Athletes in many of the aesthetic sports, including dance, require high level strength AND flexibility to achieve performance goals. Because dancers move through significant ranges of motion in the spine, hips, ankles, and feet, it is important to have adequate strength and flexibility in surrounding muscle groups to reduce risk of injury and maximize performance. Beyond optimizing strength and flexibility, it is important for dancers to develop a fine-tuned balance between activity and rest to allow for proper recovery and restoration in the body.
Most dance injuries, especially in dancers that are still growing, are overuse injuries. These types of injuries occur because of one or a mix of the following reasons:
- Inadequate warm-up before and/or cool-down after activity
- Inadequate rest/recovery time between bouts of activity (another way to say this is high volume of activity and low volume of rest or none at all)
- Poor nutrition
- High levels of stress inside and outside of sport
The most important point to drive home with overuse injuries is the importance of encouraging dancers to listen to their body. Any sign of discomfort is the body’s attempt at throwing a yellow or red flag, suggesting the dancer proceed with caution or stop the immediate activity altogether until further medical assessment is performed. Recognizing and whole-heartedly understanding that athletes do not like to hear that they must step out of their sport for any length of time, it is important to acknowledge warning signs early. When yellow and red flags are honored as soon as they pop up, there may still be time to make modifications and allow for some level of participation before having to withdraw from the activity altogether. From both the athlete and instructor/coach perspective, it is undesirable to have to sit out for one day. But this one day could prevent future sidelining that has the potential to last for multiple days or maybe the entire season.
There are many ways dancers can take accountability for nourishing and treating their body with care. Beyond finding a proper balance between activity and rest, dancers can integrate specific strengthening and flexibility exercises into their daily routine. Important muscle groups for dancers to strengthen include the deep core (including the transverses abdominus), gluteals and deep hip rotators, and foot intrinsic muscles. It is also important for dancers to remain flexible in their hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes, and ankle plantar flexors (gastrocnemius and soleus). A combination of strengthening and stretching is essential for promoting strong and pliable muscle tissues that are the most resilient to injury.
The entire musculoskeletal system (bones and soft tissues in the body) is a connected unit. Many muscle groups and joints work together to perform a desired motion. If one member of the team isn’t working properly (perhaps because of decreased strength/flexibility or improper alignment), another member of the team will be forced to pick up the slack. This can result in compensatory strategies that place excessive load through a joint and/or the surrounding tissues. As a result, risk of injury is high. In the case of dancers, let’s consider turnout. A dancer’s turnout requires a significant amount of motion at the hip. If hip external rotation strength or available range of motion is limited, many dancers begin to compensate in their knees or feet to force a greater turnout. As a result, increased torque is placed through the knee and ankle joint as well as joints in the foot, which leads to a higher risk of injury. So how might dancers be able to improve upon this?
Becoming educated on specific ways to strengthen and improve flexibility in areas of the body specific to dancers is a great place to begin. It can also be hugely beneficial to be screened by a physical therapist who will be able to identify impaired movement mechanics and biomechanical limitations that could increase injury risk and/or impact performance.
At Hands On Physical Therapy, we are passionate about reducing risk of injuries before they occur. We are also excited about educating and empowering all dancers, their peers, and their instructors to practice injury risk reduction strategies routinely. If you’re interested in being screened by our dance medicine expert, call us today at 541-312-2252 to set up an appointment with Jen Wardyga, PT, DPT. Keep an eye out for her in the studio, too!
Hands On Physical Therapy
147 SW Shevlin Hixon Dr. Ste 104
Bend, OR 97702