Dancer Health

Are You Teaching Your Dancers to Work Through Pain?

Mary Six Rupert (center) is spokeswoman for the American Association of Physical Activity and Recreation's "Get a Kick Out of Life" knee-health campaign. Photo courtesy of Rupert

Mary Six Rupert remembers the exact day when demonstrating pullbacks in her tap class didn't quite feel right. The former Rockette then noticed that walking up the subway stairs caused sharp pain in her knees. In the beginning the pain only occurred during activity, but it soon became so constant that she needed a demonstrator for class. “Six shows a day seven days a week with high heels and high kicking will take a toll on anyone's knees," says Rupert, referring to her 13-year stint in the famous Radio City kick line. In her 50s, she was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both knees—an arthritic condition common among dancers where the protective cartilage at the ends of bones gradually deteriorates and the knee loses shock absorption. In extreme cases, bones can rub against each other.


“Think of the treads on a tire—eventually they just wear out. And all the jumping and landing dancers do puts them at greater risk for knee injuries," says Patrick McCulloch, an orthopedic surgeon at Houston's Methodist Center for Sports Medicine and consultant for the Center for Performing Arts Medicine. But good news: Proper training and awareness can help your students protect their knees.

Preventive Measures

Marijeanne Liederbach, director of research and education at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries in New York, advises teachers to educate dancers on knee-health maintenance. “This means good solid nutrition, taking part in some form of supplemental training, having a strong core and taking care of the neighboring joints, like the hip and ankle," she says. “Pay attention to fatigue as well, as we know from research that most knee injuries occur during extreme fatigue." Basic bone health also includes encouraging students not to smoke and to intake enough calories for proper hormone balance.

Photo courtesy of Mary Six Rupert

Your job as a dance teacher is to build and strengthen students' stamina to endure tough physical technique, says Liederbach, who recently studied the number of jumps dancers do in a typical class—about 200. She also encourages training dancers to see the knee in a broader sense. “From a biomechanical point of view, the knee is the largest joint in the body, located between two of the largest bones," she says. “Because of this, the knee can fall victim to ankle and hip problems."

The first step to knee protection, according to Houston-based physical therapist and former dancer Jennifer Romanek, is making sure students execute proper turnout (which involves the ankle and hip). “When you force a turnout from the feet, it puts a tremendous torque on the knees, which can wear down cartilage," she says. “Don't push a turnout past the external range of motion that the hip allows."

Cross-training can help build knee-supporting muscles—as important for teachers as for their students. “Go to the gym and do other types of movement besides dance classes," Romanek says. “Even if you are just teaching, you need to remember that you are demonstrating all day, which can take a toll on your knees." She recommends Pilates exercises on the reformer to loosen the iliotibial (IT) band—thick fibrous tissue that runs from the pelvis to the lower leg bone—and quadriceps, which are crucial for knee stability. “A tight IT band and quads will pull excessively on the knee," she says. “Dancers need long and lean muscles."

Early Warning

Knee pain that feels completely different from the average ache and pain is often the first sign of trouble, says Rupert. Tell students to be on the lookout for joint swelling or catching, and grinding sensations as well. McCulloch, who has diagnosed and treated many Houston Ballet dancers, recommends that dancers (when experiencing unusual, lingering knee pain) first see a doctor to check for any damage. “With an X-ray we can see the spaces between the bones," he says. “Although cartilage will not show up on an X-ray, we can see the narrowing of that space. An MRI will show the condition and possible loss of the cartilage."

While Rupert managed to finish her professional performance career relatively injury-free before developing osteoarthritis after age 50, McCullough says he has seen the condition in dancers as young as 20 and 30. If injuries aren't taken care of at a young age, further damage can occur that might ultimately lead to knee replacement. As Rupert says, “Dancers need to get over working through the pain. The sooner you find out what's going on, the more options you have."

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

For an aspiring professional dancer, an unexpected injury can feel like a death sentence to a career that hasn't even started. The recovery process following an injury can be one of the most grueling and heartbreaking experiences a performer will ever face. In times like these, dance teachers have the power to boost or weaken a dancer's morale.

With that in mind, we've compiled a list of do's and don'ts for talking to a seriously injured dancer.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: Last season I had three dancers on my junior team who struggled all year. They've trained with me for years, yet they keep sliding farther behind their classmates. What should I do?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox