Dancing Could be Making You Clumsier

Yes. I’m totally serious- As dancers we are predisposed to being clumsy. And I can explain it scientifically. And I know you’re wondering, and the answer is yes, after reading this you can officially explain to your friends, with science, the reasons why you stumble over your feet and/or drop things more often than your non-dancer friends.

Being a dancer can make you clumsy out in the real world, away from the dance studio. And this is important to realize, because even though we are dancers, we are first people.

The anatomy of dance blows my mind on almost a daily basis, and I sometimes have these moments of enlightenment (usually when I’m in the shower, don’t ask why…) that make me go OHHHHHHHHH!!! Science is cool.

Are you a dancer? Do you drop stuff a lot? Do you spill things on yourself more than your non-dancer friends? Do you trip over your own feet daily? Is precision vegetable chopping a dangerous activity? You are not alone.

Slap chop for dancer safety? Yes. I need one.

I think there’s a high expectation for dancers to be poised and graceful constantly, but in reality, we’re anything but. That said, when we DO trip and fall, it is likely to be the most graceful fall. Ever. Falling is (unfortunately) a part of dance. It happens. On stage. So you learn to fall with as much dignity as possible. It’s a really good life-skill.

Anyway, back to the point at hand. I have 2 main reasons why being a dancer could predispose you to being clumsy:

1) Dancers are often limitated in dorsiflexion.

I’ve mentioned it before, so I’m not going to beat this to death, with a lead pipe, in the library… But I’ll say it again in case you missed it: Dancers will tend to lack ankle dorsiflexion (the ability to flex your foot) compared to plantar flexion (pointing your foot).

Your body becomes what you do with it the most. If you eat tubs of ice cream on the daily, you tend to look like Honey Boo Boo’s mom. And much by the same token, if you point your feet for hours every day, they tend to naturally stay more pointed.

This is a concept called “plasticity”. If you think of a plastic bag, and how you can deform it’s shape- stretch it slowly and you can get it to stretch out and change shape. Think of your body like this plastic bag- it will deform gradually, over time, based on the things you do with it.

Many dancers I assess (and myself included) have much greater range of motion in their ankles through plantar flexion than they do in dorsiflexion. Not only can improving this imbalance put more spring in your step (literally, you’ll be able to get into a deeper demi-plie and thus, better jumps and leaps) but it can help prevent injuries like shin splits and Achilles tendinitis. And not just ballet dancers, but you Irish dancers too, who I’m pretty sure never really put their heels down on the floor.

The good news is that you can train in such a way that will allow you to get back some of the ability to flex your feet, and this won’t make your feet any less pointy. Ideally, you want your dorsiflexion  to be stronger than a kitten.

Now think about what your foot needs to do when you walk- You need to flex your foot as you swing it through to take a step. What if your foot can’t flex enough? One of two things happens- Your toe hits the ground and you trip, OR you turn your foot out and roll it in (evert/pronate it) to avoid your toes hitting the ground.

This also explains why it’s so comfortable for us dancer to walk turned out- It’s a trip-prevention mechanism.This is a poor mechanism however, because by turning out your leg, you’re not addressing the actual structural issue, you’re placing more strain on the knee, AND you’re just reinforcing another imbalance at the hip joint, aka, turnout.

Just blew your mind didn’t I?

Since I stopped taking regular ballet classes, I actually trip less. Weird, isn’t it?

2) Dancers tend to develop some kind of thoracic outlet syndrome

What’s TOS (thoracic outlet syndrome)? Long story short, there is a bundle of nerves up in your armpit area (the brachial plexus) that innervates your arm, and when muscles and other such things surrounding it get tight, they can squeeze this bundle, reducing the blood flow and nerve conduction to your hands. It can also cause numbness and tingling usually in the pinky and ring finger. Especially with you arms over-head.

The brachial plexus (in yellow) can get squished between a lot of stuff. Not a fun time.

Why do dancers tend to develop thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS)? Anyone can develop TOS in one form or another. 9-5 office workers, computer guys, and folks with crap posture in general are also common candidates, but dancers tend to develop a lot of tension in the neck muscles and in pec minor from having to do crazy movements like head whipping, arm contortion, and such-like.  For dancers it pays off to check out your scapular mechanics to make sure you’re lifting your arms over-head safely, bring awareness to your posture, and make sure to stretch the tight stuff out

The Harkness Center for dance injuries in New York says this:

Causes

Various factors may contribute to compression of the nerves and blood vessels within the thoracic outlet, including:

  • Repetitive activities involving a forward-head posture or drooped shoulders.
  • Partnering dance movements involving awkward neck and shoulder movements.
  • Carrying heavy loads, cases, and dance bags.
  • Trauma to the neck or shoulder.

Now think about what it means if you have poor sensation in your hands due to a cut off nerve supply. This could actually cause one to become kind of clumsy, couldn’t it…?

Less blood flow+poor innervation= You drop stuff.

Just another reason to correct your posture- I’ll bet it would save you at least a couple of fancy plates dropped on the floor. And make chopping onions way less risky.

I currently have a nasty case of nerve compression in my right arm, and it’s not fun. My clumsiness has reached a new level, and my arm is in constant, throbbing pain. Fun times.

Now I’m not saying that all dancers are clumsy, or that dancing will absolutely make you clumsy. I’m just saying that these are some pretty interesting correlations, ones that I’ve noticed in myself, and other dancers.

That, and science don’t lie.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Are you a clumsy dancer, too?

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