aide participation, can work wonders to reduce the amount of damage caused by joint strain.
Taking time to heal
The last tool—taking time to heal after any injury—may seem daunting to most teachers. Do strive to make it doable. The reality is that due to the long-term overuse issue, teachers must address chronic flare-ups, injuries, and other ailments so that they don’t turn into potentially disabling problems.
Again, don’t think all or nothing. Notice the use of the word “heal” rather than “cure.” And in the dance world, “rest” can actually mean “relative rest”—and is better by far than nothing. So while regular dance training, performing, and teaching mean continual activity even when you are faced with physical issues, modulate your level of exertion by using aides and demonstrators.
Teachers are in dance for the long haul. In the San Francisco Bay Area, a 95-year-old recently retired from teaching a dance class at the senior center. Where will you be at 95?
Make today the first day of the rest of your teaching life. Stay in shape. Delegate. Organize a team of demonstrators and aides. Give yourself and your body a break.
I have faith in you.