Last weekend I was at the IADMS conference in Hong Kong to learn from and present to some of the smart people in the dance medicine and science world.
In the picture you’re looking at myself in the middle, along with Lauren Warnecke from Chicago, of Art Intercepts, and Christina D’amico, from Utica New York, of Enhance4Dance (a strength training program for dancers based out of her gym). The studios at the Hong Kong Center for Performing Arts were absolutely beautiful.
As you may have read HERE, one of my movement sessions was cancelled due to typhoon. The typhoon itself turned out to be quite underwhelming, and more annoying that terrifying (not complaining about being safe, though!).
Lauren, Christina, and I collaborated to hold a movement session on strength training applications for dancers (it’s just a shame so few dancers can actually afford to attend the conference!).
Our session should really have been titled, “Here’s how to actually perform the exercises that the research says are beneficial for dancers to do in a way that your body will thank you for”. But that doesn’t roll of the tongue as nice.
I EVEN LEARNED A THING OR TWO…
Always learning a thing or two.
As Julien Smith said, and words I live by, whether deliberately or not, “Aim to be the stupidest one in the room.” That way I’m always learning.
For me, a key take-away from IADMS this year was the realization that the need to cater to the individual needs of dancers, not to generalize that dancers, as a group, should do x, y, and z, is generally lacking recognition in research land, or is simply slow to. After all, this is only the 26th year of IADMS.
We see the big picture quite well now, but the application requires us to zoom in and focus on reaching individuals and communities.
This is already something that I think we all know intuitively, but to see some presentations addressing this made me realize that maybe it isn’t as appreciated as I thought. Too, to see some presentations NOT discuss individual variance in how we should treat and train dancers brought it’s importance even more to the forefront in my mind.
What the heck am I trying to say?
Individual dance genres have their own unique needs. Let’s be wary of saying dance is THIS or THAT. Dancers should do this and that. There is so much variation between each dance style.
Individual individuals have their needs. Based on their injury history, lifestyle, and other factors that make me and you unique from Cindy Lou.
And individual species have their needs (us humans). As a species, we all have (ideally) the same biomechanics and anatomy, regardless of what we do with it. Dancers aren’t some special species…
To the end of every research presentation supporting strength or cross training for dancers, the addendum, “if done in a way that serves each dancer’s individual needs as a member of the human race”, would have been a nice touch.
Though our mechanics and anatomy are essentially the same, I do not move like Cindy because I am not Cindy. I have different set of challenges than Cindy, and this needs to be understood and respected in a training program or treatment strategy. Cindy and I should not be treated like the same person.
Common sense, right?
And then someone said something that pissed some people off
In a generally inspiring way.
There was this one particular presentation that ended by “concluding” that strength training was not good for dancers and other athletes, and that this presenter’s particular way of training only motor control to address individual asymmetries was far superior, and conventional strength training is the cause of many injuries. Therefore, dancers should not strength train (because apparently strength and motor control are two things that can’t be trained concurrently… But that’s a rant for another day).
It was very interesting to observe my own reaction to this statement. I could feel my heart beating a little faster. I looked over to my left and saw Lauren’s eyes widen.
On one hand, my ego and my biases were outraged. What he is saying goes against what I built my career upon. This must be what it feels like to be a podiatrist on an Anatomy in Motion course realizing that he could help people get out of pain without selling orthotics.
But on the other hand, I could completely agree with him. It is true that strength training, if not done in a way that addresses an individual’s needs, and not done in a way that prioritizes quality movement over quantity movement, can be deleterious.
But so can any activity. There’s a rather large “IF” missing.
The use of one word in his conclusion changed everything: “Is”, as in, “strength training IS bad for dancers and athletes”, I think is what ruffled my feathers, and those of my fellow strength coaches in the audience. The use of absolute terms, “strength training causes injuries” pissed a lot of us off. Not only that, they are dangerous to use because not everyone has the sense to think a little deeper about the use of absolute statements and their truth.
But at the same time, his “conclusion” also challenged our thinking. What if he has a point? And I think he does. Not that strength training is bad, but what if this presentation was a wake-up call for some folks in the audience that the way that we’re training dancers to gain strength isn’t serving them?
Are we paying close enough attention to the details?
Do we have enough trainers and coaches in our field that can observe and assess movement and guide dancers safely and effectively through whatever style of cross-training and strength training they decide to do?
On both of the above counts, I don’t think we do. And I’m not saying that I am awesome, either. I’m still learning, and the more I learn the more I realize that I know very, very little about movement and strength training.
I think our favourite presenter’s core message is significant: Dancers and athletes should be treated as individuals, not as a group, and should be assessed and given exercises that are specific to their needs.
This is something that I firmly believe. No, it’s not just a belief. It is the truth as far as I can tell. And it is why I feel lately that writing this blog as a “do this exercise to get this result and be awesome” doesn’t sit right with me ethically, because what might be extraordinarily useful for one individual at one particular moment in time could be exactly what another person should not do.
And this core message- address the individual and don’t clump dancers together as one group with only one set of needs, is one reason why Lauren, Christina and I felt strongly that our movement session had value.
Here’s what we did: We simply broke down three important fundamental movements: Hip hinge (aka deadlift), squat, and push-up. We went through the technique. We troubleshooted. We demoed what to do and what not to do. We hoped it was useful… (and later we learned that it was!).
It wasn’t rocket surgery, but it was info that we hoped dancers, dance sceintists, and dance teachers could appreciate and use.
“Here are the exercises the research tells us dancers can use to their benefit, but most importantly, this is an opportunity to explore them in your body, ask questions about what you’re experiencing so that you can feel confident doing them on your own, and know how to respect your body’s limits while doing them.”
That important experiential stuff that many sciency, medical folks might not have the time for or appreciate as often as we’d like.
In fact, as I encouraged one such sciency-guy to “experience the movement in your own body” before bombarding me with questions on the supporting “evidence” for what I was presenting, he told me I was being too philosophical, too spiritual, too “yoga” (whatever that means). Well, what if what’s missing from dance medicine and science IS a little bit of philosophy, a little bit of experiencing, a little bit of spirit, and a little less intellectualizing and over-analyzing?
But THAT is the difference between strength training that hurts, and strength training that serves a useful purpose for performance.
More often than not, it’s not the what, but the how. It’s understanding the experience you’re having with it. And that is not something easily taught, or easily proven with evidence.
I don’t think we can measure someone’s experience of their understanding of their body in motion- An important skill required for dancing, strength training, yoga-ing, and thriving as a human, whatever you decide to do. And yes, it is a skill, meaning that you can learn and practice to do this better.
And it’s a shame that information can be interpreted in the way that the presenter who thought strength training was bad had done.
Let’s finish that sentence.
Strength training CAN be bad IF…
And even if it does hurt someone, is that not a learning experience? Is that not why this blog I write even exists?
Everything serves, even when it temporarily hurts…
Thank you IADMS 2016 for challenging my thinking, and for your tremendous support of the two movement sessions I actually was able to present. Until next year… Hoping for no typhoons in Houston.
“I don’t have time in my schedule to include cross-training and self-care.”
Is this something you find yourself saying?
Do you prioritize getting ahead in your dance training over taking care of yourself?
Are these two things mutually exclusive? Or are they two sides of the same coin?
This was the conversation I found myself having on the highest peak in Hong Kong. Yeah, we’re here in HK for the IADMS- International Association for Dance Medicine and Science annual conference
Today, I am writing this from our Airbnb as there is a level 8 (out of 10) typhoon warning in effect and the conference has been cancelled for today. Right now the weather is not crazy, but who knows what will happen in the next few hours. We dared to venture out for breakfast (spam and hotdogs on instant ramen noodles with instant coffee- What I can only imagine is a traditional HK style breakfast).
What if you placed the same value on self-care and taking care of your body’s needs as you did on excelling as a dancer- technique training, performing, auditions, rehearsing, etc.
One could argue that if you placed the same priority on self-care, then you would be limiting yourself as a dancer. Afterall, to be a successful dancer it seems that you need to make sacrifices. You can’t skip an audition. Can’t say no to a contract. Can’t risk saying no to a choreographer’s wishes. If you say no, someone could swoop in and take the opportunity from you, and this is a competitive field in which it is difficult to be successful.
Just today I saw a former client of mine, who we’ll call Kayla, post something on her Facebook page bragging about how busy her schedule was with dance contracts, yet how her body was falling apart, glorifying the sacrifices she was making to “succeed” in as a professional dancer.
This is tradition at play. This is her education, and you can’t blame her for doing what she’s been taught to do. Being conditioned to think that to be a dancer is to be in pain. That this is how it should be. But it made me sad inside to see that other people “liked” and even “loved” this status. Encouraging her to push her body past it’s limits for the sake of “making it” as a dancer.
But is this what success as a dancer is?
Every dancer’s definition of success will be different. For the dancer above, it is to perform at all costs. To get contracts and make a living doing what she loves, but at the expense of her body. If she were to take time off to rehabilitate and nurture her body, she would have had to say no to some opportunities to perform. She would have had to work more hours at her “Joe job”. She would be making choices that are not moving closer to her definition of success.
But for how long can she sustain this?
It seems the way she is going, that if she does not make the choice to take care of herself, the choice will be made for her, as it was for me years ago. It is much less fun this way.
Saying no to a dance gig is so hard. I get this.
So is success for her a “right now” matter? One of instant gratification, living from day to day? A means to distract herself from the truth of what is really going on in her body, and the future of her career?
Would she make different choices if her idea of success also considered the long term? Would she still consider herself successful if she had to say no to a few gigs now in order to prolong her career to dance later in life? Could she accept that new definition of success?
This is a discussion on priorities and finding a meaningful definition of success as a dancer, one that takes into consideration both the short and the long term.
I’d like to tell the story of another dancer- a professional contemporary dancer, who we’ll call Molly, with a very different story. Molly came to see me to find a solution to “save” her dance career having been performing through chronic lower back and SI joint pain for three years.
She had come to realize that she needed to retrain how her body moved. She recognized that the current way her body was organizing itself to move was no longer serving her and was exacerbating her symptoms. She was out of options, could no longer dance, and needed help to unravel these patterns and rebuild.
Because she had been dancing through pain for over three years, she had found many strategies for moving around her pain which were now causing more trouble for her body.
In a much different place than Kayla, and perhaps having danced through pain for a few years longer, Molly made the difficult decision to stop dancing and performing to take the time to get to the root of what was causing her troubles.
Her definition of success was long-term. “I want to keep dancing and I willing to do what is necessary for that to be a thing.”
She told me, from such a beautiful space of honesty, that, this was to date one of the hardest things she had to do, but she recognized that if she didn’t stop dancing now, out of her free will, then she would be forced to stop. This is the thing: It IS hard inner work that none of us ever wants to face. So we postpone it. Deny it. But for how long can this be kept this up? How long can the Kaylas of the world dance this way?
This decision required that Molly drop her identity as a dancer momentarily to work with her body as a human, trusting that even though she wasn’t dancing, she was still a dancer, and the work we were doing was to help her get back to dancing again. It wasn’t taking anything away from her dance career, but serving her long-term success as a dancer.
It meant tuning in with how her body felt, not dissociating from and moving around pain. And it meant that some exercises and new movements we worked on fatigued her in just three repetitions. While this could have been discouraging for a dancer like her- known for her powerful, strong movement and used to pushing to and often past her limits, she understood it was a necessary part of the process to honestly appreciate that three reps was all she could do well and that three reps was enough.
She eventually built up work capacity while maintaining the same quality, and within several months was back to dance classes with a better understanding of her body, her limits, and what to do when she felt her symptoms resurface.
Her attitude towards pain has completely changed. She sees it as information and does her best not to judge it. With this new information, she also understands that she could not dance the same way that she used to, but this did not mean she would not dance as well, and in fact, she could find dancing more fulfilling and meaningful with her new appreciation of her body and ability to move more honestly.
She sees her injuries as a gift that gave her the opportunity to get back in touch with her body, and is grateful for the time off dancing that she used to practice honest movement and build strength. Working at her neural edge, moving honestly, and getting out of her comfort zone are what allowed Molly to make the changes she did and return to dancing. Not only that, she committed to practicing daily, fully trusted the process, and made it her priority.
The truth is, if we take our dancing seriously, it is likely we will move through this spectrum: From Kayla to Molly. Or, from Kayla to naught.
But there is another option: To consider these options early in one’s career. To prioritize self-care and cross-training from day one. To start as a Molly. There are very few opportunities for dancers to be brought up in this way. Let us hope that this will change.
This may mean saying no to some things to preserve your body. This may mean making some hard decisions.
In our mountain-top talk, my friend made the point: But in a dancer’s schedule, there isn’t the time to make self-care an equal priority.
But I’m not talking about time. I’m talking about a moment to moment understanding of what is happening in your body right now. Making choices based on this understanding. Making it a 10/10 priority to have this understanding, take 5 minutes before class to breathe, and check in, to make the choice to actually do a warm-up, to make the time for cross-training, and to take time off if you need to.
Making it an equal priority doesn’t have to mean the time commitment needs to be the same as the number of hours you dance in a week, but every choice made needs to be made with awareness of what is in your best interest according to your idea of what success is for you.
So, what does “success” mean for you? What does prioritizing your body’s best interests look like for you? And do you feel like these two things are conflicting, or rely on each other, like two sides of a coin?
This idea fascinates me. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
This isn’t a story relating directly to dancing, but it does relate to being a human, and since you’re one of those, too, I think you’ll find there’s something in this story for you.
This is a story of a lady that I feel I failed, and my six weeks working with her left me feeling frustrated and confused. In writing this I’ve managed to find some clarity, to see the big picture. That it wasn’t my failure, it was a cumulative failure.
This lady was a cyclist referred to me from physio post rehab for bilateral rotator cuff issues that she wanted to learn some exercises for to strengthen her shoulders.
I was taught that when we see the exact same injury on both sides of the body, the root of the issue may lie somewhere in the middle. Her shoulders may not be the problem. Her shoulder issues may be a symptom of something that’s been going on for much longer.
So, I thought, probably useful to check out what’s happening (or not happening) with her spine and ribcage, those guys that her shoulders are attached to.
We checked out her spine and rib motion in three planes and observed that there was some stuff definitely NOT happening through her spine, some important motions missing (well, all motions are important… You can’t change one thing without changing everything else, too).
To me, what her body was saying was clear: Her thoracic spine was locked into a flexed position- her cycling posture. When she moved her ribcage into an anterior tilt (down), it looked like it was getting pulled into a canyon, but to extend up she became locked and couldn’t move at all.
Aha, I thought. No wonder her shoulders feel gnarly, she can’t move her spine!
It should have been quite simple, but it ended up as a fight. It was more than a “can’t”, it was a “won’t”.
This lady had a team of people trying to “fix” her. A physiatrist for her back issues. A pelvic floor specialist for her pelvis issues. And another physiotherapist for her shoulders (the one who referred her to me). And all of us were saying something different.
Her pelvis and back people told her she should avoid extending her back (even though she was stuck flexed). Keep her pelvis stable and prevent movement because it was rotated. Moving was her problem, according to them.
And I humbly observed the lack of movement in her system. Her back stuck stiff, flexed, unable to extend except for one segment of her lumbar spine, and unable to flex except for a good chunk of her thoracic spine (exaggerated while she’s on her bike).
To me, movement was her solution! Get her spine moving again in the appropriate ratios. See if her pelvis and shoulders might be able to reorganize, and we’ll get closer to the truth.
But her trusted team told her not to.
They told her not to extend her back. Extension is bad. Extension will hurt you.
But there are no good and bad movements. For this lady, both extension and flexion were causing her issues, at different places, at different times, in different ratios and for different reasons, but her team decided that the solution was to completely eliminate one range of the spectrum.
And even though it didn’t hurt to explore her range of spinal motion together, even though she told me she felt like things were moving in the right direction, she told me she couldn’t do my exercises anymore, simply because her team told her they were bad.
In a conversation we had:
Me: “Did it ever cause you any discomfort while we practiced spinal motions in our sessions?”
Lady: “No. It felt fine. But they told me not to. And last week I felt great, the only time my back started to bother me was when I got on my bike”.
Me: “So, you felt good until you got into the flexed posture we’re trying to teach you how to get out of, and then you felt all your symptoms come back?”
Lady: “Yes. My physiatrist recommended that I get a steroid injection in my spine, so I’m going to do that, and I’m not supposed to do your exercises”
I am amazed.
She won’t work on extending her back, even though it takes her out of the position that causes her pain: The position on her bike that she spends hours and hours in every week.
I just couldn’t understand it. Her mind seemed as locked up as her spine…
Granted, I’m not a medical professional. I’m “just” a trainer. I’m qualified to work with movement. I can’t diagnose and prescribe. I’ve been working with her for a much shorter period of time than her team. They have information I surely don’t have. There are always more complexities than what I’m being told and presented with and I can appreciate that.
But in a complex situation, could not a simple plan of action- make spinal movement feel safe again, be of great benefit?
Medical pro says, don’t move, movement is bad, hold your body still, get this injection. All you have to do is lie on this table…
I say, movement will set you free, explore this, there’s so much potential to unlock. But it’s going to take a lot of work, patience, and practice…
And I wonder… would I have done things any differently in her position?
She made her decision with the information she had at the time, to best of her abilities. And with so many conflicting points of view, of course it’s safer to believe the people who have the power to diagnose, prescribe, and “fix”, and whom she has been working with for much longer.
And so eventually we parted ways.
In our final conversation I told her to be an advocate for her health and to always choose what was best for her, not to get lost in the noise. To take an honest appraisal of what everyone was saying to her and do what she felt was right based on what she knew, and what her body was telling her. To continue with the exercises that make her body feel better, and scrap the ones that don’t. And I told her she might consider not seeing so many people to eliminate the noise and confusion. I wished her the best with her spinal injection and to be in touch if she wanted some input in the future.
I imagine this will be the last I hear from her.
Could I have done more with her?
I explained why we were doing what we were doing, and it made sense to her. But the opinions of her trusted team held more clout than her own experience in her body.
I think that last sentence sums it up: Being unable to trust your own body over the opinions of other people telling you what is right or wrong for you to do.
It makes sense that this would happen after years of pain and many injuries, you stop tuning in with what your body is honestly experiencing as a way of just getting through the day, and you start to look to other people to tell you what is right for you. It’s no wonder she made the choice she did. I probably would have done the same. In fact, I HAVE done the same in the past.
Take away from this story what you want. I’ve learned an important lesson, and I hope this lady has, too.
For me, it was a beautiful reminder that my job goes well beyond showing people exercises and counting reps (I absolutely hate counting reps).
My role must include showing people how to tune in to their bodies, to learn to trust their bodies again, and to provide them a safe experience to explore movement.
To show them a way to develop a nurturing relationship with their bodies, not one of mistrust and loathing.
To encourage them to be brave in this exploration of movement, to be advocates for their own health, to inquire and question what people are asking them to do with their bodies, especially me (because when I have to explain, I learn, I appreciate the free education!).
And, if along the way, they get a bit stronger, move forwards from pain, enhance their quality of movement, and start to enjoy being in their bodies again, then that’s a bonus.
As dancers, this relationship with your body, one of nurturance, compassion, and trust, is essential if you want to dance sustainably, as long as you want, and at the level you desire.
If you could describe your relationship with you body in one word, what would it be?
I am no stranger to feeling badly about my body.
I have struggled with low self-esteem and eating disorders. I once believed that to be successful in dance I needed to be thin, and spent more than 10 years hating my body, wishing I could change it.
I thought I could diet and punish my way to the ¨perfect¨ ballet body. I thought I could use my self-hate to fuel my transformation.
Yesterday, I received THIS email:
…I have been struggling with my imperfect ballet body for quite some time now. To paint the picture for you, I am very muscular without any desire to be or without any added exercise other than full time dance… I’m completely lost with where I stand in relation to the types of workouts/ training, stretches and foods I should be eating to not gain this unnecessary muscle… although I have ‘muscle’ I am the weakest in my class! So I am writing to hopefully find a new approach on my far from perfect ballet body that I so desperately am willing to work for!
I was desperate, too… I completely understand this feeling of ¨imperfection¨, and the intense desire to change.
The word ¨perfect¨ is an interesting one.
Last week I attended Anatomy in Motion (for the third time this year), and something Gary Ward said about perfection blew my mind, and missed the next 20 minutes trying to put my brains back in place.
What he said: The history of the word ¨perfect¨ is that it actually come from the word¨complete¨.
And I was gone…
Your body is perfect.
Whether you feel that way about it, or not, your body is complete. Even if you are missing part of it, you´re still a complete human, a closed system.
What a beautiful thing to consider.
So this passionate lady who emailed me feeling utterly imperfect, what if instead of asking, ¨How can I change my imperfect body to become a better dancer?¨, she asked, ¨What if my body is perfect the way it is for dancing my best?¨
The first question will limit you. The second, if you can honestly contemplate it, will start to get you somewhere.
Your body IS complete… Nothing can change about your body until you can change the way you feel about it. Understand how it is already serving you to perfection.
This answer may disappoint you, but sometimes the truth will do that… There is no diet, no exercise, nothing that will make you more complete than you are now. Ironically, the only thing that makes you incomplete, imperfect, is feeling that you are…
The perfect ballet body is the one you already to have. The one you are grateful for and appreciate all that it can do.