Like many dance teachers, Sergey Kozadayev deals with pain from arthritis on a daily basis. Every morning, the 55-year-old wakes up with pain in his knees, a condition he attributes to several bad habits from his days as a professional dancer with the Leningrad State Ballet. Kozadayev recalls landing improperly from jumps—locking his knees instead of using them to absorb the shock and protect his hips and lower back. By dancing with poor technique, he caused irreparable damage to his ligaments and joints. “Now I have two nails in my kneecap, and when the rain is coming, I know,” jokes Kozadayev, who served as the ballet master at the Colorado Ballet in Denver before becoming the artistic director at Chicago’s Salt Creek Ballet.

Nearly 70 million Americans suffer from arthritis—that’s about one out of every four people—and more than 58 percent are women, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A deterioration of the cartilage between joints, which causes pain and decreased range of motion, arthritis normally affects people over the age of 60, but in dancers, it can occur as early as age 20, due to the constant strain on their bodies. If you suspect that you are suffering from arthritis, here are some tips for diagnosing the condition, dealing with the pain and getting through a long day of teaching.

Recognizing the Symptoms

Look out for joints that are red, warm, swollen and achy. “If you have all of those components, then you may have arthritis,” says Dr. Hayes Wilson, a national medical advisor for the Arthritis Foundation and chief of rheumatology at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. Experts say if you experience any of these symptoms for more than a week, it’s best to consult a doctor.

Unfortunately, dancers have a tendency to push through their pain and put off seeking medical advice. Although you may have developed a high pain threshold, experts say you can’t ignore sore feet and tender muscles, and the longer you leave your arthritis unchecked and don’t change your behavior, the worse it can become. “The fear among dancers is if they have it checked out, [the doctor] will tell them they can’t dance,” says Donna Williams, the Dance Medicine Manager for AthletiCo, a physical therapy firm in Chicago. “But if you let it go, it’s going to become a big problem.”

Lessening the Pain

Once you are diagnosed with arthritis, there are steps you can take to make life easier. Wilson recommends that dance teachers start by taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory. If these over-the-counter medicines don’t work, your doctor can prescribe something stronger.

Next, learn when to take a break. “Pacing yourself during class and taking rest breaks is important,” Wilson says. Don’t be reluctant to sit on a stool to watch the class, rather than walking around and examining students.

Williams adds that you should sit down if you start to feel pain in your knees, ankles or feet. “If you’re having problems, sometimes it’s necessary to make modifications to prolong the life of your body,” she says. You should also avoid using the same muscles too often, which can be a common problem for dance teachers who lead the same exercises day after day. And don’t favor one side of your body when demonstrating steps, as that can cause added strain to certain joints. Instead, Williams suggests forcing yourself to demonstrate on both the left and the right sides as a form of muscle-balancing.

After 10 years of working with dancers from the Joffrey Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, among others, Williams says she’s seen a lot of similarities in where dancers experience pain. According to her, overworking certain muscles and underusing others will cause unnatural strain on the connecting joints.

“[Dancers’] calves are so strong because they relevé and jump all the time,” she says. This imbalance can lead to arthritis in the ankles, knees and feet. Dancers also tend to have strong quadriceps but weak hamstrings and outer hips, which can cause pain in the hips and lower back. To combat these tendencies, Williams recommends exercising outside of the studio and varying your workouts to strengthen weaker muscles and evenly tone your body. Choose activities that won’t put added stress on your joints, such as yoga, Pilates, swimming or biking. In the gym, stick to low-impact cardio machines such as elliptical trainers and stationary bikes.

Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet is another key to lessening arthritis pain. Obesity is a major contributing cause to arthritis, because excess weight puts extra strain on the joints. Some experts also encourage arthritis sufferers to avoid foods that are acidic, such as caffeine, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant, although there is no conclusive scientific evidence to prove these foods make arthritis worse.

Finally, the Arthritis Foundation stresses that you should be kind to your joints by applying an ice pack to those areas that are hot and inflamed, taking a warm or hot bath before going to bed and treating yourself to massages.

Considering Surgery

Many arthritis sufferers even opt for surgery. Dick Blake, a 62-year-old social dance teacher in Cleveland, Ohio, says he was in denial about the seriousness of his arthritis for eight years before he finally found himself walking with a cane and realized the condition was threatening his way of life. “It was devastating,” Blake says. “You have your business, hundreds of students waiting to take classes from you, and you can’t do it.”

He tried napping often and taking pills for the pain, but eventually he decided to have two hip replacements at the same time. Within six weeks, Blake says he was walking again and back in the studio, and 10 years after surgery he is still pleased with the results. “I can dance as well as I did 25 years ago, and it’s because of good surgery,” he says.

Blake recommends that dance teachers get evaluated for surgery by at least two doctors. “If you’re positive you have to have it done, the longer you wait, the worse it will be,” he adds. “The students will be there when you get back.”

Training for Prevention

“The first and most important thing I would say to dancers is to use proper technique to avoid injury,” says Wilson. To prevent arthritis from developing later on, young dancers should be especially sure to use correct turnout. If dancers aren’t rotating their legs completely from the hips, they will end up rolling forward on their toes, which puts added pressure on the knees and ankles.

To encourage correct turnout from an early age, Williams sends her team of therapists into performing arts high schools to analyze students’ dance technique. “We like to look at their biomechanics,” Williams says. “They may be cheating, turning out their foot and knee because they don’t have natural turnout at the hip.”

Incorrect form isn’t only found in young, inexperienced dancers. Williams says even some dance teachers don’t use proper form, and she notes that it’s even harder to correct their mistakes. “They’ve been doing this for so long that they might need to unlearn things,” she says.

In the end, it’s important to remember that pain from arthritis need not spell the end of your teaching career. With attention and care, you will find that you can continue to choreograph, demonstrate and teach every day. DT

Lauren Heist is a freelance writer in Evanston, IL.

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 Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Enrollment is an issue that plagues brand-new and veteran studio owners alike. Without a steady stream of revenue from new students coming through your doors, your studio won't survive—no matter how crisp your dancers' technique is or how well-produced your recitals are.

Enrollment—in biz speak, customer acquisition and retention—depends on your business' investment in marketing. How effectively you get the word out about your studio will directly influence the number of people who register. Successful businesses typically use certain tried-and-true marketing strategies to recruit and retain clients or customers. These four studio owners' tricks for kicking enrollment into high gear are modeled after classic marketing techniques.

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 Teacher Tips

Dance teachers are just as apt to fall into the trap of perfectionism and self-criticism as the students they teach. The high-pressure environment that is the dance world today makes it difficult to endure while keeping a healthy perspective on who we truly are.

To help you quiet your inner critic, and by extension set an example of self-love for your students, we caught up with sports psychologist Caroline Silby. Here she shares strategies for managing what she calls "neurotic perfectionism." "Self-attacking puts teachers and athletes in a constant state of stress, often making them rigid, inflexible and ultimately fueling high anxiety rather than high levels of performance," Silby says. "Perfectionistic teachers, dancers and athletes can learn to set emotional boundaries. They can use doubt, frustration and worry about missing expectations as cues to take actions that align with what they do when teaching/performing well and feeling in-control. Being relentless about applying a solution-oriented approach can help the perfectionist move through intense emotional states more efficiently."

Check out those strategies below!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

Since the dawn of time, performers have had to deal with annoying, constant blisters. As every dance teacher knows (and every student is sure to find out), blisters are a fact of life, and we all need to figure out a plan of action for how to deal with them.

Instead of bleeding through pointe shoes and begging you to let them sit out, your students should know these tricks for how to prevent/deal with their skin when it starts to sting.

You're welcome!

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
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
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 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
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


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox