Here’s something you don’t often hear: A dancer admitting their injuries.
14 years of figure skating, plus going on 16 years of belly dance (as well as many other dance forms) have taken their toll on my body. I’m constantly managing cranky hamstrings (biceps femoris for those nerds who are curious) in both legs, particularly on the left, as well as what might be pre-arthritic inflammation in my left hip socket. My left patella is prone to instability, resulting from muscular imbalances in my upper legs, causing the dreaded “Runner’s Knee.” In addition, I occasionally suffer from Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis. The muscles around my left tibia and fibula seized up for a month in 2014 causing an excruciating pain in the ball of my foot, so much so that I could not walk or dance on it.*
I’m not asking for sympathy. This is my physical reality, but it doesn’t mean I’m forever doomed to dance in pain.
I could easily blame my coaches and dance instructors for my injuries, but my injuries are as much my own fault as the movements I have done repeatedly to invoke them. I’m not even sure “fault” is the best word. Dancers push their bodies to do unnatural movements for the sake of expression, aesthetics, and beauty; do that enough, and there’s bound to be some consequences. I could also easily admit defeat in the face of these physical obstacles, allowing them to dictate my practice. And while I take much care to not aggravate these conditions, I refuse to let them hold me back.
As a child, and well into my teenage years and early 20s, I saw myself as indestructible. Sure, I had some back pain once in a while (which I later learned was related to my psoas), but it would heal, and I would be fine. It wasn’t until I tore my left biceps femoris again last year that I actually did anything about it.
And by then, it was almost too late.
Thankfully, as a graduate student in a dance program, I had access to a fantastic physical therapist. I began seeing her regularly, as well as enrolling in a Pilates teacher training program.
Indeed, seeing a physical therapist and regularly engaging in a Pilates routine helped rehabilitate my hamstrings, as well as reveal other imbalances and instabilities in my pelvis that could, if I am not careful, lead to further injuries. But because of my injury, my rehabilitation has made me a stronger, more stable, and more efficient mover.
Many of us in the American belly dance community are in our 30s and 40s, having started this dance while we were in our 20s. Movements such as Turkish Drops, backbends, and the splits might have been more easily attained in our more youthful forms; however, years of wear and tear not only through dancing, but office work or anything else we have done in our lifetimes have taken their toll on our bodies. (Sitting all day wreaks all sorts of anatomical havoc.)
It is important that we find ways to mitigate the inevitable damage that we do to our bodies as dancers. Those of us who seek to make a living from teaching and/or performing must take even more care, for our bodies are literally our livelihoods. Even the most anatomically-aware dance practice includes repetitive movements, and this repetition, if not balanced out by cross-training, can cause imbalances in the body that could lead to injury. This reality is often not the fault of our instructors or their methodologies. It’s just a reality of this meat-covered skeleton we call Home, and as maturing practitioners we must take responsibility for our own bodies. We can do so through cross-training.
What do I mean by cross-training? Engaging in an exercise routine that explicitly aims to identify and balance the body’s strengths and flexibilities. Sure, attending dance classes in other forms will work out different muscle groups, but a specific exercise practice will likely be the most valuable for injury prevention and movement longevity.
What methods are out there? One dancer I know insists on machine-based weight training (and rehabbed herself after a major surgery). Some swear by yoga, others Gyrotonic/Gyrokinesis. I know others who insist on attending Dailey Method workouts. I prefer Pilates mat and reformer work to bring greater kinesthetic awareness to the intrinsic muscles around my hips. Any practice that emphasizes alignment, somatics, and strengthening will likely benefit you in the studio and on stage. You’ll feel a difference even if you only go once a week.
As we age, we must recognize that it’s up to us to modify movements as necessary. Indeed, an instructor can give modifications, but we are more empowered if we know how to modify for ourselves in a way that is not disruptive to the class or other students. It’s also up to us as students to alert our instructors to any injuries we might be dealing with on a given day; it’s up to the instructor to honor that communication. A good instructor will.
Do your body a favor and find a method that makes your body feel stronger, supported, and mobile. We won’t dance forever, but we can at least make our dancing years as pain-free and injury-free as possible.
*For those who are curious about why the left side? That’s my landing leg. Every time a figure skater lands a jump, she puts 5-8 times her own body weight on it through sheer impact.