Re-Framing Injury Prevention for Dancers

Re-Framing Injury Prevention for Dancers

canadian dance expo“I can’t believe I’ve never even thought about this before… But it makes so much sense!”

The response of one dance-parent in a conversation we had following my “injury prevention” seminar at the Canadian Dance Expo this week.

Yes, I had the honour of speaking on the sexiest topic in dance training: How to not get hurt. That thing we try not to think about.

Well, except for you. You’re different. Keep it up.

Needless to say, I didn’t get a crowded room, and to be fair, there were some pretty awesome choreographers holding workshops at the same time. Why talk about injuries when you could dance?? A sentiment I completely understand. That said, I had a great group of dancers, teachers, and parents, and really enjoyed the discussions we had.

But to call it an injury prevention seminar isn’t quite accurate.  We didn’t talk straight up about injury prevention in the conceptual, literal sense, and to be honest, I don’t really like those two words strung together and the frame they conjure up. What comes to mind first, what images, situations, and places, when you hear the words “injury prevention”?

Exactly. It ain’t no dance party.


I propose a re-framing of this injury prevention thing.

And so, partway through the workshop I found myself telling a story about pick-pocketing, inquiring into values, and opening a discussion into how people change their habits. Who knows… Maybe they’ll even invite me back to speak next year.

My issue with the way injury prevention is traditionally taught is that it is simply information. We’re trying too hard to educate, re-hashing statistics, scare-mongering, and hoping for the best that something will be retained, and dare I say, maybe even applied. But the injury rates in dance aren’t going down. This information only approach simply doesn’t work. That’s why I can’t remember anything from grade 9 chemistry.

We can’t change the rate and severity of injuries, and the time off dance due to injuries until we can change the value dancers perceive they will get from proactive injury prevention.

Or to quote Gary Ward“We can’t change the way you move until we can change the value you get from it” 

Would you go out of your way to do something if you didn’t see value in it? Hell no. That’s why I can’t remember anything from grade 12 physics.

I think we’re asking the wrong question. We can do better than “how can we lower the dance injury rate?”. Find better questions, get better answers.

The following are some of the questions I asked at the seminar (the ideas that, as the aforementioned dance-mom stated, “we don’t think about”). And honestly, I don’t have all the answers, so I appreciate your feedback and input as to how we can better address these, as well as your ideas on what other questions we could be asking.

What if we could re-frame injury prevention as performance enhancement?

A no-brainer to improve buy-in, right?

Instead of harping on dancers about the risks of injuries, what if we made a painless shift to, “Do you think that if you could dance without pain and worry of injury, you could take more risks, excel technically and artistically, and dance for longer?”

What would happen if you placed just as much value on your self-care, cross-training, and recovery practices as you did on your dancing?  

I asked them, out of 10, how important is it for you, your students, or your children to be able to dance at the best of their abilities, reach their potential, and keep dancing for as long as they want. One dance teacher raised her hand and said “20/10!!”

Imagine if dancers also put a 20/10 importance on their self-care? Game. Changing. Awesomeness.

What would it take to make you care about injury prevention?

An injury.

Kind of sad, but this is the only answer we could come up with. The issue is that after an injury is sometimes too late. So how do we appeal to this shift in priorities before an injury happens? A question that remains unanswered for now, perhaps…

What makes people change their behaviour and want to form new habits?

If we were to treat injury prevention not as a concept, but as behavior modification- a habit, it could be a game changer.

Less: “Do this, do that, get stronger to prevent injuries! You’re gonna hurt yourself if you keep doing that”. Who cares. I don’t want to hear that. When people tell me what to do, naturally, I want to do the opposite, especially if I don’t understand why or have any emotional investment in it.

Remember, we can’t change the state of dance injuries until we change the value dancers perceive of our injury prevention strategies.

What if we asked things like, “Do you value your body? Would you like to enjoy movement more? How long do you see yourself dancing for?”

In The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, the way in which people are described to change their habits is through the structure of trigger, habit, reward.

Trigger: Sit in front of the TV.
Habit: Eat a tub of Tiger Tiger ice-cream (mmmm, my favourite)
Reward: Temporary satisfaction of relaxing and unwinding via the tasty tasty ice-cream flavor

But we can interrupt this pattern by keeping the trigger and reward, but changing the habit.


Trigger: Sit in front of the TV.
NEW Habit: Knitting.
Reward: Satisfaction of relaxing and unwinding born from a sense of mental focus, presence in the moment, and flowing creative juices

In the case of dancers preventing injuries, we can use the example of the typical shitty warm-up (or lack thereof…):

Trigger: Time for dance class!
Habit: Sit in the splits and stretch passively to “warm up”
Reward: Temporary feeling of improved flexibility, and sense of confidence and preparedness from having gone through a meaningful ritual.

But we know this might not be the most sustainable long term. So what if, instead:

Trigger: Time for dance class!
NEW Habit: Treat warm-up as a deep practice of movement, requiring complete presence and awareness, respecting the body’s limits and needs, while preparing it for the demands of dance class.
Reward: Lasting sense of improved connection to the body, range of motion, and a sense of preparedness and confidence that can only come from being totally present in your body.

Same trigger, a more useful habit, and similar (yet superior) reward.

But still the question remains, how do we make the habit change seem valuable in the first place? They have to feel the reward! Just one exposure to something different with a perceived value to it. That’s all it takes. And ideally, this should happen before an injury.

If we consider the performance pyramid hierarchy, at which tier does a dancer’s training generally begin?

If you’re not familiar with this pyramid. That’s it to the right —>

As an early specializing sport, there aren’t many opportunities for dancers to experience to reward of good quality fundamental movement from a young age, and how empowering strength training can be.

We start right out the gate at the top of the pyramid- specific skill, with plies and back-bends without having learned to hip hinge or lunge… Some dance teachers, though I beleive they are a fading generation, still encourage dancers not to participate in any other sport or activity other than dance, limiting their movement options and general physical preparedness.

What if we could include fundamental movement as an important component of a dancers early education?

Does being highly proficient technically automatically infer a strong base of fundamental movement and physical performance?

Nooope. Just ask my mom. I bet she could do more push-ups than I could when I was in the self-proclaimed “best” dancing shape of my life at age 15.

We shouldn’t assume that just because a dancer is strong technically, they are good movers in a fundamental sense, or have a requisite base of strength to perform their best, because they might have unlearned some important human motions in favour of fancy tricks and to fulfill a specific aesthetic and neglected any other forms of cross-training.

Feeling the reward: The simple power of breathing and natural spinal movement

Providing dancers an opportunity to experience the beginnings of a new habit and a superior reward isn’t rocket surgery.  It can be as simple as taking some time to breathe, and explore movements they might not have the opportunity to in classes.

So to close the seminar, we explored some movement.

We checked in.

We breathed. 

We cogged

Some cool stuff happened. One younger dancer’s face lit up. I asked her what she had experienced and, with a smile and tone of wonder to her voice, she told us that all the pain she usually had in her back was gone, and her weight felt even on her feet.

Another gentleman, a parent of one of the dancers who was totally awesome and uninhibited and participated in the movement session, reported something similar.

And by the way, I think it’s so great to get the parents involved in this re-framing process. As parents, one of the most helpful things we can do is to model a behavior and mindset we’d like our children to adopt (but that’s coming from me, a non-parent, what do I know? I know that we can’t fix or change people, that power lies only in the individual, and kids are no different).

If you’d like to learn more about stuff like this, my colleague Bizz Varty and I are currently planning a teacher training workshop based on the concepts and exercises from Dance Stronger, which is tentatively being held in London Ontario on October 3 2016. Just shoot me an email if you’d like to be kept in the loop. This will be our pilot workshop, and hopefully the beginnings of a full length training program for dance teachers. Very stoked.

PS for anyone interested in public speaking, I discovered a cool “trick” that really helped- Nose breathe. Only. No inhaling though your mouth while talking. I found I was able to retain my mental energy and was not drained after presenting. When you practice nose breathing while talking your throat doesn’t get dry, you create natural pauses between sentences to keep the audience engaged and better choose your words. You’re forced to slow down. You become aware of yourself, and fully present in the moment. Game changer, for sure.

I attribute this tip to Steve Donald, who taught a Buteyko breathing method seminar in Toronto a few weeks ago. Among the many benefits of nose breathing over mouth breathing, he brought up the fascinating correlation between effective communication and nose breathing. Not just for performance enhancement and health, nose breathing helps us build better relationships by improving our communication.

mouth breather


PPS If you want learn more about what I mean by breathing and cogging, it’s covered in the 30 Day Challenge, something I created with just this intention of changing our habits and the value we get from movement. Sign up for free and check it out.


“…and the Spirit Award Goes To…” Pros and Cons of Dance Competitions

“…and the Spirit Award Goes To…” Pros and Cons of Dance Competitions

Soooo my computer, which is finally demon malware-free, is now doing more silly things. The TAB key will randomly decide to activate (a lingering demon, I imagine), causing me to delete random sentences, insert words in the wrong places, and making my writing-life a veritable pain in the acetabulum (haha get it??).

So I apologize if I’ve missed any typos. Did my best.

And thank goodness I didn’t have to write this blog post!

Today I have a guest article from Andrea Albanese, former dancer, mother of a dancer, and a strong woman who is quite passionate about dancer wellness.

In particular, the competition world of dance.

I was never a competition dancer. Sure, I competed in municipal and provincial dance festivals where we would receive a grade, compete for scholarships etc,  but there is, from what I understand, a marked difference between this kind of event and a real competition competition.

That’s why I’ve asked Andrea to write on the topic.

This past September I met Andrea in Vancouver at the Healthy Dancer Canada Conference where I was speaking. We had a long conversation about her own competition experience, or, her daughter’s, rather. She had not much positive to say.

As Andrea also happens to be a something of a writer, I asked her to share her experience in the world of dance competitions so you can, as Andrea begs of parents and dancers, make an informed decision about whether competitions are really the right thing for you (and your wallet).

To avoid a lengthy intro, I’ll just hand it over to Andrea now. Ready?


Dance Competitions: Enriching Experience or Cash Grab?*

Dance competitions… No matter how you slice it, the competition season brings mixed feelings to both parents and dancers.

On one hand competitions can be a great team-building exercise, a chance to meet new friends, learn new things and push yourself to your limits as a dancer. For parents, it can be a wonderful opportunity to see your child doing what they love in a variety of venues.

Furthermore, if you are a true dance aficionado, competitions are an opportunity to see a whole lot of dance in one place.

On the darker side of the competition world, it can be extremely stressful and tiring for the dancers competing in multiple competitions. It can also be a discouraging experience for some dancers as there are studios that take competitions very seriously, doing choreography in the summer and perfecting routines for months prior to competition season.

For parents, competition season can be stressful if their child is unhappy or does not handle pressure well. To top it off, competitions can be a significant financial and scheduling burden with extra classes and rehearsals, more costumes, and more entry fees.

My daughter danced at a suburban dance school doing local competitions and RAD ballet exams from 2004-2012. She’s now sixteen and only takes class because she enjoys dance—not to perform or compete.

To Compete or Not to Compete? It’s Your Choice

When my daughter started competing at age seven (2005), there were two types of competitions available locally—the commercial (privately owned businesses) competitions and the provincial dance festivals. In BC, the Performing Arts BC Association hosts dance and music festivals that culminate in a final competition for those that qualify, to compete for a provincial title in Ballet, Modern dance and Stage. These provincial competitions had a bit more cache and were attended, for the most part, by the more serious dancers.

The other competitions- Peak, Dance Power, Shine etc.- offered various levels of adjudication by dance teachers, choreographers and professionals. For the most part, we parents enjoyed the experience and especially being able to see the kids do their routines more than once.

Backstage at a BC dance competition

Things have changed a bit since I was a dance mum in the competition scene. I remember actually having a conversation with some parents (our seven year-olds were doing their jazz routine at two competitions) who were thinking it would be great if they could a couple more competitions to get our money’s worth out of the $90 costume! Oh, how things have changed.

How is the Desire for Competition Success Changing the Dance World?

Dance is now big business.

In BC there are almost 30 dance competitions, with possibly double that number in Ontario, and the other provinces falling somewhere in between (of which you can see a list here, courtesy of just dance! ).

The sheer number of competitions available highlight the fact that dance is big business, not that that is necessarily a bad thing, but it’s very important, as a parent especially, to keep the end in mind and be a wise and educated consumer as the rise in popularity for dance competitions has resulted in some other changes in the dance world.

Increasing Number of Half-Day Programs:

More and more dance schools offer half-day pre-professional training programs which often necessitate leaving school in the early afternoon. This type of schedule used to be reserved for  serious, elite athletes and dancers; now this type programming is found at many suburban dance schools.

Again, this can be a positive experience, akin to being on a high-level sports team, developing teamwork and camaraderie while learning and experiencing a sport (yes, dance is a sport) that you love.

However, parents need to ask the hard, un-sexy questions when considering these schools:

  • What training, experience and qualifications do the teachers have?
  • Do they have any training or qualifications in physiotherapy, anatomy or physiology?
  • What type of floors does the studio have?
  • What is the goal of the program?

It is interesting to note that there are no provincial or national requirements needed to be a dance teacher or studio owner. You’ll find many teachers and studio owners are ex-dancers with no teacher training.

The number of program hours is also a consideration in terms of risk of injury and stress on the growing body, particularly if there is not a trained and accredited physiotherapist overseeing the program.

The time commitment also needs to be evaluated in terms of schoolwork. Most dancers in these programs love dance and would prefer to dance more than anything; however, parents need to consider the potential academic consequences of an intense dance program.

Doing homework backstage at a comp, because real life doesn’t stop for a dance competition.

If your child truly wants to be a professional dancer and has the talent, the mental and physical strength and attributes, and the drive, you need to do some serious research on the best type of program for them. Odds are that it is not at a small suburban dance school, though there are exceptions.

Insidiously Rising Cost of Competing:

“Back in the day” (before 2006ish) competitions used to charge per routine entered. For example, if your daughter was in a jazz routine with 10 girls, the $250 entry fee would be split by 10 girls making the cost $25 per dancer. For small groups it was more, for larger groups it was less.

Now, competitions charge per dancer for group routines and the rate ranges from $30-40 though it is extremely difficult to find this information online. Doing the math, you can see it’s a lot more lucrative to charge per dancer.

This fact alone does not make an enormous difference to the final cost for parents, but the overall trend is to enter more competitions since more are available. Many average families with keen dancers who compete are paying out thousands of dollars for competitions.

For example, a 12-year old girl (my friend’s daughter) competes jazz, hip-hop, tap, stage, lyrical, large group hip-hop and one trio. Cost per competition averages approximately $300. The studio entered four competitions locally and one away. Competition fees alone (not including travel, hotel, costumes and extra classes) are close to $2000 on top of the $450/month for regular classes.

High level dance is definitely not for the faint of pocketbook but it’s a bit sad that this type of financial pressure is found at most suburban dance studios.

Blatant Focus on Competition and Winning:

Competitions focus on competing with others and dance is really about competing with yourself. This is hard to remember when you are constantly being compared and judged against others, often by people who aren’t truly qualified.

When kids are this focused on competing, with the main focus on winning, at best it overshadows what dance (and life) should truly be about, at worst it can cause injury or an overinflated sense of self.

Many dance studios cater to the competition scene by creating teams that win because that is what many parents and students want. And studios need business—they are simply responding to a need in the marketplace.

Some studios recruit dancers, train them excessively, and compete aggressively because it attracts business to their studio. The problem with this single-mindedness is that young, developing dancers need to train the majority of the time. Rehearsing and perfecting choreography is not training. Many dancers can do the moves in their routines perfectly but this cannot be mistaken for careful and deliberate training to create a strong and well-rounded dancer that isn’t easily injured from performing the same tricks over and over.

“The problem with this single-mindedness is that young, developing dancers need to train the majority of the time. Rehearsing and perfecting choreography is not training.”

Winning at competitions can also create a false sense of expertise for dancers but often winning these events does not mean much in terms of a future dance career.

To be a dancer, you need a strong foundation with solid training and performance skills. Genuine artistry. Many competitions highlight the performance skills at the expense of the other important components of dance.

I was once at a competition where the adjudicator (a former cruise ship dancer) actually told the dancers that they weren’t looking at technique, it was all about showmanship…this was a dance competition, not drama or theater.

Increasing Drama- Parents and Politics:

The elephant in the room…the dance parent. Indignant at unfair judging or scoping out a better teacher for their child.
We’ve all seen Dance Moms on TV, watching with horrified fascination, knowing we would never allow our child to be treated so hideously by the likes of Abby Lee Miller.

Or would we…if they were winning and she was the best teacher in town?

Some parents view competitions as an opportunity to comparison shop local dance schools and check out the ‘competition’ though this is STRONGLY discouraged.

To thwart this type of reconnaissance, most programs do not list the dancer’s school alongside their name though there is always a list of participating schools in the program.

However, a determined dance parent will not be easily dissuaded. Many dancers sport their studio logo on jackets, T-shirts and dance and garment bags, and many parents will simply approach the dancer or teacher and ask—though this is considered a bit of a faux pas by many teachers and certainly by event staff.

In terms of judging, it is NEVER ever acceptable to rudely critique another dancer under any circumstances. Every dancer is someone’s child and is on stage trying their best. Oddly, people often overlook this and freely speak badly, in public, about another dancer.

Competitions are often judged unfairly by people who know very little about particular types of dance who have allegiances to various choreographers or studios. It simply is what it is and is one of the main reasons why it’s important to truly take the whole competition scene with a very large grain of salt.

It’s also the reason why I pulled my daughter out, mid-season even though I didn’t get a refund.

In dance, as in life, balance is everything. Competitions can be a great team-building experience. A lot of fun for kids who love to perform. A great opportunity to hone your skills on stage. A venue to meet other dancers and work with new teachers. An opportunity to win scholarships and cash. However competitions can also be expensive, confidence-busting, opportunistic events that feed off of dancers and parents who will do anything to get ahead in the dance world.

So What Can You do as a Parent?

Do your research.

First, choose a dance school that is in line with your child’s goals, talents and commitment level. Make sure it is staffed by trained teachers with a balanced and safe program that will not harm their growing bodies and that leaves time for friends and homework.

Check out their competition schedule and see if it’s realistic in terms of finance and scheduling. As a parent, you likely have little to no choice in which competitions the studio chooses to enter but you can research the adjudicators and their background.

“Competitions are not a true representation of the dance world—it’s a very specific type of dance only—and the opinions of the judges are just that, opinions.”

Make sure your child understands that competitions are not a true representation of the dance world—it’s a very specific type of dance only—and the opinions of the judges are just that, opinions.

Is it worth getting upset when an LA B-Boy gives you a low mark for performance in a classical ballet variation or, conversely, when a ballerina marks your form badly in a street jazz duo?

Competitions are a lucrative business and it’s worth remembering they are a business first and foremost. Choose wisely.

 *Note from Monika: RE the “cash grab” remark. That was just a tactic to make you feel something. Maybe it made you angry? Or nod enthusiastically? GOOD. I’m glad you have emotions. Let me know how you feel about this post in the comments below.


Andrea Albanese

Andrea has always had a burning need to communicate, to share knowledge, to inform, and to persuade if need be. Although writing is what Andrea enjoys and does best, painting, film, dance, music and sculpture are all vehicles by which she believes we can share ideas and communicate.

Andrea’s own dance career started with a bang on the stage of Metro Theatre at the age of six with Betty Tufts ‘Once-a-Year’ night. She fell in love with ballet at the late age of 18 and took classes furiously whilst attending university, until practicality won over, though she continued to dance taking classes at Harbour Dance Studios in Vancouver.

Fifteen years later, Andrea’s own daughter is now taking dance classes, beginning humbly at the local rec centre, moving up to a well-known suburban dance school, and finally studying ballet exclusively and attending summer school at Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto.

In 2012, Andrea was one of the start-up partners of just dance! magazine, though she now pursues freelance projects and helps her daughter with her career as a model. Andrea is still involved in the dance world as a supportive audience member and occasional writer.