December 2013 | A Better You | Thoughts to Carry With You

What to remember to be the best ‘you’ ever
By Suzanne Martin, DP, DPT

All good things come to an end. This is the last “A Better You” column. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to write on health for dancers for the past decade, five of those years in these pages.

My interest in dancers’ health arose when I arrived as guest artist-in-residence at the University of Southern Mississippi in the early 1980s. Yes, I am that old. After driving across the country alone from California to Mississippi, my back and hips were in bad shape. A faculty member at the university told me I could go to the football coach because he was a chiropractor and that his athletic training team would take care of me. That’s when I said, “What about my dancers?”

Ever since, I’ve been on a quest to discover, investigate, and innovate, in order to help the lives of those in dance.

It’s been a long journey, from receiving an award for a study on elite ballet dancers’ hips, to teaching Pilates in the Dancemedicine Department at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hospital; from opening a private physical therapy practice to functioning as lead physical therapist for Smuin Ballet for the last 15 years. Dancer wellness, injury prevention, and rehabilitation have been my life.

I have always touted the wisdom of a popular aphorism, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” This seems more true than ever as my present book projects, on scoliosis management and breast cancer restoration, near completion. No human body, even the body of a dancer, is perfect; all we can do is make it function as well as it possibly can.

As I move on, here’s what I want you to know: pay attention. It’s as simple as that.

Dancers are notorious for their drive and tenaciousness, often to the detriment of their health, safety, and well-being. When dancers move beyond performing and become teachers, studio managers, and school owners, they almost always maintain the same level of intensity. This is one reason why we are attracted to dance—we are literally swept up in the experience. But if you don’t take care of yourself, the relentless pace may take you down.

My alliances with the International Association of Dance Medicine & Science, Dance/USA Task Force on Dancer Health, and the Performing Arts Medicine Association, have given me channels to convey to you information about dancer health. At, you have access to more than 50 “A Better You” articles that cover nutrition, information about and care of body parts from tip to toe, occupational hazards, interpersonal relations, self-care, and other topics. Use them. Refer to them when you are stumped or need inspiration. But I’d also like to impart a few parting words of advice, support, and, I hope, wisdom.

ABetterYou2Most people get into this business because of a desire to excel. Achieving and maintaining excellence, whether in performance, teaching, or physical and psychological health, takes persistence, courage, and tenacity. Take the time to set up a well-structured system of self-care. Devise a healthy routine of attention and maintenance, and incorporate it into your daily life so that it becomes automatic. Without one, I guarantee either your body or spirit will give out. Doing enough to just get by won’t work.

Dancers are organizers. They plan classes, rehearsals, choreography, performances, and events. Use this organizational skill to become stable, healthy, and happy. Take it one step at a time. Start by figuring out what you can do most easily, and implement it quickly. Think about daily diet and conditioning. Is it easy to make a change in dietary habits to include more protein and vegetables? Is it easy to ask around to find affordable gym access? Simply being willing to be willing is a first step. Replace “This will never come together for me,” with, “I’m ready to put my health in order.”

Figure out how to do a little restoration each day. In health care, we use an international classification system that recognizes the interplay among physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Nutrition, sleep/rest, and conditioning are all elements that need to be a part of your goody basket. The more good things you put in, the better the things you’ll pull out.

Rest is often a neglected part of the equation. We cannot ignore the overall effect of fatigue, which often leads to anxiety and depression. This affects many dancers since dance is 24/7 and requires a concerted push to attain perfection.

Educate yourself about your anatomy, how it works, and how you can preserve it. Dancers often want to learn everything they can about the body. That’s a good thing. But be careful about the sources of this information. Be discerning and don’t fall victim to dangerous fads or trends.

Restoration is key to having a long career. Find resources that restore you on a regular basis, such as massage, acupuncture, and conditioning. In addition, find medical resources that can help you in a crisis—before you’re in the middle of one. Research doctors, urgent-care options, and emergency facilities. And remember, as of January 2014, health insurance will be mandatory for everyone—at least catastrophic, high-deductible coverage.

If your finances are strained, remember that you have skills that can be bartered—dance lessons in exchange for food preparation, medical services, studio cleaning, or even accounting. When I was still a dance teacher and preparing for physical therapy school, I offered Pilates training and private ballet lessons in exchange for some housework and chemistry tutoring.

Finally, never forget the power your words, body language, and physical touch can have with others. I’m surprised when clients, mentees, and former students tell me how an interaction that seemed minor to me had such an impact on their well-being, understanding, or life trajectory.

Dance teachers, whether they realize it or not, often play an important part in shaping the larger picture of their students’ lives. We can only give with integrity that which we have truly embodied. Let’s make sure we impart to our students the value and importance of caring for and caring about ourselves.

Dance hard, dance well, and keep on dancing!

I have faith in you.