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.
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!