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Here’s Why Even Young Dancers Should Be Thinking About Injury Prevention

Nanette Grebe/Getty Images

Have you heard the story about the dancer who needed a double hip replacement…at age 16?

It's not an urban legend—just ask iconic choreographer Mia Michaels. In a video series about dance injuries, produced by Apolla Performance Footwear, Michaels tells the tale of a teenage comp kid who pushed so hard she ended up in surgery.

That dancer's harrowing story was one of the inspirations for the Bridge Dance Project. The new initiative—brainchild of Jan Dunn, co-director of Denver Dance Medicine Associates, and Kaycee Cope Jones, COO of Apolla—aims to connect members of the competition and commercial dance communities with dance science experts. While many academic and professional concert dancers have benefited from recent advances in dance medicine, that information hasn't made its way to most of the young students in convention ballrooms. And as the technical demands on those students increase, so does the number of injuries.

We talked to Dunn and Jones about how the Bridge Dance Project was born, the initiative's long-term goals, and why young competition and commercial dancers should make injury prevention a priority.


How did you two first connect?

Jan Dunn: A colleague of mine sent me the link to the Apolla video with Mia telling that hip replacement story—I'd never heard of Apolla before then. Immediately I thought, Wow, This is huge. For Mia, this award-winning choreographer, to be saying that action needed to be taken—it meant something. Traditional dance medicine has made inroads into the academic world and especially the professional ballet world, but we haven't really gotten a foothold in the competition scene, or been able to reach the average dance studio. I'd been watching things like "So You Think You Can Dance" and just cringing, worrying about these young dancers doing such incredible but also potentially damaging things to their bodies. And here was someone talking about injuries in that exact group. So I reached out to Kaycee and told her how impressed I was. She was immediately receptive.

Why are convention and commercial dancers at especially high risk for injury?

Kaycee Cope Jones: One reason is the increasingly high level of technique at these competitions and conventions. These dancers are doing things we'd never dreamed of a few years ago! And with those higher expectations—the push for hypermobility, for harder and faster dancing—comes increased risk. Just like these students are going to school to learn math, they need to educate themselves about their bodies. But how can they do that? Ballet companies and academic institutions have the resources to bring in dance science experts to help their dancers, but students who train at local studios and go to competition on weekends don't have that kind of access. For many young dancers, the only sources of information are their teachers, who may not be trained in dance science, and their favorite social media influencers.

JD: And the dance science research that is available, much of that literature is very scientifically oriented. So if you're not from that background, it might go over your head—it's not really speaking to your everyday life in the studio.

What were your first steps in creating Bridge Dance Project?

JD: Kaycee and I first began putting it together about three months ago, so we're still in the early stages. But we started by assembling a board—people from her world, and people from my world, with different skill sets and networking capabilities.

KCJ: Our goal is to help dancers see a 360-degree view of health, so we were looking for people from all different perspectives—dance medicine researchers, psychiatrists, eating disorder specialists, physical trainers and therapists. We want them to share their expertise about dancers' minds, bodies, and souls.

What are your longer-term goals for the initiative?

JD: We're envisioning a network of medical professionals and dance educators who can give presentations at studios or offer clinics at conventions. All of it will be offered free—it's not a money-making thing.

KCJ: One of our board members created the Doctors for Dancers directory—that's such an amazing tool, and we want to expand on that, to connect dancers to the dance medicine specialists who really understand them and their injuries. We're also going to put together dance medicine resources written in everyday language, addressed to the everyday dancer.

JD: Speaking the dancer's own language is so important. For example, it's not "external rotation of the hip," it's "turnout"!

Where can readers learn more about Bridge Dance Project, and what other wellness resources do you recommend?

JD: We'll be launching a website, a Facebook page, and a monthly newsletter soon. Use our email sign-up to stay in the loop.

KCJ: In the meantime, Doctors for Dancers, which we mentioned before, is a fabulous resource. And so is 4dancers.org, a dance wellness site with advice on a lot of different topics. Education is so powerful—learning about your body as a dancer will change how you think, how you eat, how you train, everything.

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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