Health & Body

How to Prevent These 10 Common Dance Injuries

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Injuries can be devastating to a dance career, but you can reduce their occurrence or avoid them—if you know what to look for. To learn why certain injuries happen and what can be done to prevent them, we consulted a group of experts: Jacqui Greene Hass, director of Pilates and Dance Medicine at Wellington Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine Therapy Services; Marijeanne Liederbach, director of research and education at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries; Jennifer Deckert, assistant professor at University of Wyoming (holds an MFA in ballet pedagogy and has presented at the International Association for Medicine and Science); and Michael Kelly Bruce, associate professor at The Ohio State University (certified in Pilates and specializes in conditioning).


1. Neck Strain: Choreography that calls for excessive head movement can easily strain dancers' neck muscles, especially if dancers do not properly use the full spine when arching the head/neck. Prevention Tip: “Lengthen the neck rather than collapse it," says Bruce. “I like using the image of the fountains at the Bellagio [Resort & Casino]: a long, graceful arch."

2. Rotator Cuff Tendonitis and Impingement: Extensive use of the arms (overhead lifts and falls) can lead to tears in upper-arm tendons or even impingement, painful pressure felt in the shoulder when the rotator cuff and scapula rub together as arms are lifted. Prevention Tip: “Be aware of the actual landmarks of the shoulder girdle," says Bruce. “Once students understand the scapula is located behind them, they can have better anatomically aligned mechanics."

3. Lower-Back Strain and Muscle Spasms: Lifting, arching and improper technique can all overwork and strain the lower-back extensor-erector muscles. Dancers with lordosis (a swayed back or lower-back curve) are more prone to spasms. Prevention Tip: “I like to use the image of a cummerbund, where the student has a more three-dimensional sense of their abdominal wall," says Deckert. “Or imagine the pelvis as a bowl with water. Preventing the water from splashing will improve core strength."

4. Snapping Hip Syndrome: Iliotibial (IT) band tightness, weakness along the outside of the hip and lordosis can cause this syndrome. Dancers will experience a snapping rubber-band–like sound in the frontal hip joint, as the IT band glides over the greater trochanter (upper-leg bone) during battement or développé. Prevention Tip: Strengthen the lower abs and all pelvic stabilizers (abductors, adductors, hip flexors), and avoid turning out at the feet, which stresses the knees and hips.

5. Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome: This syndrome stems from tight hamstrings and calf muscles, weak quadriceps and repetitive force from normal movement putting pressure on the patella (kneecap), causing the knee-protecting cartilage to lose its shock-absorbing ability. Dancers with high-arched or flat fleet, wide hips and knees that turn in or out are more likely to experience this pain. Prevention Tip: “The knee is the victim between the ankle and the hip," says Liederbach. “Core strength, hip-abductor strength training and IT stretching are key."

6. Meniscus Knee Tear: Twisting knees during movement, forcing feet in turnout or losing control when landing a jump can tear the cushioning knee cartilage. Prevention Tip: “Strengthening the core is so crucial to knee health," says Bruce. “It lessens the burden on the knee, so you are not landing with so much force."

7. Posterior Tibial Tendonitis: Dropping the medial arch during warm-ups or basic barre exercises overworks the tibial tendon. This type of tendonitis also coincides with shin splints or can be the result of chronic ankle rolling. Prevention Tip: “Work to lift the arches and do not force turnout from the feet," says Deckert.

8. Achilles Tendonitis: An overuse injury caused by training extensively during a short period of time, dancing on a hard floor or putting pressure on a tightened calf muscle. Weight pressure or unbalanced range of motion will predispose dancers to this type of tendonitis. Prevention Tip: Use Thera-Bands when doing tendus, basic flexibility and resistance work, says Bruce.

9. Lateral Ankle Sprain: A ligament tear that happens when the outside of the ankle rolls inward after loss of balance from landing a jump. Prevention Tip: “Use a Thera-Band to keep the ankle flexible and strong," says Bruce.

10. Posterior Ankle Impingement Syndrome: A pinching sensation felt during repeated floor or barre work, as the heel bone comes into contact with the talus bone and tissues at the back of the ankle compress. Reaching a full range of motion when pointing the feet or in relevé will be difficult. Dancers born with an extra bone in place are more prone to this syndrome. Prevention Tip: Vary your training regimen to focus on other types of dance after excessive pointe or demi pointe work.

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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