Dance Heals, Dance Hurts

Dance Heals, Dance Hurts

What once hurt us must also heal us…

This can be difficult to believe, but one side of the coin cannot exist without the other. Heads and tails are a package deal.

We can get stuck in this mindset that if something hurts us, then it must be bad, and that we should avoid it forever.

When we have a negative experience with something, our brain remembers, and, beyond all logical reasoning, will tell us to avoid going there again.

Like playing on the monkey bars. It can be kind of painful on the hands at first. There is a risk of falling so the brain says “Hmm…Nope. Not going there.” This is why I avoided monkey bars my whole life and even today can’t swing from one arm to the other (2016 goal…).

This avoidance of what feels “bad” makes sense. Evolutionarily, if something has caused us harm, in the future we will avoid it to stay safe from danger. Life-threatening danger. Present day, life-threatening situations are relatively rare, and what is “harmful” is less clear.

Monkey bars are hardly a threat, but my perception of their danger is enough to make me go sympathetic.

This can happen with dance. Our relationship with it will change over the course of our careers. That is how it is, as it is with all things. Change: The one thing we can count on.

We can become injured from too many hours dancing with too little recovery, without strategies to cope with physical duress, fueled by a passion that burns so strong that we are able to tune out the important messages our bodies send us to “cool it”.

On stage, nothing hurts. That’s the power of our minds. Some parts of the brain that process pain are also responsible for movement. “If I can keep performing, I will feel no pain, and everything is ok.” On stage, we’re invincible.

Dance is healing in this way.

Dance can be an escape from everything “out there”. No one can touch you, and you feel your most “you”. There is no pain when you perform. You might need pain-killers to get on stage, but you don’t remember you needed them until you exit the wings and come back to reality, and even then, it feels worth it. 

But everything that heals us can also harm us, as everything that harms us can heal us, too. The determining factor is our intention.

What differentiates healing dance from harming dance is why we are dancing and for whom. This “why” and “who” relationship can change without our noticing but makes all the difference in the outcome.

Dance began as a healing outlet for me. I’m an introvert. Have been since my first memory of being alive. Dance allowed me to escape from the world and be with myself, in my body, where things made sense without the noise from my conscious mind.

And then, my intention changed. When I began to take my dance career seriously I became afraid of not being good enough. I was ashamed of my body and wished I could trade mine for that of someone else. I wanted to move like someone else, not like me. I didn’t think being “just me” would get me hired.

I was not content to dance like “me” so I tried to dance how other people expected me to dance. My “for whom” changed.

I forced things past my limit to fit a mold. I over stretched. Ignored important signals of pain; my body pleading with me to take it easy and make time to recover. I lost sight of my “why”.

This was no longer healing, and it caught up to me. A few injuries later, I had to stop. If we can’t change and slow down on our own accord, “something” will force us to. The universe has a way of giving us exactly what we need, whether we like it or not.

I sure had it coming.

After this, I was afraid to go back to dance. I felt betrayed. What I had once loved and helped me cope with life had hurt me. How could dance betray me like this? I became quite bitter, as one could expect, mourning the loss of a major part of my identity (just read some of my earlier writing… It came from an entirely different place).

But an important question: Can you blame the movement for injuring the mover? Does a movement have an intention to harm? No. The movement comes from you. You set the intention, whether you’re aware of it or not.

We can’t blame dance for our injuries, we can only blame ourselves for not noticing when our relationship with it changes. Neglecting to tune in. Forgetting that we dance because it makes us feel more like “ourselves”, after too many hours spent practicing trying move like someone else.

The betrayal I felt existed only in my mind. Dance had not betrayed me, I had betrayed myself by failing to listen. I had changed my intention, and so the effect the movement had on me changed, too. Unsure what I had to offer the world other than to dance, I did my best to ignore the signs that I needed to stop.

What had once healed, now harmed me.

A few weeks post-hamstring injury. Dissociating. Sympathetic. Can you tell?

A few weeks post-hamstring injury. Dissociating. Sympathetic. Should be resting… Can you tell?

But this is incredible because it is proof that our relationship with dance is capable of change. In fact, the only way to complete the healing process from such a “betrayal” is to face the beast head on: Can I dance again, and can it heal, again?

The answer is undeniably yes.

How long will it take? That’s up to you. But it isn’t, either. It will take the time it needs to take. No more, and no less. Your best dancing days could be in your 40s, or they could be next week.

What is most scary is losing a large piece of our identity. Who are we now that we can’t dance? Now that we have nothing that makes us feel invincible? Now that we must face our pain with no admirable vessel to dissociate from it?

But dance will always be there for us. Dance will always be the same. We can always come back, years later, and realize that first position is still first position. What makes it feel different on any given day of the week is our intention.

We can choose to dance with the intention of honesty and self-respect.

We can choose to drop our expectation that dance should feel the same as it did “before” injury, not that it will feel worse, but it will feel different, possibly even better than before (and trust me, this is absolutely true).

We can, and must accept that our relationship with dance will change.

We choose to heal, or we choose to hurt. When we are able to return to that which hurt us and find that it heals, our journey has come full circle.

When I returned to dance, my intention had to change. I didn’t realize this at first, and it is part of the reason why it took me fours years to fully recover. In the early stages of healing, I attempted to return to dance still thinking that I needed to look a certain way and it didn’t feel “right”. I needed more time, more space to reflect on my relationship with it.

Now, I look for moments in ballet class that can heal me. Moments of humanity. Moments of honesty. I respect my limits. I focus on how good it feels to move. My body feels better after a class than before. My muscles feel like they’ve worked, but I don’t ache for days. And most importantly, I don’t give one F*** what people think of how I look.

Though I am sorry for what I put my body through, I know that it forgives me for not listening. I can laugh at my mistakes. I am thankful for the injuries that taught me how to heal and help others through their own healing process. And I love my body for what it can do, not for how it looks doing it.

Can you?

My final, top three suggestions on how to live a long life, dancing:

Be aware that your relationship with dance will change. Not better, not worse, just different.

Keep sight of who you’re dancing for, and why.

Love how it feels to move when you look like YOU dancing.

Pain is Empty

Before you read this post, please note:

1) Sometimes I have the urge to write things that are more metaphysical than “scientific”, and if you do not enjoy this type of writing, then you probably won’t want to read this post. If this is the case, stop reading now and find a more valuable use of your time. 

2) The following post is highly influenced by the teachings of nondual emptiness, about which I’ve been reading a lot lately. If you want to learn more about nondual emptiness, start here.

3) This post is an exploration of how emptiness relates to our interpretation and reaction to pain. Pain being something we, as dancers, are quite familiar with. Or are we…? 

4) No pictures in this post, sorry. But here’s something fun to look at in case you were expecting visual entertainment: http://www.sanger.dk/ <—- (click the link I promise you’ll like it!)

Ok, here’s ONE picture that is kind of relevant. Especially if you like hotdogs…

Annnd now you’ve been sufficiently warned of the nature of the content to follow. You ready?

Pain is empty.

Empty meaning that pain has no inherent, independent existence.

Pain, like every other thing that exists (and even like all the things that don’t exist), cannot exist on it’s own- It’s existence is dependent on the existence of other things. There must be something to experience the pain (you, your brain/body), as well as something that lead to the experience of pain (a swift kick to the shin, and said shin-kicker, for example). So, pain’s existence arises codependently with acute trauma, or overuse, plus you must exist to experience it.

What about our perception of pain? Pain, and all it’s subdivisions (tolerance to, reaction to, description of, etc), is an incredibly complex and fascinating thing.

If you think about pain as an empty thing (having no inherent, independent existence), it seems so insignificant. So then why do I, and others in the business of holistic body-care, care so much about it? If pain is empty, why should I worry (sometimes at night, in my dreams, fo’ realz) so much about keeping people pain-free? Why is this what I have chosen to do everyday? Why do I keep the pain of others constantly on my mind?

I no longer think it’s necessary to be so obsessed with one empty thing (remembering that ALL things are empty, dependent, inherently non-existent).

Both the pain and the being IN pain are empty. If I do decide to obsess, it should be in equal amount for both the person and the pain. As per the words Dr. Perry Nickelston coined, and should serve as a mantra for us all, “Stop chasing pain“. I can appreciate this more now realizing the empty existence of pain.

Why chase an empty thing? Why chase ANY thing?

I have made the mistake of thinking  first and foremost about the pain, and not the person, but they cannot be separated. One’s existence is dependent on the other, flowing together, so as the person changes, so too does their pain.

I can no longer fool myself into thinking that I can prevent or take away someone’s pain. Their cause of pain is beyond my control, but I can help shape them, the empty person, who has allowed their existence to depend on mine. And together, codependently, we will create change. And with this change the pain will change. Not disappear, but change.

But without pain, would that person be the same? Is my empty existence more influenced by my perception of my pain than I realize? Do I bring further physical suffering  upon myself simply because I acknowledge it? By recognizing it’s existence, albeit empty (dependent on MY existence), does that exacerbate my experience of it?

I know first-hand how pain symptoms can become part of a person’s identity. How many times have I, and my clients, used the words “broken”, “fixable”, “dysfunctional”, “sore” to describe the state of their existence…

The truth is these states could not exist without them, the individual. Pain and the person arise codependently.  We bring all our suffering upon ourselves, and the state of our existence depends, too, on our suffering.

You could interpret that as saying that we should ignore our pain, but that’s not what I mean. I’m just realizing now that sometimes I obsess too much. I allow my perception of pain to interfere when it need not to. I perceive it to be more important that it is. Pain is fleeting, empty of inherent existence, if you let it be. If you can let it flow.

There’s this thing  we call a “pain tolerance” which people assume is either high or low. A pain tolerance exists as an empty thing (surprise). It’s existence is dependent on the person in pain, and the situation that brings the pain. Without these variables, there is no tolerance to pain, and no pain either. There both is and there isn’t pain at all times. 

Have you ever forgotten you were in pain even though you were, at the moment, acutely injured?

Pain both exists, and doesn’t. It depends on you, and on the cause of the pain. In this case of forgetting your experience of pain, the injury is still there, but you’ve been distracted and forgotten it. Because the existence of pain is empty (not inherent, dependent), it can both exist and not exist at the same time. But you will remember the feeling of pain soon enough, for comfort is empty, too. Exists always and never.

That things can both exist and not exist at the same time is still a strange concept to me. The term “emptiness” sounds negative. Sounds unpleasant. But it’s not. Just empty. Emptiness implies that two dependent things cannot be separated. Mind/body, pleasure/pain- They both exist as empty things, dependent on each other to exist.

Dependence was once a negative term to me, too, because I take pride in thinking of myself as independent. But if dependence and independence really exist as nondual, empty things, then I must be resigned to both. Both dependent and independent.  Flowing constantly from varying degrees of one state to the other.

Everything flows. Panta rei…

Back to pain. If pain both exists and doesn’t exist simultaneously, be comforted. You’re not broken.

Even while you are feeling pain, you are also not in pain in many other ways. Your pain will pass. It’s not a part of your inherent existence, for you have none- Everything is dependent on another thing to exist. Do not mistake your pain for your identity.

To remove the temporary state of physical pain, trust is important. Trust that what you are doing is working. Remember that pain is both dependent on the one experiencing it, and the external factors causing it. Both factors are empty. Perhaps the external factors are gone, but you haven’t yet decided to release the pain. You haven’t forgotten it yet. In this case you’re needlessly bringing suffering upon yourself. We’ve all done it.

But remember, too, that you don’t need to fear pain, because pleasure and all of pain’s opposite sensations are just as real, or empty.

You don’t need to fear falling, for there was never anywhere to stand.

Dancers have mastered the art of forgetting pain. We work through it, through it’s empty existence. But this is not healthy for extended periods of time, which I and my dancer peers are liable to do. Everything must flow- Ignore pain for too long, and you will have to face it for equally long.

Don’t ignore pain, but don’t become obsessed with it either. Recognize it’s empty existence- it’s dependent existence. That it is not inherehently a part of you. And don’t be discouraged.

But also take care of your body. Take measures to prevent injuries. Become strong. Realize that pain cannot exist separately from the absence of pain. One is dependent on the other. And by realizing this you won’t have to suffer- You CAN feel it all simultaneously.

We easily get stuck in patterns that lead us to believe that our existence is dependent on pain. These are the people that think they are broken, and need to be fixed. This is me, right now. Trying to talk myself out of it.

Repeat after me:

I recognize that I will always experience both pain and non-pain. That pain is dependent on my existence, and that my existence, to a certain extent depends on pain, but also on pleasure, comfort, and happiness in equal amounts. And if I can convince myself that my existence was once dependent on my being in pain, to the point that it became part of my identity (“how are you today Monika? Oh you know, less sore today than usual”), then I can convince myself that my existence is dependent on happiness too.

So, knowing that both pain and non-pain are empty, dependent things, make the choice to not validate your existence by your suffering.

If you are experiencing physical pain, remind yourself that pain and non-pain exist simultaneously. You can choose to let the pain overcome you, or you can remember that non-pain is always there. The great difficulty we face is that things we perceive as negative are always more overpowering, more distracting.

No one ever says, “Sorry, I was distracted by my HAPPINESS and COMFORT”. But maybe I should start…

You are not your pain. But you are also not your happiness. You are empty. You are dependent. Like the existence of everything else. I still think you’re special. I think I’M special. But we can both special and non-special simultaneously, remember? Accept it and be free.

Summer Cross-Training Strategies for Dancers

Summer Cross-Training Strategies for Dancers

I’ll even addend to the official title:

Summer Cross Training Strategies for Dancers (Who Don’t Want to Screw Their Sh!t Up)

I feel passionately that the summer is one of the most important training periods dancers fail to take advantage of. Should you choose to use your summer wisely, you can make incredible improvements in your technique as well as prevent potential overuse injuries when you return to class in the fall.

We all know that dancers have a high injury rate. I love the short film below, directed by Aaron Buckley, that displays the two sides of ballet- The beauty and the pain.

This article is to help you to clarify what your goals should be for your summer training, and how to choose the best strategy to help you come back to dance in the fall with the advantage, not left straggling behind.

Do you even have a summer training goal? 

This is important: Do you really know what the main goals should be for your summer training? It’s all about improving technique, and that vague matter of “staying in shape”, right?

You may have been infused with the fear that the lack of regular dance classes in the summer will cause your dance technique to regress irreparably. The fear of being left behind the other dancers at your level. The last thing you want is to come back to classes in the fall and find that you are lagging behind, right? But are decisions made out of fear ever the most rational decisions? Not generally…

Surprise! your ideal summer strategy might not involve as much dancing as you’ve been led to believe.

It’s called an “off-season” for a reason

As research in the dance sciences excel, we are learning that the “dance only” approach is not optimal for successful, long dance careers. Dancers need to cross-train to prevent injuries and push through training plateaus that technique classes alone can’t do. Sadly, many teachers aren’t aware of this and, though they want what’s best for you, might not know how to advise you. For that reason, it falls on you to inform yourself and make educated choices.

And of course you will find that some dance teachers are less educated than others. Here’s a scary story from a dance client of mine: A former teacher of hers demanded that students show her the receipts from summer dance programs they had attended. If they didn’t attend “enough” summer intensives, they would be placed in the lower level the following year. Sounds like negative punishment and scare tactics to me.

Reminds me of “Dance Moms”. That show makes me die a little inside. Don’t watch it if you’re an optimist like me.

This “dance hard all summer” reasoning is likely based on fear and belief, not fact and science. In reality, too much time spent only on technical training  in the summer might actually be causing the regression that teachers are so afraid of.

Take the most common arguments you’ll hear from those who are pro summer dance intensives:

  • You’ll lose your hard earned dance technique
  • You’ll become “out of shape”
  • You won’t be able to advance to a higher level
  • Other dancers in your class will excel while you are left behind
  • You need more exposure to the world of dance beyond your studio/school, and to experience different teachers and styles
  • You could have an opportunity to be seen by someone important and secure future employment

Of that list of reasons, the only ones that are valid are the last two. Exposure and experience are very important for artistic development, learning about yourself and your interests as an artist, and for meeting others in the industry with whom you might want to work in the future. Learning where your interests lie as a dancer is important, but you don’t need to break your body down all summer to accomplish that.

Understand that summer is a time to rest, recover and rehabilitate, and by choosing not to, you are denying your need (and right) to give your body a break, to rest overused muscles, correct muscle imbalances, and reduce your risk of becoming injured. Injuries, by the way, are a great way to regress technically.

Dr. Blessyl Buan, my co-conspirator for the 2014 DTP summer program, offering her expertise in pilates for dancers- A great cross-training modality

 

But won’t you get out of shape if you take too much time off from dance in the summer?

That depends on your definition of “out of shape” (which is a vague term for dancers, who are able to mask their low fitness levels with extreme flexibility and amazing cognitive abilities).

I’ll use myself as an example:

The summer that I was 15 I was accepted into the Banff Center for the Arts’ dance training program*, which was a 6 week training program in which we danced all day and rehearsed all evening for 6 days a week. By the end of the program I felt like I was in the best shape of my life, but I couldn’t walk without a limp because of a constant searing pain in my right hip. Yet somehow I felt like I was in the best shape ever because I had worked so hard that I hurt. But if you’re so injured by the end of a program that you can’t even perform a fundamental movement, like walking, pain free,  did you really succeed at getting in “better shape”?

Those who believe that to be a dancer is to be in pain will often associate physical discomfort with success. Their idea of “fitness” is to have a high pain tolerance, and the mental toughness to ignore warning signs of injury. This is not fitness. This is delusion.

My recommended summer training strategy for success:

  • Take the first 2 to 3 weeks of your summer off from organized activity. This should be a time of active recovery mentally and physically.
  • Take at least 8 weeks of the summer to cross-train with some dedication.  Resistance training, yoga, or pilates with a qualified instructor who knows the dancer’s body are great options. Better yet, make a strength training regime part of your life forever to maintain your muscle, joint and soft tissue health.
  • If you want to dance in the summer (which in my opinion should be optional), do it for fun and because you genuinely love it. Participate in drop-in classes, workshops, and programs taught by teachers and schools you truly enjoy in the styles you like best. Choose them for the important reasons I mentioned above: Artistic development, learning about yourself as a dancer, and for future career opportunities, not out of pressure or fear.

Don’t confuse hard work for productive work. Intelligently taking advantage of your summer off-season will make you a better dancer. You should never dance just for the sake of dancing more, or out of fear. If your summer training program burns you out and injures you, you chose wrong.

This is why I take pride in offering a summer training program that accomplishes the specific goals that dancers need to address in their summer “off-season”:

  • Rehabilitate injuries that are nagging from the dance year
  • Perform exercises and activities that oppose the movement patterns of  dance
  • Rest muscles that are frequently overused in dance to allow them to recover
  • Develop full body strength
  • Manage mental and physical burnout
  • Build body awareness

The goal is not to work on more technique, but to build up the body’s capacity to work hard on technique in the fall.

A dancer of mine working on anti-rotation core stability- Important for preventing injuries and improving strength for all aspects of dance

The 2014 DTP summer cross-training program is extra special compared to past summers. This summer, through 8 weeks of customized strength training and pilates,  this program  teaches you how to strengthen your body for dance, and help you come back to dance fresh for the fall, as well as build awareness of how to properly take care of your body to prevent injuries and avoid hitting plateaus. You can read more about it here: www.danceproject.ca/summer-program. I am anticipating excellence.

I hope this has clarified some of the decision making process for you. Please feel free to email me if you have any questions, or want more information on the DTP summer training program.

 

 

 

* The Banff Center’s program, by the way, is excellent, and I am in no way putting it down.  It was just too much for me at the time. I was weak and unhealthy and what I really needed was something restorative, not intense dancing all day everyday. 

Does Training in Parallel Reduce Turn-out in Classically Trained Dancers?

Does Training in Parallel Reduce Turn-out in Classically Trained Dancers?

So you do ballet… Perhaps you’ve asked some of these questions:

“What’s the best exercise to increase my turnout range of motion?”

or

“Will training in turned IN positions and in parallel make my turnout worse?”

or

Why can’t I be Svetlana Zakharova????!”

The above are really great questions. Many of us wish we had more turnout, have tried without success to improve it, and have possibly even become injured somewhere along the way.

Turnout is a tricky thing. Despite advancements in the dance sciences there is still no consensus between dance teachers and dance healthcare professionals on how safe and effective it is to attempt improve turnout beyond a certain extent. There will also come a time in your training where you’ll just have to accept the range of motion you were given and move on with life. Sorry, but grinding bone (femur) against bone (acetabulum) doesn’t actually help anything.

And that leaves the other question, “Will training in parallel reduce turnout?”

Short answer: No. 

I wish I could end this post here. But I guess you probably would like an explanation.

First I want to say that I empathize. My turnout is naturally terrible (though within normal ranges for life in general, my hip external rotation is not optimal for classical ballet).

Next, I totally understand the concern that training in parallel could reduce your turnout ROM. This is actually a linear rationalization if you don’t have a good understanding of functional dance anatomy.

Unfortunately, this line of “more is better” thinking doesn’t take into account things like muscle overuse, soft tissue tension-holding patterns, strength imbalances, changes in neuromuscular control, alterations in boney alignment, and injuries. Things are little bit complicated for ballet dancers who dedicate their lives to turnout to the extent that it can kind of screw some joints up.

Working to optimize turnout is like managing a nutrient deficiency. You don’t want to jump to the conclusion that you need more of  a nutrient, megadose without a professional opinion or doing much research, and then somehow expect things to miraculously get better, not worse.

You don’t need to be worried about cross-training in parallel reducing your turnout and, if you dance, you probably need to work on getting more hip internal rotation (turn in) before starting on the quest for maximum hip external rotation. Why? Because if you can’t internally rotate your hips enough, you probably have some other range of motions that are limited too. I would bet money that if you can’t turn-in enough, you probably have trouble getting to neutral spine and pelvis. And by the way, neutral spine is MANDATORY if you are attempting to improve your turnout, as stated HERE on the IADMS website:

The use of core support and an awareness of pelvic alignment are also crucial if turnout is to be fully functional in dynamic dancing. Generally, muscles are at a biomechanical disadvantage in poor alignment; if the pelvis is in anterior tilt (swayback) or posterior tilt (tucked), it may not be possible to use the muscles that contribute to turnout optimally.

Also, in terms of injury prevention (particularly to the hips, back and knees), having enough turn-in is kind of a big deal, as loss of hip internal rotation on one or both legs can increase the likelihood of hip and back injury.

So all that said, I highly recommend doing parallel hip activities like yoga, strength training with weights, and walking around with a more parallel hip alignment (which will feel pigeon-toed, I know).

To boot, going beyond mere parallel by using specific exercises to improve your hip internal rotation is probably the best idea you’ve ever had as a dancer. If you don’t already follow Miguel Aragoncillo’s blog, he is on a roll with his posts on hip internal rotation. I suggest you read THIS, and THIS. They make me so happy.

And if you are one of those people who think that the way to better turnout is by doing MORE things that require turnout, like just doing more ballet classes, and forcing your turnout harder (and possibly from the wrong places), and that dancers shouldn’t cross-train, then I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to fight.

I came across one of such people, who believes in the dance-only-approach, HERE. The author, Mary Fernandez (a ballet teacher), states:

I don’t have anything against pilates or yoga,  just not for classical dancers! The reason for this is that ballet requires turn-out, and those other disciplines actually work against turn-out.

I think it only stands to reason that the classical ballet lesson in and of itself ought to be completely sufficient, completely capable of producing a masterful classical artist. Anything less reveals that the training is inefficient.

Ahhhhhhhh. I’ve had teachers like this. And I disagree completely. It would be great if dance classes alone were sufficient, but unfortunately the research states otherwise.

Many studies such as this one, suggest that methods of supplemental strength training, can reduce injury rates and improve technical performance. It’s just science, guys…

Oh and one more thing: Lifting weights once or twice per week WON’T make you bulk up, if that’s something you’re worried about (many dancers and teachers are). In the picture below you’ll see my client Sam, who is a dancer at Ryerson University, just killing it.

won't bulk you up

She has been training with me for the past 2 years. She squats. She deadlifts (like a champ). She can do excellent push-ups. Does she look particularly bulky? Nope. But her ballet teacher is still scared she’ll instantly hulkify. Don’t hold your breath for that, is all I can say.

Main points to remember:

  • Training in parallel positions won’t worsen your turnout.
  • Training in parallel can help correct muscle imbalances and overuse caused by excessive forcing of turnout.
  • Training to get a better range of motion in hip internal rotation is important and should be assessed before trying to increase hip external rotation.
  • Loss of internal rotation at the hip is correlated to hip and lower back pain.
  • Cross training with yoga and weights will not destroy your dance technique and turnout.
  • Loss of hip internal rotation interferes with your ability to get into neutral pelvis and spine.

Stay tuned for a post in the future that talks about this in more detail, because I swear I could go on and on for days.

Must Dancers Suffer to Make Art?

“Change is the only constant…No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”  ~Heraclitus

If only Heraclitus was a dance teacher- he would understand the dilemma the dance world faces, especially in ballet, where old-school philosophies reign supreme.

The dilemma I’m talking about is that dancers, with their high injury rate, suffer through very short careers. Yet we accept this. It’s just the way dance is! But does it have to be?

All things are changing around us. As Heraclitus said- Change is the only constant. The very nature of today’s dance choreography is changing! But the way dancers are training and being treated is not…

Dancers continue to be judged and selected based on the shape and size of their bodies.

The injury rate of dancers is between 60 and 80% (higher than many contact sports).

Dancers are not educated on the importance of strength training and on how to prevent injuries.

Dancers, who cannot even perform ONE proper push-up, are expected to perform feats of strength which should, considering their lack of strength, not even be physically possible. The mind finds a way…

Today’s new dance choreography is becoming more and more challenging and athletic. If you look at companies like La La La Humansteps, Australian Dance Theatre, Paul Taylor Dance Company, and Nederlands Dans Theater (to name a few), their dancers are expected to do athletic things, and must be strong beyond the ballet norms.

Unfortunately, the training dancers receive doesn’t always prepare them adequately, which leads to injury and suffering.

I have seen that there is a way to ease this suffering. That there is a way to help the dancer become stronger, to not get hurt, to not have to deal with the psychological trauma that comes with physical pain. But is this helping the art form?

I’ve been feeling conflicted lately. Seeing that strength training can ease a dancer’s suffering, but wondering, does dance need suffering? 

Is suffering important for the artist?

Van Goh who had low self-esteem and suffered from epilepsy and eventually committed suicide.

Bethoven who went deaf.

Dostoyevsky who went to prison, lived in poverty, and struggled with depression and an addiction to gambling.

Kurt Cobain who struggling with mental illness, anger, depression, and drug addiction.

Evelyn Hart who was anorexic, but danced beautifully, and ironically, until the “old” age of  50.

Is suffering necessary for artistic success?

In trying to ease the suffering of dancers, am I taking away from the inherent nature of what makes dancers artists?

Is the reason that dance is not changing due to the fact that it isn’t supposed to change?

In some ways, I think that dancers do need to suffer. Sacrifice is necessary for real art,  everyone knows what pain feels like. Art helps us relate to the pain of others. It unites us in our suffering. Makes us feel like we’re not alone with our negative feelings, and our combined recognition of this suffering lifts it from us, just enough.

On the other hand, when dancers suffer too much and can no longer perform, then there is no more of this wonderful sharing. Too much suffering can be career ending.

Perhaps the role of strength training for the dancer is to lift their suffering just enough. I shouldn’t be so naive as to think that strength training will make the dancer’s life so easy that they will never experience anything negative ever again. Even a strong body can become hurt. And even a strong mind can succumb to negativity.

There are of course, other ways to suffer than through physical injury, and to unburden the dancer from this one, lone form of suffering surely can’t devoid them of all artistic expression. Can it?

Much like there is a level of optimal cognitive arousal for athletic performance, perhaps, too, there is a level of optimal suffering for compelling artistry.

I guess I just worry sometimes that the change I want to see in the industry will take it to a place that some people in the industry might not like. There will be criticisms that strength development will affect the artistry of the dancer. The pleaser in me doesn’t like to make waves.

But I would like to see dance to go in a direction where the dancers don’t need to be waify and fragile looking. Where dancers are athletic and strong. Where dancers can dance long into their adult lives. Where the dancer is not judged on what their body looks like, but how they move it. Where the injury rate isn’t higher than in wrestling. Where 12 year olds don’t have hip pain exceeding that of of their grandparents.

Is that such a crazy thought?

What do you think?