Moving Into Stillness, by Erich Schiffmann, is the book I came across when I was 18 that I attribute as the catalyst that sent me on this journey of exploring of human movement.
And it’s an interesting idea:
Moving into stillness…
But to find stillness, surely we need to be in control, don’t we?
Take a moment to think about what that word means.
For dancers, control is something we feel we need. Something we’re told we need. Encouraged to have more of.
I want to go to a ballet class and count the number of times I hear the teacher use the word “control”. (but I don’t do much ballet these days, so maybe you can do that for me and let me know what number you get…)
Indirectly, we hear that we need control when we are corrected to stand up straight, hold our core tight, keep our shoulders down, etc.
We try to control our appearance: Make our face look calm, not strained, try to keep a slim body by dieting, and appear graceful and fluid as we perform unnatural movements.
Dance is the epitome of being in control.
Any wonder it attracts so many type-A personalities?
But what if what we’re hearing when we are told to be in control, and doing as we strive to be in control, is different than the kind of control we truly need?
What is control?
“STAY IN CONTROL! CONTROL the movement”!
When our dance teachers shout this out it can send us into a sympathetic response.
“Oh shit! I’m not IN CONTROL. Better clench everything. Activate all my stress tone to stay on my feet, get my leg up and not fall on my face!”
Consider this: Do you want to “be in control”, or to have “control of”?
To purely “be in control” implies a rigidity. Every move controlled, stiff, thought out carefully. Everything bound by rules. Nothing free flowing. No balance. Always try, try, harder. Activate, clench, push!
Have “control OF” implies a constantly shifting specificity. That some part of you is taking charge, providing support, as another part of you fluidly follows the lead, but nothing ever static.
Control OF implies you are selectively choosing, no, ALLOWING something to take the reigns. Allowing something to control more, so that something else can ease up.
That fine balance of Yin and Yang. Control and ease. Hardness and softness. Stillness and movement.
Control OF implies a dynamic state, rather that a static state. “Of” is a transient term.
Control of what? At what time? For how long? In what way?
What you want to have control OF can change at any given moment, different for every movement, and every movement of every movement.
Allow, at any given moment in time in a movement, for some parts to have more “control”, and others to have more “ease”.
Center of mass constantly changing, and your body reacting to catch it.
In a grand battement, for example: On the way up, the supporting leg is more controlled. It’s planted, rooted, firmly into the ground, moving LESS (but still moving), and the active leg is barreling through space.
It’s the control of the supporting leg that allows the ease and flow in the swinging leg, and the unbounded movement in the battement leg that allows energy to be diverted into the supporting leg.
But nothing is still…
Control is a spectrum.
There’s rigid control, and there’s flowing, dynamic control.
Having control OF is dynamic.
You CHOOSE what you dedicate energy towards controlling, and what you allow more freely just to happen.
Dynamic control takes awareness. Focus. Conscious choice.
Dynamic control takes less effort, energetically, but is more difficult to achieve due to the hours deep, focused practice it requires. And it you’re stuck in a “be in control” mindest, dynamic control is nearly impossible and depleting of your energy.
Being in control prevents deep practice. Control OF allows it.
But the more you choose dynamic, the more natural it becomes and, suddenly, you find that you don’t have to think about it anymore. Your body chooses for you. You begin to feel that to let go of control, in absolute terms, feels better, and to selectively control the minimal number of of parts feels better.
More efficient. Less strenuous. FEELS better in your body to perform.
This is when dance starts to feel really, really good to do.
You have to let go of CONTROLLING, and find CONTROL OF, even when your teachers are screaming at you to control your body.
Rigid control is how we react when we are told to stay “tight” and hold positions. When we’re unsure what to do. At least we feel that we’re in control!
Dynamic control, which flows, is not about being tight and positional. It’s about movement.
Control OF is reflex that you don’t need to think about. Your body recognizes what it needs to do to not fall over, and it does it.
It’s an instinct.
Instincts are developed through experience, listening inward, and learning. And if your experience has been to control through rigidity, breath holding, and clenching, it is quite difficult to experience that beautiful sensation of your body catching you, being there for you, as you daringly move away from (and hopefully back towards) center.
IS A MOMENT OF STILLNESS TRULY “STILL”?
In dance, a moment of stillness is one of the most powerful things. As an audience member, you feel a sense of anticipation, not knowing what will come next. A beautiful moment suspended in time.
In reality, however, you are never still. Your body is constantly in motion, as the Earth is constantly in motion. As the seasons are constantly in motion. As are the oceans around us and the circulating fluids and energies within us.
Maybe it’s just that because everything is moving so fast around us, we can’t feel it at all. And when we move into a place where all movement, for a moment in time, is synced, we feel MOVED. Yes, we FEEL it when we see someone come into “stillness”.
When we perceive stillness, what we’re really feeling is the movement of everything else.
Your body is in perpetual motion. Reacting to the movement before it, anticipating the movement that will come next. It’s a cycle that never stops, that started before you were conceptualized.
This is natural. Why would you try to stop it? To control it?
Plank. Clench. Hold. Position. Tighten. This is the wrong vocabulary to apply to your movement.
Try these out: Flow, react, catch, allow, give, drift…
But sometimes, either from a learned movement behavior, trauma, chronic injuries and pain, we lose our flow. Lose our dynamic control. Our only option becomes to tighten up to keep things safe. To protect.
You do not want to be practicing movement, trying to get stronger, or trying to add technique from a place of protection, tightening, and excessive control.
It’s a strange thing to consider, but when you stop trying to hang on for dear life, you become liberated.
Stillness is an illusion.
The feeling of stillness, it only lasts for a moment. And perhaps it’s just one part of your body that is more still, while other parts are moving, but because we’re so used to being always moving, the stillness at one segment stands out.
But to be completely still? Impossible.
Stability exists only relative to what’s moving.
Rather than try to force yourself to be still, completely controlled, accept that this does not happen. Something’s always moving, but something else is always moving less, or moving more slowly, in a more” controlled” way.
But really you’re not controlling, you’re allowing.
Like descending into a squat, we may feel feel that our feet and spine stay rigid, and our knees are held outward in a controlled and stable way, but in reality, they are moving, reacting to the larger movement at our hips and knees as they flex. They have less movement, and move more slowly, but they DO move, and their movement is important for this idea of dynamic control (control “of”).
Try this: Squat down without moving your spine, grip your feet, do not allow your knees to rotate in or out. What does that feel like? How does your depth feel? Restricted? Blocked?
And now try the same squat, but choose to let your knees move in or out slightly on the way down, let your spine arch or round, and let your feet roll in or out. Did you get more depth, feel less restriction, by allowing movement to happen?
This is where it is important to know your body: Know where your body needs more or less movement to create an illusion of stillness and control.
I discovered that, while squatting, if I actively round my back a little, posteriorally tilt my pelvis, allow my knees to roll in, pronate my feet, and shoot my knees forward, I appear to be descending in a “neutral” position, in complete control.
And it FEELS good. It feels like I’m in control. But I’m not “controlling” or stabilizing. I’m moving. A lot. I’m selectively choosing what to move more, what to let go of, what to move less, to create the illusion of a stable structure globally.
Some of you might feel pretty bad squatting the same way I described. Know your body!
It’s ok to let go of control. Stop trying to be so stable. It’s necessary in fact, to let go, and experience what dynamic ability you truly possess, so that you can train your body to use it at the most appropriate time.
Let go of “controlling”, and allow “control of”.
Stillness can only be created through movement.
Movement is life. Stillness is…
Gary is also a fantastic artist. One of his sketches from class. You don’t spend the majority of your life contemplating the foot without getting good at drawing it, too, I suppose.
With every foot step, every experience of the Earth through your foot; what sensory input are you taking in? What could you be missing out on? If there is a part of your foot that never makes proper contact with the Earth, with every step, is there potential you are you not realizing?
Today marks day four of having my first metatarsal head actually connect and receive input from the Earth at the appropriate time in my gait cycle. It’s a whole new world I wouldn’t have imagined would feel so different.
I mean, it’s just a tiny piece of bone that wasn’t reacting to the ground properly. What difference could a square inch make??
A hell of a lot, apparently.
Let’s talk more about human movement and how the quality of which is critical to maintain over the course of your dance career.
This post is also a reflection on movement and dance post-Anatomy in Motion. A course that may have changed my life a little.
MOVING WELL AS A HUMAN IS ESSENTIAL FOR MOVING WELL AS A DANCER
As a dancer I struggled constantly with the inability to control rolling to the outside of my feet. I never felt “grounded”. Balancing and turns were extremely difficult for me and my calves were always tight.
The filter through which Anatomy in Motion views and coaches back our right to experience natural human motion helped me to finally experience the full surface of my foot, something I could not before appreciate the benefits of fully.
You don’t know what you don’t know, and you can’t feel what you can’t feel.
This post will be interesting for you if:
a) You have an interest in what natural human movement really is
b) You like feet
c) You think gait analysis is sexy
d) You enjoy my long rambling stories about life, dance, and movement
e) You’ve been considering taking an AiM seminar (or have already)
AiM YOUR BRAIN IN A NEW DIRECTION: USE HUMAN MOVEMENT TO PERFORM BETTER AT DANCE
We’re often told that to dance better, we need to dance more. But what if it’s not more technique we need? Consider that learning to perform natural human movement more efficiently is all you need for huge technical gains.
I’ve just completed the Anatomy in Motion immersion course: Six days (full days, 8am-6pm days…) studying human movement with Gary Ward and Chris Sritharan. I’ve experienced my own anatomy in motion, and felt what the foot can do for human performance (see what I did there??)
“Human movement is trained, human motion is not… If you’re going to engage in a sport that is not natural human motion, just make sure you have a strategy to unwind it” ~Chris Sritharan
First, I’ll get the long rambling story portion of this post out of the way. You can skip through it if you like and scroll to the “information” part, I won’t be offended.
My Anatomy in Motion journey began last year at a Neurokinetic Therapy study group in Toronto led by Dr. Brock Easter.
Brock is always on the cutting edge of movement therapies and other manual and therapeutic approaches to help his patients, and when he finds one that works for him, he enthusiastically lets everyone know about it.
This was in 2014. He had just completed the AiM course in New York and was raving about it, telling us how Gary’s book, What The Foot had changed his philosophy on movement, he was mind blown, and that we should all read it.
what’s an anconeus??
Being an idealistic, highly impressionable, idiot-trainer, still learning my calcaneus from anconeus, I tucked that bit of information into my back pocket for future processing.
At another NKT study group, while I and my knee pain were subject of investigation, Brock started messing around with my feet and wondering how the hell I was even able to walk on them.
Curious about what was driving his new foot obsession, I decided to book an appointment with Brock to talk about feet and AiM.
He watched me walk, told me my center of mass was shifted completely over one leg, shoved some wedges under my feet and got me to perform some weird lunge-type movements (which I now know to be “shift” phase of the flow motion model).
Here is our amazing class learning to shift
So began my dedicated quest for understanding and experiencing my body.
This is important. From that point I set an intention to establish a daily movement practice. It wasn’t perfect, but did it ever create an impact on my system.
It wasn’t because the exercises themselves helped me overcome my pain and challenges, it was my intention to commit myself to working on them daily.
What if you dedicated yourself to work on something every day for a year?
Over the course of the next year, I saw Brock twice more (both sessions combining acupuncture and integrating “shift” back into my gait cycle). The changes I experienced were ridiculous (but note I was also experimenting with DNS, breathing techniques, and generally trying to stress less).
Huge movement nerd that I am, I practiced “shift” every day. I made a commitment to work on it every day, and have been doing so since he taught it to me last winter. I only missed a few days of shift-practice, and these days were noticeably stiffer, lower energy, more frustrating.
My ability to perform “shift” became the gauge of my state of movement. Everyday I learned a little more from it. There were frustrations, and there were highs.
Dance became a safe activity again. I began to feel things in my body I’d never felt before. I felt elements of my dancing improve. I felt pain subside. I could point my feet better, back-bend without compression pain, balance better, and was turning well(ish) and more consistently for the first time in years.
Look ma! No back pain!
Then I started teaching this movement to my clients (which has been referred to fondly- or dreadfully- as the “twisty lunge”).
I saw that it helped one dancer improve her hip external rotation from about 20 degrees to 80 (dat turnout!). Another dancer expressed how after practicing the movement, she felt lighter on her feet and felt more space in her hips. I noticed that after performing the movement, another dancer I worked with was no longer collapsing into an everted foot while performing a lunge.
Then I finally got around to reading Gary’s book, What The Foot. It was a huge inspiration for the creation of Dance Stronger (and those who are enrolled in the current DS program will notice I included my “shift” obsession in the movement preparation as AiM lunges 1 through 4- my breakdown of the shift phase. I didn’t do it justice, and in the second edition I’m hoping to improve upon its instruction, now that I actually know what I’m doing… Sortof)
Of course, I wish everyone would read What The Foot. After reading it there is no gray area: You either believe in his philosophy or you don’t.
You better believe I followed his guidance and experimented with “dark zones” like intentionally pronating my feet, taking my knees inside my second toe into the forbidden land of valgus. I stopped using so many “stability” exercises. Let go of an element of control. And it felt good! I encourage you to experiment with the same.
Knee valgus isn’t bad! You only get one chance to do it in the gait cycle.
But not everyone is as open as me. Why? For some people I imagine it comes down to money.
A chiropractor taking the course told us that since he started using AiM in his practice, his profit from orthotics decreased by about $25 000. That’s a pretty huge financial hit to take. But if you can teach people to support their feet, create their own orthotics through natural human movement, you don’t need to give them expensive orthotics or send them for surgeries.
Do you really need an orthotic to support that everted foot? Or do you need to learn how to support it through your own musculoskeletal reaction?
For me, the decision was easy. I couldn’t read Gary’s book and NOT take his course.
His marketing is actually very clever-His book creates an irresistible information gap while simultaneously filtering out the non-believers who he doesn’t want to taking his course anyway. Well done, Mr. Ward. Well done.
Information gap: “When we come across something new that is not explained by our previous knowledge or experiences, an information gap is formed, and we have a desire to find the answer.”
~Dr. George Lowenstien
So having now experienced his six day seminar, I feel like I’ve received answers to the questions I didn’t know how to ask, like,
“what’s a talus?”
“what’s the difference between a pronated foot and an everted foot?”
“at what phase in the gait cycle does the right hip adduct and anteriorally tilt?”
“what does the big toes have in common with the C spine?”.
I can see in a new way the shapes the human body makes for which I have a map to interpret, called the Flow Motion Model.
I understand that the body has an incredible ability to heal itself in just one rep.
I learned the natural way the pelvis, ribcage, skull, forefoot, rearfoot, and all the body’s joints are meant to act together in movement, and see how dance has a way of unravelling our movement quality if left unchecked.
But more importantly, I felt it all in my system in the 6 days. This is why I feel experiential learning is so important. If you can’t feel it, do you really know it? That’s the difference between knowing something in theory, and really knowing it.
By the end of day 5 it felt like I was wearing someone else’s shoes. Like someone had stealthily slipped in arch-supporting orthotics while I wasn’t looking.
I can see now that people really CAN create their own orthotics through movement. Give the body a new experience that helps it to move more naturally and efficiently, and it will choose to keep that new way of moving.
Like upgrading to a new operating system.
AiMAZING IDEAS YOU CAN TAKE HOME
So what were some of the main take-aways from my AiM experience that you can use?
1) Dance is NOT natural human movement.
As Chris advises, if we’re going to do something unnatural with our bodies, like dance, we had better have a strategy to unwind it.
Some unnatural things we do as dancers (meaning, movements we’re trained to do that do that look really cool, but do not naturally occur in our gait cycle):
- Winging the foot
- Pulling up the arches standing turned-out
- Extending and flexing the whole spine segmentally
- Not using heel strike
- POINTE SHOES
- Chest (paradoxical) breathing
- That horrible foot stretcher thing
Your foot does NOT do this in the human gait cycle! What are you doing to balance this out?
Not that these are “bad” ways of moving, but that they are trained through dance. They don’t naturally occur in human gait. If we don’t know how to get out of these patterns of moving, we lose efficiency, technique suffers, and maybe stuff starts to hurt.
2) The body is primarily a closed chain system, connected to the ground through out feet (or hands, or heads, or whatever else we decide to ambulate with).
Why would you train to improve foot mechanics with open-chain theraband exercises knowing that your feet were designed to respond to gravity bearing down on them and the earth beneath them?
Stop with the banded ankle strengthening exercises.
You must question WHY are you doing these exercises? If you can’t justify their value are they worth spending time on?
3) If you’re struggling at a specific skill, consider that you may not need extra coaching, but to master basic body mechanics.
Similar to what Gray Cook expresses in his book Movement. Is it a performance issue, or a movement issue?
4) In the gait cycle you only get one chance to pronate your foot, and one chance to anteriorally tilt your pelvis. And it all happens in less than a second.
This hit home for me. We often perceive pronation and anterior tilt as “bad” and we’re told to pull up our arches, tuck our butts under, and try not to look so weird while we’re doing it.
But when you flip that story, and realize that it is a privilege to pronate and anterior tilt, that they only happen in 1 of 5 phases in the gait cycle, you see how precious they are. You don’t (and should not) need to avoid them, or feel bad for doing them, but earn back the right to use them, and learn the when, where and how these movement fit into human motion.
5) We can’t rely on other people to “fix” us, but the best therapists and trainers will give us tools so that we can fix ourselves.
It’s the only way, and the sooner you take ownership of your body, the sooner you can get on with life, improve your performance, and let go of chronic pain.
As therapists and trainers, we aren’t trying to give our clients and patients a “fix” for their pain, but create an experience for them to safely work through their challenges and feel that their body is incredibly hardwired for self-healing.
Commit to a daily practice that moves you a new direction.
6) A valgus knee is not an internally rotated knee that needs to be pushed out.
7) There is a scoliotic phase in the gait cycle. Even scoliosis is a natural human movement. You don’t need to judge a scoliotic curve as being bad, but it can become problematic to get stuck in it.
Don’t get attached to your structure. Wendy Whelan, a beautiful ballerina, has a scoliotic curve, but she’s learned how to work with it, not feel bad about it.
8) There is a difference between tension-based and compression-based pain.
Some pain exists because a muscle is too long and under tension (and feels pretty dang tight). Some pain is because of compression- A muscle too short. If you try to stretch tension-based pain, you’re asking for trouble.
It feels tight because it IS tight. Stretched taught. And you want to stretch it more? Good luck with that.
9) The sub-talar joint drives the bus.
You are the bus. Your STJ is the driver. If your talus is stuck in an inversion or eversion, you better believe your whole body will sort itself out above it in cheeky compensatory ways.
10) The toes are the “last line of defense”.
When your body is struggling with something and can’t figure it out, your toes will help you not to fall over. Got bunions and weird looking toes? Consider what might they have adapted to help you with?
My pinky toes have a clever way of making up for my inability to evert my forefoot. Thank goodness for my pinkies keeping me on my feet all these years!
11) You don’t need muscular effort to pronate.
The shape of the calcaneus is such that gravity pronates our foot effortlessly. Again, you DON’T need to do millions of banded pronation exercises to get a nice “winged” looking foot by strengthening the peroneals.
A winged foot can create a beautiful line, but what’s the price?
12) “Center is the Holy Grail”. We can keep striving to reach it, but like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we may never reach it. Like our chase for perfection in dance. We know we’ll never have it, but that doesn’t stop us from trying, and gives us something meaningful to work towards.
13) Dancers tend to adapt their bodies on top of their feet. While we were out for beers as a group one night, I asked Gary if there were any common things he noticed when he worked with dancers. Other than treating them as individuals on a case-by-case basis, he also said that he commonly sees that their feet aren’t compensating, but have adapted for dance, and that their bodies tend to adapt to what the feet have to do.
Something to consider before mobilizing or treating something that doesn’t need it. What’s adapted to what? What can be taught to move differently, and what needs to be shown how manually?
14) The abdomen is like the plantar fascia of the torso.
I was mind-blown by correlations we were shown between the different parts of the foot and the spine. There are 33 joints in the foot, and 33 joints in the spine.
The big toe and the cervical spine, for example have a functional connection. And in reflexology, the plantar surface of the foot is connected to various organs and structures. To feel these connections through the AiM movements and in the gait cycle was fascinating. Another thing you can’t truly say you know until you feel it in your own system.
15) If you’re having trouble accessing a movement, consider that it could be because you’re already stuck in it as a static posture.
Maybe you never get to a particular range of motion because you live there already. I was having trouble extending properly through my T spine not because I was stuck in flexion, but because I was already extendED! (something I’ve already written about HERE) That was a surprise for me. I imagine this is common for dancers, and is something I’ll keep looking out for, although there are no rules.
AiM has shown me some valuable exercises and ways of looking at movement that I am very excited explore and share with you. Thie philosophy of observing and working with human movement, gait, and feet will surely influence my writing, my training, and the next edition of Dance Stronger.
Hugely grateful to have been a part of this course. I will never look at a human body in the same way again. And I may just have developed a new, further, obsession with feet.
Thank you Gary and Chris for opening my mind (and sub-talar joint) and helping me to experience the world with a new set of feet
Oh and PS I met a DTP reader on the course and it was so cool! Shout-out to STEVE FROM ALBERTA! It was great to meet you 🙂 Cool to know another member of the DTP community that I can throw around AiM ideas with. If you’re a dancer in Edmonton(?) and want to see someone to help you improve your movement, combining AiM concepts, Pilates, and NKT, go see Steve. (If you’re reading this, Steve, please put your contact info in the comments!).
I’ll start by stating the obvious: Dancers get injured. A lot.
Studies show us that the injury rate in dance is similar to that of collision sports and, while each study presents a different statistic, the injury rate is often somewhere between 60-100%.
Not to mention that you can’t completely rely on studies that include self-reported data, because many dancers don’t report getting injured.
THIS study, outlined in Science Daily says:
injury rate for ballet dancers over an eight-month period was 61 percent. This is comparable to rates found in other studies for athletes in collision sports such as football and wrestling. The average time lost because of a ballet injury was 10.5 days, with the actual time loss ranging from one to 87 days.
In THIS study, the injury incidence in professional Irish dancers was shown to be 76%.
And in THIS study of young ballet dance students, of the 476 students in being observed, 438 injuries were recorded. The injury incidence rate was 0.8 per 1,000 dance hours.
If you dance, you will get hurt.
Am I scaring you? I’m only doing it to make a point. How does hearing these statistics make you feel? Are you inspired now to go out and take care of your joints? Or are you paralyzed, discouraged, and unsure what to do about it?
That’s my point. Scary stats aren’t enough to inspire action. Telling dancers they need strategies to prevent injuries doesn’t count as guidance. One-off injury prevention workshops don’t give long-term support that dancers need.
THIS study done in the UK looked at dancers’ perspectives towards injuries and pain, and one conclusion was:
Dance injury rates do not appear to be decreasing significantly, despite greater awareness and the promotion of the “healthier dancer” in dance training schools, universities and among professionals in the UK.
The way we’re presenting injury prevention to dancers is not effective enough.
There’s enough research supporting cross-training to make it mainstream, yet even the dancers who cross-train get injured.
And fear mongering, kind of like I’m doing now (it’s only to make a point!), isn’t an effective means of getting dancers interested in preventing injuries, it only makes them focus on their fears.
Is it really helpful to focus on pain? To be told that you will get hurt if you don’t do x-y-z? Has being scared into trying to prevent injuries ever really inspired you?
Michael Mullin’s Facebook page is always full of gems like this one below, which I’ve been making a conscious effort more recently to be aware of in my own practice:
Pain science shows us that focusing on pain only draws our attention to it more, making it more pronounced and threatening in our minds. The more we fear pain, the more we try to stiffen ourselves to prevent feeling it, and the more we alter our movement patterns in compensatory ways that can cause even higher risk of injury.
Please watch this TED talk by Lorimer Mosely, author of Explain Pain, which summarizes nicely why things hurt (and read his book, too):
What if we stopped focusing on pain and injuries?
And what if we stopped putting the onus on the dancer to change they way they do things, and instead, change how WE work with dancers.
It’s a mistake to keep telling our students the same things over and over expecting them to change, while we ourselves refuse to adapt to their situation. We don’t study dance science for our own personal gain after-all, it’s to help the dancers. Isn’t it?
Our language needs to change.
What if, instead of naming programs as “injury prevention screens” we called them “performance optimization screens?” They are the exact same program only with a different name.
What if instead of saying “don’t do this or you will become injured!”, we said, “If you try to do things this way instead, you will be creating better patterns of moving that will help you perform better and stronger”.
Subconsciously we react differently to hearing words like pain, injuries, don’t, not, and bad. Over time, constantly hearing these words can start to change the way we feel about ourselves, and limits our potential.
Take the emphasis off the threat. Let dancers focus on their love of dance.
Does inducing fear help reduce pain in the same way that encouraging dancers to experience gratitude does?
Consider that you’re trying to motivate a dance student, or yourself for that matter, to start a cross-training or therapeutic exercise program. How would you word it to them?
Would you a) Attempt to instill a fear of spraining an ankle if you don’t do it, or b) Express how the exercises will make you stronger and better at dancing.
I think it’s obvious.
Changing your language, both to yourself and to others, is a challenge. It requires that you are completely aware of every word coming out of your mouth. This seems unrealistic but it is possible, and this subtle switch can make a massive difference, and is 100% worth the effort, with zero cost.
I have made this switch myself, and it drove me crazy when I realized how my words could be sending the wrong subconscious message to my clients, and to myself, despite my best intentions.
They say you become what you focus on. I know this to be true.
When I was recovering from an eating disorder, the hardest part was trying to teach myself how to eat again in “normal” portion sizes, without becoming completely obsessive about it. I’m sure if you’ve been through one yourself you can relate to the challenges of acclimating back to being a regular person who eats regularly.
Food was on my mind constantly. When would I eat next? How much would I eat? What would I eat? How many calories? How many carbs? How much protein? Did I deserve to eat that many carbs? Should I go exercise before or after eating? Is that too many calories or not enough? And then how many hours should I wait until I eat my next meal? What should I have for my next meal? Should I just skip eating today altogether??
When I reflect back on the hours wasted and the mental energy spent every day just thinking about food, it’s no wonder I was always exhausted and injured.
It wasn’t until I finally decided to stop thinking about food that I was able to eat like a “regular” person again. Canada is not a third world country. There is ample food here. I had no need to worry for hours each day about where my next meal would come from.
When it comes to injuries, constantly obsessing about them and their prevention is counterproductive in a similar way that my food planning obsession was. It’s a waste of mental energy that can be used more productively.
Don’t get me wrong, we need people to think about injury prevention, but it’s not the dancers who should be worried. It’s us- The scientists, the physiotherapists, the trainers, teachers, parents, and doctors to think about these things, maybe even worry about them a little, but only so that the dancers don’t have to.
Let the dancers worry about dancing, and we, the dance educators can carry the burden of their injuries. Because we’re geeks and we’re into it, and our bodies aren’t the ones on the line.
We, the educators, trainers, and therapists, need to learn all we can about prevention, but not only prevention- We also need to learn how to communicate this information to dancers in a way that doesn’t make them afraid, but empowers them to become stronger. Because the fear and obsession tactics don’t work.
In my first year at Ryerson University I remember that we were asked what our biggest fears were, as dancers. Our response? A unanimous fear of becoming hurt and no longer being able to dance.
What causes this fear of injuries?
You’re afraid of injuries because you don’t know enough about how your body works to be able to heal yourself without an entire team of specialists (which you can’t afford).
Injuries are scary because of the time off you don’t want to take, for which you will have nothing else to fill it with, because dance is all you know.
You’re afraid to become hurt less because of physical pain, and more because you tempt losing a piece of your identity.
You don’t want to think about the fact that you can’t afford rehabilitation fees.
And you’re afraid of injuries because you perceive that teachers will judge you as inferior for becoming hurt (“if your technique was better this wouldn’t have happened to you!”).
So you push these fears to a dark corner in your mind so that you can dance without limits. When you’re not injured you feel invincible, and it feels good to dance like you’re invincible. The best dancers to watch must be the ones who feel invincible because they don’t hold anything back.
You don’t need the constant reminders that you will get hurt, you need goals for performance, a well designed strength training program that is actually fun to do and that helps you feel immediate reward so that you’ll want to keep doing it. You need to be educated on how your body works so you can enjoy using it and, by understanding your limits, you can respect them.
What I feel is lacking for most dancers, unless part of a professional ballet company, is a safety net that has your back when you do get injured. Because injuries will happen. We as educators know that we can help dancers to get injured less often, but it still happens.
By safety net I mean a system that ensures that a dancer doesn’t need to be afraid of becoming injured, because they will have access to the support they need financially, emotionally, physically, and mentally in that situation.
It’s not the dancer that needs to change, it’s you and I. How we educate, train, and make ourselves a part of a dancers’ rehab process. We need to change the system rather than expect the dancers to fit into the one that currently exists, and often fails them.
Anyone who has become injured knows that it doesn’t just hurt the physical body, but it can trigger deep depression and cataclysmic feelings of low self-worth. You feel like you’re losing your identity when you lose your ability, if not only temporarily, to dance.
I am fortunate to live in Canada and that my father works for the government.
Had to insert a Justin Trudeau pic in here somewhere
While I was in school, I was covered under his benefits and could get my physio fees reimbursed through his insurance policy. Physio which, by the way, was not effective because I had no idea how to choose a therapist that would fit my needs.
Despite this accessibility, my rehabilitation experience was not good and, eventually I maxed out my parents’ coverage to the point that I stopped going because I could not afford it anymore. I even paid for treatments out of my own pocket that were ineffective.
I felt bad about myself for not getting better. I felt judged by my teachers and felt the pity of my peers. I felt guilty that I had used all of my parents’ insurance coverage and still could not dance.
It could have been much different if a system was in place to help. If I didn’t have to make decisions alone that I knew nothing about. I was alone and ignorant. Alone, even though I’m sure every dancer in my class had gone through a similar struggle.
At the IADMS conference this past October, I distinctly remember one presentation showing us evidence that insufficient coping skills was one of the top reasons dancers get injured. I can relate.
Most of us don’t have a support system unless we go out and create one for ourselves. We all have the right to a safety net. An incredibly supportive, effective, affordable network.
What if each dance program/school had a network that consisted of a rehabilitation team, a strength and conditioning team, and a therapist.
Welcome to my perfect world where:
1. Each dance school/program has a built in a budget for student rehabilitation. This budgeted amount is established knowing that dancers will get hurt- Not if, but when. This allows dancers to receive a certain minimum amount of treatment for their injuries, and a subsidized rate beyond that amount, so that they can focus on their dancing without fear.
2. Strength and conditioning is a mandatory part of the curriculum. Not a bootcamp, Barre fitness style class, but a sensible, periodized, dance-specific program taught by a competent coach who would have as much a role in education as supervising exercise, empowering dancers to become their best while feeling good about themselves and their abilities.
3. The dance program has it’s own team of rehabilitation specialists. They observe dance classes, communicate with the other teachers and faculty, and, most importantly, aren’t only into making money with fancy treatments and passive therapies. Did you know that some physios can make hundreds of dollars by prescribing an injection that takes them 5 minutes to administer? Makes it pretty tempting to do this than work long-term with a patient to teach them how they came to be injured.
4. Dance teachers are educated on how to speak and interact with their students. They are taught to avoid negative language and help them adopt a growth mindset, set goals, and raise their self-worth rather than make them feel bad about their abilities.
Imagine how reassuring it would be to dance at a school that had this kind of support system. The dancers in this program would thrive knowing that if their worst fears came true, they wouldn’t have to deal with it alone. It would allow them to dance with more confidence, not subjected to inappropriate language and fear mongering with no talk of solutions.
I write this because a dancer I know has been going through some hard times in his last year university and a system like this could have prevented his current situation, as well as that of many dancers.
I “met” Michael via email (probably chatting initially about deadlifts and hamstring injuries, two things we have in common).
Despite his best intentions, desire to learn how to take care of his body, and love of strength training, he became badly injured and has now accumulated thousands of dollars in medical bills he can’t afford to pay, and is still trying to get back on his feet.
Michael’s not an idiot. He’s way smarter than I was at his age.
Michael didn’t do anything wrong. He only wanted to work hard and succeed at something he loves, but he didn’t have the support and education he needed to overcome his injuries.
When his physiotherapy program was not helping him improve adequately, he didn’t know whether he should call it quits and find someone new, because that isn’t taught in school.
When he was cleared to go back to dance, still in pain, he was not educated on how to know when to rest, something we all need an education in.
He loves strength training and knows it’s good for him to do, but like most students, he wan not able to afford supervision and a customized program that would have ensured his cross-training was helping him, not just grinding him into the dirt (unlike other collegiate athletics programs which almost always include strength and conditioning training).
Michael didn’t get adequate recovery because he felt guilty about resting, and felt judged for sitting out. He didn’t have a better plan so he pushed through his injuries to perform in a show which, by the end, found him unable to walk without pain.
While he will probably look back a few years from now and see his situation so clearly, it’s not so easy to make the right choices when your life is ruled by judgement, competition, and pressure to succeed, with little support.
Michael needed a system.
He needed better quality physio that insisted upon adequate recovery, guidance for his cross-training, financial aid, compassion from his teachers, and to be re-assured that he would have a smooth transition back into dance if he followed their advice.
He needed a trustworthy system with this kind of incredible communication between rehab, cross-training, and teaching, with the budget to support him so he didn’t have the financial burden at the forefront of his mind.
Of course there are some challenges this model poses.
The big one: Money. Where does this budget to subsidize rehab, training, and education come from?
Another biggie: Time. Convincing the head of a dance program that it is necessary to make time for screening and strength and conditioning in the already packed curriculum isn’t an easy sell.
This system is my dream. Just give me 10 years and I’ll make it happen ;).
How is Michael now coping with his situation? He’s started a Go Fund Me campaign to help pay for his medical expenses and get back to dancing. It takes courage to put oneself out there and ask for money. I certainly would rather have given up completely than ask for help.
But Michael shouldn’t have to be asking for money. Dance students should not have to reach out to their friends and strangers on the internet because they can’t afford physical therapy. That said, this is Michael’s reality, and if you’d like to help him out, please contribute to his campaign. Better yet, reach out to UC Irvine where he studies and ask them to consider creating a better support system for their dance students.
Michael has been inspired by his situation to start a charity that would support dancers through times of need like his. For now, his Go Fund Me campaign is his charity, and if he meets his fundraising goal, he also hopes to donate to a charity that does something similar to support dancers. Please help him out, and share this post.
And if you are aware or organizations that support dancers, please let me (and Michael) know about them. Many of us are not aware what resources are available to us, so post them in the comments below.
What do you think? Am I too idealistic? (I for sure am, but I’m not changing). Can you relate to Michael’s experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
And yes, realize that I used a lot of negative verbiage in this post, but it was mostly to make a point!