“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 is how the word “politics” makes me feel:
I’ve never been one to follow politics or express my political views publicly. One, because I honestly don’t understand how governments works, and two, because I am completely ignorant of the views any of the political parties in Canada hold (or anywhere for that matter).
Who. Are. These. People…?
Go ahead, judge me. I take full responsibility for my ignorance.
I told my parents about my political ignorance once:
“I just don’t care about politics. I’m sure one day something will happen and politics will become meaningful to me, but right now, I’m perfectly content to be ignorant and let people make the decisions for me.”
They were not impressed, and my father proceeded into a spiel about liberal vs. conservative vs. NDP party views and why I should care. Sorry pop, I zoned most of that out.
All I know right now is that Justin Trudeau can do peacock better than I can, and that makes me proud to be Canadian #Ivotedliberal
This photo makes me so very happy.
The reason I bring up politics today is that “that something” has happened to make politics start to seem meaningful. It’s about dang time, Monika!
I’ve been thinking about the role the government plays in dancers health, longevity, education, and performance.
KEY CONCEPT #1: A dance student’s education should go beyond technique and performance training to include how to take care of their bodies and minds to support their performance and longevity.
In my reflection, I’ve begun to appreciate how interdependent of a system it is that affects a dancer’s education and their potential, whether “success” means to perform professionally, or just enjoy dancing as long as desired without becoming a cripple.
If we are to truly give dancers a well-rounded education (ie one that goes beyond physical and technical training by also addressing their biopsychosocial needs to attain career longevity, even after they stop dancing) we need to more than just preach at them.
Preaching to dancers to take better care of themselves is like the King preaching to a peasant to be less peasanty:
“You need to eat more food so that you can be stronger and toil more efficiently. And why can’t you get better tools so that you can farm more effectively? Figure out how on your own. I don’t have time to help.”
Foolish expectation to have, isn’t it?
I am somewhat guilty of preaching to the peasant and expecting it to work.
“You need to take better care of yourself, and I know you don’t have the resources- time and money- to learn how. You need to change what you’re doing if you want to succeed, but I can’t really help if you don’t have money.”
I’ve been a jerk, and I’m sorry.
KEY CONCEPT #2: Dancers are doing the best with what education they are given. It’s up to us to change their education, not them.
Let me explain where this is coming from.
I was recently asked to write a resource paper for Healthy Dancer Canada, which was meant to be a short, two page document describing some strategies for dancers to unwind from the physical challenges of dance training and performance.
I apparently had a lot to say on the topic, as this document turned into a 13 page monster (which I’m quite happy with, by the way, and I can’t wait to share it with you all should the committee approve of my word-vomitry).
The wonderful thing about being a writer is how the writing itself can take on a life of its own and take you to places you didn’t expect, forcing you to think critically about things you might not have otherwise considered.
And writing this resource for HDC was the thing that finally made me think about starting to care about politics.
My beast of a resource describes a number of ways dancers require support in their training beyond technique classes and artistic development, such as:
- How to cope with and unwind from the physical duress of dance training
- The need for accessible support systems and mentorship
- Why we should address fundamental movement quality before adding more hours of training
- Breathing. Just do it.
- The importance of educating dancers on what proper cross-training is and integrating it into their training.
But then I got to the “how” part- How do we fit this information into the current dance training frame-work so that it actually reaches the dancers. I had trouble writing this part.
Who is responsible for implementing these strategies with dancers?
Of course, it’s the dance teachers, isn’t it? Dance teachers have the most influence on the dancers through direct training, education, and mentorship (for better or for worse).
And their ability to do simple geometry…
But many dance teachers only know dance. And while this may be the norm, I think it’s time for that to change. If we want dancers to have the well-rounded training that helps them become their best, dance teachers need continuing education, which is not standard. Yet.
Many teachers have gaps to fill in their knowledge of functional anatomy, biomechanics, and cross-training principles, and should develop an appreciation of the roles the nervous system and movement quality play in their students’ training.
I’m not saying they need to be experts at everything because that is unrealistic, but having a general appreciation is the minimum. A weekend course, or a few books is a good place to start.
So not only do we need to educate and support dancers, we need to educate dance teachers to support the formation of more successful dancers.
KEY CONCEPT #3: Dance teachers need accessible continuing education on how to provide a more well-rounded experience for their dance students, beyond technique.
To educate dance teachers, we need to make teacher training programs accessible to them that go beyond conveying technique.
Not only that, we need to deliberately make space for this in their lives, because a dance teacher rarely makes enough money to take this type of training, or has the time in their curriculum to fit supplemental training into their already packed rehearsal and class schedule, or is even aware that this type of training will be an asset for their dancers.
They don’t see the value, and they don’t see it as a priority. How do we get dance teachers to value their education? To see that they can make a difference in their students’ lives if they did something different?
And hell if RAD has room in it’s syllabus to include “unwinding strategies” as part of their ballet education. Prove me wrong, RAD. Prove me wrong.
So the teacher him/herself lacks the power to elicit change in the system, because teachers can’t teach what they’ve never experienced. I suppose this will be up to the next generation of teachers. Teachers-to-be reading this blog post…
And while it’s great to put the onus on the dance teachers to teach all the things we want them to teach, they need support as much as the dancers do! And I don’t think it’s just as simple as needing better educated dance teachers, but a team of support staff with the requisite expertise.
Kind of like GJUUM is doing for professional ballet in Europe.
KEY CONCEPT #4: Dance teachers can’t be and know everything for their students. A support staff with multiple expertise, or a trusted network working together, would provide the best experience for a dance school/program.
And I kept thinking like this: Going further and further back to find, if not the dance teachers, who could most influence the current dance training paradigm?
Who do we need to speak with who can help teachers see the value in continuing education, and make it accessible to them so they can provide a better experience for their students?
I thought in terms of a university dance program, because that’s the system I have the most experience with.
Got my bike helmet and my BFA, what more could a girl need?
The hierarchy I came up with went something like this.
- Teaching staff (directly providing education)–> dancers
- Dance program director (scheduling and influencing what is taught)–>Teaching staff
- Faculty of arts chair (makes decisions on what can be included in the curriculum)–> dance program director
- University chair (in charge of budget distribution for all faculties)–> faculty of arts chair
- Government (decides how much funding universities receive)–> University chair
- Voting citizens (decide who will make the decisions on university funding)–> Government
- Advocates for arts education (parents, dancers, dance educators, etc)–>Voting citizens
- Scientists/evidence (who study the importance of support for dancers and arts education) –> advocates for arts education
- Bodies who fund research–> Scientists
And that’s as far as I got, but I’m sure it could go on, and I’m sure I’ve missed some important people in between, like where do the parents fit in?
But we can see that to reach the dancer we must look farther back, to a government level to identify the point at which, in this hierarchy, we can make the most impact on the content of a dancer’s education.
And the government level is where the money is.
Dolla dolla bill y’all
Yes, unfortunately it comes down partially to dat ca$h money…
Question: Why do professional ballet dancers have such a short off-season?
Ballet dancers don’t make mad money, and so they can’t afford to take that much time off working. If the companies were to receive more funding it would allow the dancers take more time off without worrying about losing money while not performing.
For example,The National Ballet in Toronto gets only 5 weeks off per year. They are left to their own devices to cross-train or hire a personal trainer, and the only time of day they have to cross-train is lunch hour. Compare that to other professional athletes who often get 3 or 4 months off and have an integrated training/medical staff working closely with them. Their strength training is considered crucial and is built into their schedules.
Dance may not be a sport, but dancers are athletes who need a similar, integrated system to support them.
KEY CONCEPT #5: Dancers deserve the care, appreciation, and funding other elite professional athletes receive.
Dance science to the rescue.
#1 from the “Dancing test tube” series. A Volkmar original.
I now see much more clearly the role the dance-sciences play in supporting dancers.
I am not an academic. I think research and evidence is great, but I prefer the real-life “doing”. Academics sometimes (not always!) have a poor grasp on how their work fits into real life and, as important as their findings are, they mean little if they can’t be applied.
We all have a role to play, and I’d be remiss not to appreciate that scientific evidence has huge potential to shape the future of how dancers are trained. And it is the government who ultimately decides who gets funding to research what.
How much funding does dance science research get?
My guess is not much. Funding the arts in general is often under appreciated because we don’t see how it helps give us more scientific evidence: The facts and stuff that drive us to make important decisions and “advance” as a species towards enlightenment.
Why did the world decide fat-free food was good? Science told us so (and science was wrong about that).
Science is great and all, but what if I told you that…
…arts education makes the world a better, more compassionate place to live, and helps people innovate better
Read: The arts help people do science better.
This leads me to share my recent fascination with George Lakoff and his teachings in cognitive linguistics and neuroscience. Please watch this video:
Arts education is a big deal:
“Need more innovation? Big ideas come from neural simulation: Reading, thinking, putting things together. Not just doing math and science. These don’t train the imagination in that way. Training people to innovate requires reading and learning about the arts”
What does this mean?
Lakoff explains that to understand why arts education is important, we need to understand how the brain works.
The same part of the brain is used when you imagine something as when you are actually doing it, which can be explained by mirror neurons.
This is called simulation: Engaging mirror neurons to understand and connect with other people and the world and becoming a part of those things. Imagining things that don’t exist in the world but that you could experience through reading poetry, understanding language, seeing a play, visual art, or dance, for example.
Simulation is how we innovate by putting ideas together (ideas being physical circuits in our brain). And innovation is only possible by engaging mirror neurons allowing us to connect with other people and the world around us empathetically, through exposure to the arts.
KEY CONCEPT #6: Exposure to the arts helps us become better at innovation and allows us to connect with other people and world around us- Things we don’t learn from math and science.
Innovation, new ideas, collaboration and getting along with other people, requires exposure to the arts, and it is sad to see things being cut from schools that provide this experience of simulation: Recess, arts, gym class, things that allow us to embody information and empathize with each other.
Politicians need to understand this.
Some schools want to cut recess, because BEARS!
And maybe dance scientists are so badass because they have the killer combination of arts and science together. Dance scientists may be the innovators we need to change the dance educational paradigm.
I wasn’t expecting to come to these conclusions.
Sometimes I surprise myself.
It appears that to make space in a dancer’s training for supplemental strategies to support their well-being, we need to speak with the governing bodies who dictate who can research and provide evidence on these matters.
This information then needs to be distributed to parents, and advocates of dancers and the arts, who need to express themselves effectively to their communities, convincing the government to allot more funds to allow dance schools and programs the space within their budget and schedule to educate and train dance teachers on how to convey these important ideas, who will then be able to reach the dancers.
And the resources can finally reach the peasants.
To support the dancer is a mission requiring the interdependent cooperation of many, all of whom have an important role to play.
I’m caught in a paradox, and I don’t know how to get out.
I believe that dancers must understand how to take care of themselves and be self-efficacious. No one can fix them and care for them but themselves.
I learned this the hard way.
But self-efficacy must be learned, as with any other skill, and unless we create a pathway to get the information to dancers and teach them how to care and advocate for themselves, it will be impossible for them to learn unless through injury.
Case in point: My life. And the reason this blog exists.
KEY CONCEPT #7: Self-efficacy, self-care, and self-advocacy are skills dancers should be able to learn with the proper educational paradigm, before injury, which is often too late.
So I guess to wrap this up, please, if you are voting age, let’s support dancers and their needs, and arts education in general, by electing a government that funds the arts, and the sciences that support the arts.
We can start by doing something about this guy:
Not my foot, guys. Mine are prettier 😉
Call me a slow, but I learned this weekend that taking care of blisters is kind of a big deal.
An infected blister can land you in the hospital.
I’m writing this after having spent three days off my feet because of a silly little blister (although the emerg doctor said something along the lines of, “wow… I’ve never seen a blister like that before”. Real reassuring, doc).
I find this story a little embarrassing to tell, but I’ll tell it anyway (in part because I like talking about myself, and in part spare you from making choices as foolish as mine). I’m even sad to say that this blister story isn’t even directly related to dance.
Aside from the obvious foot-care lessons you’ll take away from my story, I hope you’ll also appreciate the less obvious, but highly relevant, lessons revealing of our often misguided, illogical reasoning as dancers, and the strange choices it causes us to make.
Minor foot-wounds can escalate in non-linear ways
I remember a dancer once telling me she got a blood infection after a modern dance intensive because of bacteria she picked up through a cut in her foot. Some of us are susceptible to those nasty slits where the toe and foot meet, for which there is no real effective tape-job.
When I think of all the times that I’ve danced barefoot on floors spattered with other dancers’ sweat, and sometimes blood, with splits under each toe, and did not get a staff infection, I realize that chance played a pretty significant role in my recent foot episode.
Dancers get a lot of blisters and foot wounds. Never once have I thought twice about taking care of them. Maybe that’s just me. My laxity about hygiene resembles that of my iliofemoral ligament.
I’ve even used duct tape on blisters, leaving it on for a few days until it finally came off in the shower. Definitely don’t do that, guys.
I’m reading the book “Fooled by Randomness” By Nassim Nicholas Taleb (strongly recommend).
The main theme of this book is that we need to be taking into account the randomness of situations as well as the other factors such as the who, what, when, where and how. Why? Because there will always be the “rare event”. The one we don’t expect to happen. The one that seems random because nothing has ever happened like it before.
Of COURSE we can’t predict things to happen that have never happened before. That doesn’t mean the possibility of them happening to you is nil.
For example, we can put in all the hard work for a performance, have it down perfectly, but then slip and fall on a slick patch: The rare catastrophic event. That’s never happened before! That was totally random!
Knowing that randomness dictates a portion of our lives in this way, regardless of how prepared or informed we are, we can choose to cushion our decisions to ensure that if something bad does happen, it won’t be the worst case scenario. We’ll be ok.
It won’t end in a trip to the hospital…
Today’s example, you get a blister. That really sucks. What sucks more is knowing that there is a small chance that the blister can get infected, which can get into your blood and lymph, and send you to the hospital.
It’s a small chance. But you need to pad yourself against that small chance because life can be random like that.
And to entertain the 8 of you who will read this all the way through here’s what happened:
What can happen to an infected blister in 24 hours or less
(You can skip this narrative and go to the conclusions if you’d prefer to save time)
I walk a lot. Walking became an important part of my life the day after my hamstring injury when I promised myself internally that I would never take my legs for granted.
Apparently though, I still do.
I wear out shoes really quickly, which then start to poke my heels and give me blisters, and which I tend to ignore. I was limping, but was running late and had to get to work on time, so I kept walking. Priorities.
Something in my inner thigh started to hurt, which I assumed was my adductor acting up because of my altered limpy gait pattern: Hip hiking, avoiding pronating the foot, and I’ve strained that adductor before. Made sense to me, but I kept walking anyway.
Over the course of the next 6 hours at work, the blister puffed up to the point where it hurt to put my shoes back on. But I did anyway.
I went home thinking, “I be damned if I let this annoying little blister prevent me from walking to work tomorrow”.
Then, nearly the moment I arrived home, the weird symptoms started. My fingers on my right hand went white and numb (think Reynaud’s-like). My vision went blurry, it was harder to breathe, my heart rate was way up, I felt feverish, dizzy, was shivering to the point that my teeth were literally chattering, and I couldn’t think straight. I was cooking dinner but I couldn’t feel the knife in my hands or see what I was chopping clearly.
So I took a half-hour hot shower, and was in bed by 9pm thinking I was having an allergic reaction to the cold (it was -40 degrees that day).
I woke up the next day feeling equally gross, and my blister had grown and looked to be red, puffy, and infected. My inner thigh was even more tender, and not in a muscle soreness type of way. But I went to work anyway (are you noticing a trend?).
I had a workshop to teach and sure as hell was not going to let a little fever and a blister stop me from hanging out with my students
It soon became obvious to myself and my partner, based on the fact that being vertical was a challenge, that I was unfit to teach. Then, another friend of ours, a chiropractor, came in to check me out. Her conclusion was “That shit is infected and your whole lymph line is blocked and inflamed. You should go to the hospital”.
That blister escalated quickly in less than 24 hours. The sore “adductor” was a lymph node in my groin.
Then, as I was walking the 20 feet or so to the exit, to get into my friend’s car and head to the hospital I started to black out. I have a little history of fainting, so I knew what was happening and was able to collapse to the floor with relative control, and was also fortunate to be in a room full of 30 odd chiropractors, physios, massage therapists, who were there for an NKT level 1 seminar.
I am now the girl who left NKT in an ambulance.
In the ambulance, speaking with the paramedic, I lost nearly all my faith in the medical system. Her conclusion: “Sounds like the blister is totally unrelated to your fever and fainting, and you probably had an anxiety attack. You can get therapy for that”.
At the hospital, the same paramedic emphasized at triage that I had an undiagnosed history of anxiety attacks. I am amazed at how little medical professionals truly listen. Listening is a skill I am working on, personally, and to her credit, say she has inspired me to further cultivate it.
Note to self: NEVER again tell a medical professional you’ve experienced “anxiety”. Of course I’ve been anxious before! Hasn’t every human being felt anxious? As a performer I’ve felt anxious waiting in the wings to go on stage to the point where I think I’m going to pee my pants. But I do not have an anxiety disorder. Please don’t put words in my mouth and overlook what’s really happening to me.
The doctor finally checked me out. His conclusions “Doesn’t look infected. I think the fainting is unrelated. So is the fever. Why exactly are you even here?”
I wanted to cry out of frustration.
I had to ask him to please palpate the swollen and warm lymph nodes in my leg. I had to talk him into considering that the blister could be infected (it was). I had to question him until he speculated that I might need anti-biotics (I did) and whether he should drain the blister (he did, eventually).
I can’t believe I was that close to being sent home with no action, and no answers. A reminder to always advocate for your own health.
Doctors see so many people in a day. It’s not their fault and we can’t blame them for doing their best on a given day. The system isn’t perfect and I was a less urgent case. I can appreciate that and am grateful that in Canada I can receive care without having to pay big money.
I do feel very fortunate to have received advice before heading to the hospital, from several people that I respect and trust more that any doctor. Their words allowed me to stand up for my health and ask questions to receive the treatment I needed.
Finally, the doctor opened the blister to drain it and bandage me up. “Oh, look at that, it is infected. That certainly explains the lymph node inflammation. I’m going to prescribe you some antibiotics”.
Now, having spent three days off my feet, I can finally appreciate this foot-care thing.
Some people say these things happen for a reason. To teach us a lesson, or something. I don’t think there is implicit meaning in this, or that anything happens for a specific reason, but I do feel that circumstances like this make for excellent opportunities to reflect and learn.
I realize that i was misinterpreting my resolution years ago to not take having legs for granted.I was still ignoring signs to slow down, this time under the guise of “if I stop it shows I don’t appreciate what my body can do”. Instead of becoming more mindful, as intended, I was reverting to old patterns of over-use under the illusion of appreciation. A fine line.
I realize that I need to stock my bag with band-aids, and that even if I “don’t have time” to stop to pick up first aid supplies in my rush to work, people will be understanding of my need to take care of myself. Something I also didn’t do very well as a dancer.
I realize that a surface wound can affect motor control and cognitive function. Being off my feet without a healthy dose of movement. An altered gait pattern. A feeling of lethargy that drains the ability to think clearly. I could feel my shoulders tightening in an attempt to ground me, as my feet didn’t have their same ability to get feedback from the floor.
I realize that we must stand up for ourselves when we find ourselves in the care of medical professionals who will not listen or see the full picture. Be an advocate for your health.
I realize that by not taking care of myself I let other people down, being unable to teach that day, and missing a few days of work. We do this as dancers, too.
I recently read the biographies of two dancers: Kenny Pearl (who was a teacher of mine) and Misty Copeland (who is awesome).
Their stories have this one thing in common: Both Copeland and Pearl danced through injuries when they knew they shouldn’t have, but they did it because they didn’t want to let people down- The people who believed in them, their choreographers and employers, and especially themselves.
Misty danced an important performance with 6 tibial stress fractures. Kenny constantly picked up the slack for other injured dancers, filling in for them on tour, picking up extra performances, until his knees finally gave out on stage.
This blister incident of mine… It’s that same thing we do as dancers. We’d rather take a huge risk with our bodies and our careers than take care of our basic needs.
This theme shows up often in my life, and I know I am not alone (please tell me I’m not alone!).
So, this is not a blog post about foot-care for dancers. It’s a call to think critically and not be an idiot about these things (although incidents like this can create really great space to reflect and think critically about our choices).
We think that we have no choice- Either we sacrifice our bodies or we let people down, but this is false because we wind up letting people down to an even greater degree if we sacrifice our bodies.
This is a blog post about being fooled by randomness (just read the book!). This was a freak, random incident. Historically, I should have been totally fine. Be aware of possible outcomes, especially the rarest, highest risk outcomes, that we don’t think will happen, and make appropriate choices.
And to leave you with one piece of foot-care: Always put band-aids on blisters. But you already knew that.
So, what’s up with me lately?
I’ve become obsessed with the teachings of Dr. Stephen Porges and his brain-child, polyvagal theory.
Polyvagal theory brings clarity to our understanding of the autonomic nervous system, and in the world of dance training, we so rarely appreciate the huge role autonomics play in both our mental and physical performance and keeping pain-free.
Understanding autonomics through the lens of Porges’ polyvagal theory, beginning to notice where his teachings show up in our lives, and making time for strategies to optimize our autonomic nervous system, we can take our physical and mental performance, and quality of life, to new levels.
How dancers can use his theory to improve performance and well-being is particularly interesting to me, and that’s exactly what we’ll be getting into today.
In this post, we’re going to talk about the vagus nerve and autonomic nervous system (ANS) function, and how these systems relate our sense of safety to our physical and mental performance, as well as the muscles that control the face, breath, eyes, voice, and hearing.
Ready to rock this? Let’s do it…
Let’s take a very brief tour of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). First, let’s define “vagal”, in polyvagal.
Vagal refers to the vagus nerve, cranial nerve 10, which regulates the parasympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system (ANS).
This nerve comes out of your brain and connects to your organs. It is 80% sensory, and 20% motor- It acts more as a feedback loop than a “mover of stuff”.
The vagus works “bottom up” (sensory) as well as “top down” (motor), meaning it both regulates, and receives information from your viscera. The vagus is 80% sensory, which means it works more “bottom up”, telling us how we’re doing, so we can see it’s important role is in providing information to the brain about the state of our internal organs. A beautiful surveillance system.
This is the pathway through which we can tune into visceral sensations, or “gut feelings”.
When the vagus nerve is activated, we enable the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows us to enjoy a state of health, growth, and restoration. When a parasympathetic state is enabled, sympathetic nervous system is inhibited. The sympathetic system is our mobilizing system, telling us to flee or fight in the presence of danger.
Dr. Porges refers to this inhibition as putting on a “vagal brake”.
Looks kind of like the nervous system…?
The vagus nerve is activated during exhalation (among other things you’ll read about farther down). If you tend to not exhale completely, and breath-hold to create a sense of stability, you might also be preventing yourself from getting to a state of health, growth and restoration.
In the face of stress, danger, or life-threat, real or perceived, your system may choose to recruit a strategy of mobilization (“get the hell out of here!” or “fight harder!”), to ensure your survival.
If we have trouble using our vagal circuit to get to a parasympathetic calm state, it is near impossible to learn, think creatively, and move optimally because our nervous system thinks it’s in danger, and survival is wayyy more important than creative movement and learning new things. Priorities..
This shows us the importance of practicing breathing exercises like pranayama yoga, blowing up a balloon PRI style, and being aware of breath-holding while we dance.
90/90 hip liftin’, PRI style
The vagal circuit is also regulates the striated muscles of the face (particularly around the eyes), the muscles of the middle ear, the voice, the heart, lungs, digestion, and other organs.
Because this vagal circuit works both top down, and bottom up, both regulating and relaying information from organs, we can see the potential that our sense of safety- our psychology, has to influence our physiology, and that our physiology also has to influence our psychology (which I think this is the most fascinating thing ever).
“Change your body about your mind.”
We can change our physiology, psychology and our experience of health through exercising this neural circuit. This can happen both consciously and unconsciously.
Isn’t that cool?
This shows us the inseparability functionality of our body and mind. The subtle cues we receive from our viscera and heart are very useful indicators of our neural state, and we can actively use neural exercise to influence the state of our viscera.
As Judith Anodea states in her book “Eastern Body, Western Mind”:
We are taught to control the body by way of the mind, which is considered far superior. But the body has an intelligence whose mysteries the mind has yet to fathom. We read in books how to eat, how to make love, how much sleep to get, and impose these practices on the body rather than listening from within.
What I’ve written above is what is most commonly known about the parasympathetic nervous system, what they teach us in school (unless you went to school for dance, like me, and you didn’t learn any of this..).
There is, however, another side of the parasympathetic system that has a completely different function from the rest and digest system we know it to be.
This ” however” is a great segue into polyvagal theory…
There is not ONE parasympathetic nervous system but TWO.
The health, growth, restoration branch of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) described above is regulated by our newer, mammalian, myelinated, ventral (belly-side) vagus.
However there is a second, less commonly acknowledged branch of the PNS, regulated by our older, reptilian, unmyelinated, dorsal (back side) vagus. This is the parasympathetic system we inherited from our reptilian ancestors (which are speculated to be turtles).
Silly turtle. Strawberries isn’t human food!
While the newer vagus is designed to calm us down, the older reptilian vagus will immobilize us in the presence of life threat when we are unable to fight or flee.
This is characterized by fainting, freezing, blacking out, playing dead, and other immobilization strategies that, for our reptilian ancestors, worked very well in the presence of danger, because reptiles don’t need as much oxygen as we do.
Go unconscious and you won’t feel pain. Go unconscious and the predator might leave you alone.
When humans try to feign death, it doesn’t work as well, because we do need oxygen to live! And unless we’re under extreme conditions, death feigning isn’t the most useful strategy in modern society.
So we’re evolving out of this ancient, vagal circuit as it serves us less than it did in the past.
Recall that the old vagus is unmyelinated, making it less easy to recruit (myelin improves nerve conduction). Old man vagus is recruited as a last line of defense, not a first.
Dr. Porges teaches us that our autonomic nervous system is hierarchical in nature, one system inhibiting another.
To fulfill our needs, we move selectively through the different states of the ANS in this order:
1) Parasympathetic nervous system 1: New, mammalian, vagus control: Health, growth, restoration.
This is our preferred state for optimal function of pretty much everything.
Because this circuit is related to the muscles of the face, eyes, ears, and larynx, we can see it’s qualities expressed in peoples’ faces and tone of voice, as well as activate it when we listen.
This neural circuit is all about safety.
When we are in a safe state under myelinated vagal control, we can think more clearly and creatively, let go of physical tension, experience states of compassion, gratitude, contemplate important things (like “who am I??”), and enjoy play and movement without fear and hyper-vigilence.
Through this neural circuit we can become informed by our experiences, develop strategies that make our body feel safe and derive meaning from our lives more effortlessly.
We can can make the world better by making people feel safer.
2) Sympathetic nervous system: Mobilize, fight, or flight.
This is our first line of defense when things feel unsafe.
In the absence of safety, or if we are unable to activate the myelinated vagus, our bodies will jump into action: To fight or flee.
We often look at the sympathetic nervous system as being the evil twin of the parasympathetic, but in reality, we need to get sympathetic sometimes in situations where there is REAL danger.
In dance and in other sports, this system is what helps us perform our best. We need that rush of adrenaline and increased glucose uptake into skeletal muscle to help us meet physical demands.
It can become problematic, however, to get stuck in this state through chronic, low level activation to deal with the mundane stresses of life due to chronic injury, fatigue, or to make up for a poor diet.
Being perpetually in a mobilizing state like this is exhausting and can’t be maintained forever. People eventually burn out and must rely on a less efficient neural circuit to deal with life…
3) Parasympathetic nervous system 2: Old, reptilian, vagus control: Immobilize, shut down, death feign.
Our last line of defense in the presence of perceived life threat.
If your body or brain perceives that you might actually die, and the first two systems above cannot be recruited, the older, unmyelinated vagus will signal you to immobilize- Faint, or freeze- whether it’s a good idea or not.
The root of the polyvagal theory is the recognition that in the absence of the ability to fight or flee, the body’s only effective defense is to immobilize and shut down
This happens because some fibres of the old vagus are cardio-suppressant, meaning they can slow, or stop completely, your heart (immobilization).
This circuit is related to the sub-diaphragmatic (below diaphragm) organs: Liver, stomach, intestines, bladder, sexual organs, etc.
So if we are recruiting this old vagal system to deal with our stress, the neuroregulation of these organs will not be optimal either. We might have pain in our abdomen. Compromised organ function. Poor control of our bowels and bladder.
Ever feel like you have to pee uncontrollably before going on stage? Or get so nervous that your stomach hurts? That’s you coping with stress with an old vagus reaction.
Note that “perceived life threat” doesn’t necessarily mean your life is actually in danger. For example, some people say they would rather die than speak in front of a big audience. What they mean is that public speaking feels so terrifying for them that they feel like they might freeze up or pass out because it is too much for even their sympathetic nervous system to help them manage.
When we are in stressful or unpleasant situations, like confrontation, or getting on stage, what is your body telling you? Do you find yourself filled with energy to deal with it head on, or do you freeze up and find yourself unable to move or speak?
In either case, you’ve chosen a defensive strategy, potentially an ancient one that we rarely need today (in Canada, anyway, our likelihood of being in a life-threatening circumstance is fortunately quite low).
That said, if we’re burnt out and can’t use the newer vagal circuit OR a sympathetic strategy of mobilization, we will unconsciously recruit the old vagus to deal with relatively low-risk situations that we perceive to be life-threatening! We’re so silly… We dissociate from stressful situations rather than face them calmly with an open, curious mind.
This can explain why the earliest symptoms of over-training are psychological in nature, as we attempt to use our sympathetic nervous system to fight through stress, ignoring visceral sensations. The next phase in over-training is physiological, often showing up as illness or injury (a shut-down, immobilization response).
Can you see why it might be pretty important to become aware of the signals our bodies are sending to our brains? And what if you made a conscious choice to manipulate your ANS state and take your body to a “safe” place, helping you learn to react more appropriately in stressful situations?
Dr. Porges calls this “providing cues of safety”, and it’s one of the ways we can “choose” to activate our newer vagal circuit over our other survival circuits (unless we really, truly need them!).
Remember, your vagus is 80% sensory- Your brain is constantly being sent signals from your viscera. Are you paying attention to this unconscious “neuroceptive” process?
Neuroception: Listening to Your Guts
As a survival strategy, our bodies were hardwired to actively seek out cues of danger.
This happens unconsciously through a process Dr. Porges refers to as “neuroception”.
Neuroception: Nervous system detection of safety and risk in the environment expressed through implicit bodily feelings; body responding outside the realm of awareness.
Implicit bodily feelings could be an increase in temperature, upset stomach, dizziness, and other feelings and emotions we often disregard as “random”, or “because I ate potatoes last night”.
A friend of mine who is prone to anxiety attacks, for example, wondered if her most recent episode was related to the potatoes she ate the night before. Sure, maybe they are related, but rather than blame the potatoes for your anxiety, it may be more useful to identify why your system is fragile to potatoes in the first place.
Make like Taleb and become antifragile to the potato
When we experience these implicit feelings, we then cope with them by reacting explicitly, outwardly: Facial expressions, words, anxiety attacks, etc. We mobilize, immobilize, or dissociate to varying degrees.
Neuroception is different from “perception” because it is not under conscious control. Neuroception is not something we can intellectualize or use our rational mind to understand and requires tuning in to our unconscious mind.
Ever had a “gut feeling”? Felt nauseous in a frightening situation? Became light headed and fainted in response to stress? This is information being relayed from the organs to our brains via the vagal circuit, based on our body’s reaction to the environment around it.
Do yourself a favor: Pay attention to the neural circuit that delivers information from your organs to your brain!
What if we listened when we experience “random” pains, particularly in the abdomen.”What does this mean?”, “What in my environment is ‘unsafe’?”, “Is my gut signalling something my thinking-brain can’t or won’t see?”
In the case of stomach pain, many of us go to the doctor who, more often than not, will prescribe something for us to numb it, like pepto bismol, or in my case, back in university when I was suffering from regular stomach pains, “You’re just constipated, take these laxatives”. Looking at the organ in isolation, without considering that perhaps the organ isn’t the issue, but it’s neuroregulation (how the brain is using it). The organ isn’t the issue, it’s the indicator of something larger. And the same can be said of all our body pains
Cultivating a safe environment intrinsically and through the environment could be the most important thing we try to do with our lives: Make our bodies and our environment a safe place to live so we can react from a place of safety, not out of defense.
Can you begin to see how this is an important system in our bodies to learn to optimize both for life and for dance?
Why Should You Care About Vagal Regulation?
1) As a human, you only get the one body, the one set of organs, and I bet you don’t like the feeling of stress.
2) As a dancer, you rely on your body for you art.
3) As a dancer, you rely on your mind to enable your body to perform things that are outside your comfort zone, potentially “unsafe”, and “unnatural”.
And as it relates particularly to #3 above, remember, when your body senses that it is in an unsafe, unfamiliar place, it WILL look for danger (dat neuroception) and use a defense strategy that seems the most useful for you.
Do you ever feel like your body sabotages you? You know exactly what you should be doing, but it never seems to work out (pirouettes for me…).
If you do not have the ability to regulate your ANS well, your system will respond by a) Becoming hypervigilant and tensing up, or b) Freezing and shutting down.
N=Monika examples of both these scenarios:
a) Turns scare the crap out of me, and I am aware now how I tend recruit my sympathetic nervous system to cope with them: Using too much effort, overthinking, and tensing every muscle: A high threshold response. In fact, my last dance related injury was an adductor strain last summer, having to do with a turn that transitioned into a split… Ironically, when i stop thinking and use less effort, things seem to work better. Pirouettes are now something I can use as a barometer of neuroregulation. I know I am having a good day if I can turn. I’d bet a lot of you can relate.
b) 5 or 6 years ago, during a particularly challenging jazz class (and time in my life…), I recall feeling my brain shut down, completely overwhelmed and unable to focus, so I walked out of class, sat in the hallway, and cried. Trying harder (sympathetic system) was no longer an option. This was my reptilian parasympathetic system managing the situation, immobilizing me.
In both scenarios, the myelinated vagal circuit was bypassed in favor of a defensive strategy.
Ask yourself: Are you dancing with your lizard brain, relying primarily on a survival strategy to get you through class? I’d reckon it’s a possibility… Ask yourself:
- Have you ever taken pain-killers to get through a performance?
- Do you dissociate from pain and work through injuries (mind over matter) to keep moving?
- Do you hold your breath or clench your jaw to cope with the physical demands of class and choreo?
- Do you have trouble relaxing your face and neck?
- Do you find it difficult to interact with some dancers you train with, and does it interfere with your ability to perform?
- Do you feel the constant strain of judgement, pressure, and competition, and question whether you’ll “make it”?
These may be indicators of your body’s unconscious perception (neuroception) that something isn’t quite safe. Remember, your nervous system is actively searching for danger, so unless you currently use strategies to optimize vagal tone or you somehow lead a completely stress-free, life (ha), dance can tend to make us
A few important terms:
Vagal regulation: Ability to recruit the myelinated vagal circuit to balance the autonomic nervous system and related function (homeostasis). This can be a conscious process if we train it. Vagal regulation is how well our system can live and cope with challenges and maintain homeostasis.
Vagal tone: Measure of ability to recruit vagal activity (which we think can be measured through heart rate and heart rate variability, HRV, but this relationship is not 100% clear). Our vagal tone increases as we perform a long exhalation, among other things that activate the myelinated vagal circuit..
Vagal brake: The inhibition of a defensive response (mobilization or immobilization) via the activation of the myelinated vagus, increasing it’s tone, in response to a stressful or dangerous situation.
So what you should understand is…
YES you have a degree of conscious control of your vagal tone. This is because the myelinated vagus also works top down, from brain to viscera, and is linked to the muscles that control our face, voice, hearing, heart, lungs and breath, which we can consciously train.
YES vagal tone is a real, physiological, measurable thing. You can track it and hack it to change your psychology, help you feel safer in your body, and make better choices not influenced by a primitive survival strategy.
YES you were hard-wired to prefer a state of growth, health, and restoration. You came with a pre-installed “brake” that you can choose at any time to press in situations of stress to prevent you from reacting hypervigilently, or immobilizing. It is our natural state to have an active, healthy PNS predominantly at rest.
Isn’t that beautiful? You were hard-wired to succeed and be healthy. Everything you need to overcome challenge, mental and physical, in the most productive way possible, is already inside you. You just need to learn hit the vagal brake.
Wensy Wong, my amazing friend, yoga lady, and partner in CAPE
Just as increasing muscle tone requires physical exercise, Dr. Porges explains that we can train to improve our vagal tone through neural exercise.
So what qualifies as a “neural exercise”? And what other strategies can we use to improve vagal tone so we can kick more ass?
Using Neural Exercise and Cues of Safety to Improve Vagal Tone
There are three primary ways you can improve vagal tone.
1) Removing cues of danger.
You can put a band-aid on a wound, but for it to stop bleeding you first need to stop stabbing yourself.
Cues of danger are what our bodies unconsciously perceive (neuroception) to be dangerous or stressful. These include:
- Low frequency background noise (signals “predator” —>)
- Monotone voices
- Blank faces, lacking expressiveness around the eyes
- Unwelcom social engagement
- Other past trauma, injuries, etc.
Stop stabbing yourself. Give me the knife…
2) Seek cues of safety.
Cues of safety inhibit defensive responses of the sympathetic and reptilian vagus systems, and allow us to better use our newer vagal circuit to promote health, growth, and restoration (parasympathetics). These cues of safety include:
- Hearing and using more prosodic vocal intonation (melodic, “mothery” voices)
- Listening to others with genuine interest (compassion)
- Seeing upper facial muscles used in an expressive way (particularly around the eyes)
- Face to face interaction
- Long exhalations
- Healthy socialization with happy, like-minded people who make you feel safe
Essentially, using our senses mindfully and deliberately to experience the world and interact, in real time, with ourselves and others.
Use of prosodic voice: Lull someone into a safe place with the comforting rhythm of your voice
Interestingly, the one activity that allows us to blend all of these cues together is social engagement. Listening and speaking to other people who make us feel good uses all functions related to the vagus (eyes seeing the facial reaction of another, and ear muscles used to listen, exhaling and intonating as we speak).
The only caveat- Social engagement must be welcome or it will signal “danger”. So find your people.
3) Participating in neural exercise.
Things that use the breath, voice, body, and muscles of the face, Like:
- Playing wind instruments
- Pranayama yoga
- Listening to prosodic music (like folk music)
- Social engagement
- Chanting or prayer
- Intentional shifts in posture
- Body scanning
Or, as Dr. Porges tells us is most important:
- Feeling safe in the arms of another appropriate mammal
Not necessarily another person. A mammal will do.
The vagal circuit is a highly integrated system maintained primarily by being social.
The people (or mammals) you choose to be around have a significant impact on your state of being.
Sometimes in the dance world, we don’t always get to be around the most compassionate human beings, judgement and jealousy are typical, and as artists (not every one of them, but we all know those people…), we often experience crippling self-doubt and feelings of low worth, which are often unwarranted and untrue.
This also means that if you struggle in your dancing with…
- Keeping a calm facial expression
- Difficulty focusing and retaining choreography
- Stage fright
- Learning new, challenging moves without inhibition
- Chronic pain
…you can regulate it to a certain degree through understanding this fascinating vagal circuit. It’s worth a try, and it doesn’t cost a thing.
How to start applying polyvagal theory, cues of safety, and neural exercise to improve your dancing.
How DOESN’T understanding polyvagal theory help you? (that goes for all the non-dancer humans reading this, too).
Can you see how feeling more safe in your body could enhance your dancing?
How useful is it that you’re hardwired with an intrinsic stress-management mechanism that you can use to improve your recovery and performance?
Isn’t it great to know that can train this inner system by engaging with people you love, and it makes you more resilient?
Increased vagal tone and better vagal regulation are related to some important things as it relates to being a performer:
- Being able to become vulnerable
- Breath control
- Preventing injuries
- Reducing chronic pain
- Improving mental focus
- Recovering more quickly from training
- Managing stress
- Creative thinking
- Not peeing your pants before you step on stage
Here’s what you can do right now
To improve vagal regulation, increase vagal tone, and improve your physical performance, recovery, and think more creatively:
1) Understand that your autonomic nervous systems functions hierarchically. Your body functions best when it feels safe. By becoming aware of our body’s responses, and gut responses (sub-diaphragmatic, reptilian vagal cues), we can find cues of safety and react to life without having to defend ourselves.
2) Respect your body. It’s easy to feel helpless to our situations (pain, inability to perform as well as we’d like) but we need to understand that we are reacting to situations through neuroception, which is an unconscious process. We may not know yet what we are reacting to, but we can be aware that our body has responded, and try to move to a safer place. Honor the body’s responses.
3) Body-scanning. Starting a movement practice with a body-scan is a great way to tune into unconscious cues and reactions. There are so many ways of doing this and they are all great. Pick a system, trust the process, and see how far you can take it.
4) Remove cues of danger (see the list earlier in this post). Because these are subconscious cues, it might not be entirely evident that a dance teacher or a particular class mate is signalling “predator!”. Be aware of facial expressions, tone of voice, and gut feelings, and how well you’re able to focus around these people. Depressed vagal activity can be represented by depressed neural regulation of striated muscles of face/head. This is how we can tell if someone is friendly just by looking at their faces.
5) Surround yourself with cues of safety (see the list earlier in this post). These cues in particular can be received through physical practices, listening to music, and social engagement, (if it’s welcome…).
5) Train your breath. Because long long exhalations activate the myelinated vagus, you can increase vagal tone by increasing the duration of exhalation compared to inhalation (I like to 3:1 ratio of exhale to inhale). Playing a wind instrument, blowing up balloons, singing, and chanting also extend exhalations and can serve as effective neural exercises. These also include the use of facial muscles which are also related to the vagus.
6) Mindful movement and shifts in posture. Yoga, religious or spiritual practices, and other mindful physical practices (even working out with weights) require conscious shifts in posture. Postural shifts influence carotid baroreceptors (related to blood pressure), so it seems that practices that require mindful postural shifts can influence the heart, which is under vagal control. Exercise isn’t just good for your body.
7) Welcome social engagement. Keyword being “welcome”. If you’re forced to interact all day with people sending you unconscious cues of danger or predator, social engagement is no longer improving this vagal pathway. On the other hand, we can use social engagement as an ultimate delivery system for neural exercise and cues of safety.
The nervous system of social engagement is the same nervous system of health, growth, and restoration.
~Dr. Stephen Porges
Going to a yoga class with a friend is the ultimate vagal toning experience: You can easily combine social engagement with breathing, body scanning, mindful postural shifts, chanting, prosodic tone of voice, and listening (to the teacher AND within).
Reminds me of this…
Most sympathetic yoga session ever. I’m crying.
I hope you can also see that the “how” is more important than the “what”.
Exercise is good, but is how you’re doing it helping you?
Social engagement can be am amazing therapeutic experience, or it can make you feel unsafe.
Same thing goes for your dance practice. How are you approaching it? Are you aware of how it makes you feel?
On a final note, I urge you to take an honest look inward. Are there any visceral sensations you’re dissociating from? What can you learn from these feeling? Are you surrounded by cues of safety or of danger? Do you participate in neural exercises? Do you have people in your life that you can genuinely and honestly connect with?
How you approach your dance training needs to respect this holistic view of wellness. Dance teachers are not life coaches. Nor are rehabilitation specialists. They don’t have time to give you advice, be your friend, and teach you to be mindful. Take the time to cultivate this practice yourself.
Understanding polyvagal theory gives you the information to expand your dance practice into a mindful movement practice that enhances vagal regulation if you allow it.
You CAN dance your way to health, growth, restoration.
If you’d like to start something right now to work on tuning into your body and your breath, you’ll probably enjoy the 30 Day Challenge. What would happen if you make the choice to deliberately practice one exercise everyday, for 30 days? That’s what the challenge is about. Forming the habit to take a few moments for YOU everyday, to work from the inside out. Sign up for free and check it out.
To learn more about the work of Dr. Stephen Porges, check out these amazing talks and interviews (worth the time, I promise!)
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!
Hey guys! Before we get into the meaty meat of this post I have an announcement: The Dance Training Project has moved! I now have my own private space within a wellness center in the beautiful St. Lawrence Market area of downtown Toronto.
This move was spurred when an opportunity to take over a new space came up, and then became necessary when my former gym closed unexpectedly. But as the saying goes, doors close and windows open, and all things being flux, one has no choice but to go with the flow.
I have only this photo to show you so far, and it is of poor quality.
Humble beginnings of the new home of the DTP 🙂
But as you can see, there is lots of room for all sorts of activities. Rolling around on the floor. Deadlifting. I’m freakin’ stoked.
While it may not be the fanciest, I am happy with my new lifting dungeon. No longer do I share space with the roidy meatheads of my former facility. Although I will miss the fabulous
Not only am I excited to have this new location, but it is on the same block as the Thai massage center I also practice at, so my life has been made infinitely easier.
Anyway, enough about me. Let’s move on to the topic of today: Dance therapy.
Movement- It’s good for the body, it’s good for the brain. And dance, being a multisensory physical activity, is often referred to as one of the best activities to keep the brain sharp as we age.
Too, dance can be therapeutic for those with autism and other mental afflictions like chronic depression, anxiety and as we will hear more about today, bipolar disorder.
Meet Sam Kutner.
Sam feels strongly that rather than prescribe sedatives and anti-depressants, dance can be used to help treat mental illness .
I can attest that dance, indeed acted as a form of therapy when I first started. It was my escape from real life. It is unfortunate that dance eventually became the cause of some mental health issues, but before all the hard times dance took me to my happy place.
When Sam reached out with her story of institutionalization with severe bipolar and how dance became her ticket out, I knew I should share her experience. I’m sure many of you can relate, or know someone who can relate.
This will also be of interest to anyone who digs the exciting field of dance therapy. Before prescribing drugs that can turn people into zombies, what if doctors prescribed dance?
I’ll let Sam take it from here.
Dancing on Planet Trillaphon: Living a Creative Life with Bipolar Disorder
At fifteen I was ripped from my world of honors classes and competitive dancing and ushered into a mental hospital, where I stayed for roughly a month.
I could tell you how traumatic the experience of being in the “quiet room” on an involuntary psychiatric hold was for me.
I could tell you how I slept through the first week because the staff felt I needed to be sedated after knocking down three orderlies in a panic the night I was admitted.
I could also tell you how many times I tried and failed to convince the head psychiatrist that I was “ok” to go home.
But my intention is not to write about these things that people with mental illness have to suffer through, rather, what actually pulled me out from it and gave me a reason to keep going.
The staff at the instution, after realizing that a 108 pound dancer was not really a threat to them or the other patients, eventually let me join in group therapy . That is when things started to change.
Our entire group was made up entirely of teenagers who marched awkwardly into the rec room. Some were addicted to drugs and dealing with the psychosis it caused. Some, like me were “blessed” genetically with mental illness. Others had more abusive situations that brought them there and made my issues feel very small in comparison.
No one else was paying attention to the boom box in the corner, but I rushed to turn it on.
A million times in my living room at home I would to turn on music and just dance. Despite the change of setting, dancing there, with my awkward group of institutionalized teenagers, wasn’t much different.
It’s not like I had much to lose, or needed to worry about how I would be perceived. That ship had already sailed. The worst thing I could do, I reasoned, was confirm that I belonged there.
The other patients must have seen how much I was enjoying myself dancing, so I let them know I wanted them to join in too.
Despite everything we were suffering through we all danced like it was the most natural thing to do. The human body was built for movement. In that way, it was the most natural thing we could do inside the rec room of a psychiatric hospital.
I danced until I couldn’t dance anymore and sat down next to a nurse. She had been watching the entire show. She looked into my eyes, a thing most of the staff tended to avoid, and she said, “No matter what happens, never stop dancing.”
She knew before I did that dance would be my way out.
Dance has always been my therapy, a way to ride the waves of mania and depression. It has helped me see that no matter how strongly the depression comes, it will eventually pass.
Dance helped me return to health and fitness after the medications I was prescribed caused my weight to shoot up to 180 pounds.
When two more hospitalizations threatened to derail all of the progress I made, when I lost jobs, when I felt like I could never succeed in school again, I used dance to refocus and alleviate the stigma I felt hiding my illness from others.
I became a well-recognized member in my local dance communities. I even got a review published in a national belly dance magazine.
I became friends with fellow dancers who also struggled with mental illness. I finally started opening up about my illness with a few understanding dancers.
As I revise this, preparing to share it with the internet, my boyfriend is cautioning me against it. He knows the shame others can make people like me feel, but in a way he is contributing to it. Publishing anything opens you up to scrutiny. I get that.
But that being said, I would rather be scrutinized for my own beliefs than subject to the ill-informed opinions of others.
I wish I could present a success story the way that they do in weight loss commercials. I cannot. What I can say is that every day you can cultivate a series of small wins for yourself, depending on the tools you have and the willingness to seek help.
I just received my Associates Degree of Arts and plan to continue on to my Bachelors in Psychology. When I am not dancing, I am writing. It is something I plan to expand into a blog for fellow artists and individuals struggling with mental illness. My ultimate goal is to earn my Masters in Dance Therapy and allow others to find help the way I did. I hope that anyone reading this can find their passion in life, in writing, in sports, in any discipline that gives them focus and calm.
There are two final things I would like you to know if you struggle with bipolar disorder. You are part of a select group of gifted individuals who, despite their suffering, have made positive, lasting contributions to the world through arts, sciences and literature. Most importantly, you are not alone.
Samantha Kutner received her Associate Degree of Arts from The College of Southern Nevada.
She is a freelance writer and dancer who has lived with bipolar disorder since a diagnosis in 2005. She hopes to become a positive voice in the fight against the stigma of mental illness.