Health & Body

Jason Facey, Courtesy Rox

Three broken ribs, two broken ankles and one broken wrist. These are the last things a dancer wants to hear, let alone experience. On September 28, 2019, dancehall and soca choreographer and teacher Betty Rox found herself facing this reality when she was struck by a car while out for a walk in Los Angeles, California. She awakened in the arms of a caring stranger, unable to move.

But despite her initial disorientation and multiple injuries, her optimistic mindset led her down a path to a speedy recovery. Here's what got her back to dancing.


Her First Thoughts

"Being rushed to the hospital and not really knowing what's going on is a little bit scary," says Rox. "But I never, not once, felt like I wouldn't dance again." At the hospital, Rox's mother relayed the good news: She'd ultimately be okay. But what followed was an unsettling feeling when she learned that doctors were unsure how long it would take for her to walk or dance again based on the extent of her ankle injuries. Although this came as a shock, Rox felt grateful to still have both legs after being pinned within the grill of the vehicle. "I'm very spiritual, so I always had the faith that I would bounce back from this, and that I needed to just give myself the time to heal," she says.

Known for her unique island flavor combining soca, a cultural dance style originating from Trinidad and Tobago, and dancehall, a style rooted in Jamaica's energetic reggae culture, it came as a shock to friends, family and students when they discovered that, after two surgeries, Rox would have to learn how to walk again. One friend created a GoFundMe campaign, and over $14,000 was raised to support Rox on her road to recovery.

The support from both loved ones and strangers helped Rox stay in a healthy mental space. "I went from dancing, moving and doing whatever I want to literally being in a position where I needed to call someone every second that I needed to do something," she adds. "That was a frustrating process because I'm so independent. It put me in a really humbling position."

Her positivity made the transition into the Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center and working with physical therapists that much smoother, going from wheelchair to walking within two weeks.

Betty stands smiling with her hands in her pockets, wearing red, green, and gold clothing.

Jason Facey, Courtesy of Betty Rox

On Taking Her Time to Heal

"My students were asking me when I'm gonna teach again, so I did feel some obligation," she says. "But at the same time, I told myself 'You're allowed to take this time to yourself.' "

Rox has a few friends—mostly dancers—who have been injured in the past, and all of them offered similar advice: "You are by no means being pressured to come back to dancing or teaching. Take your time to heal, because once you reinjure yourself, then it makes it even harder for your comeback." She channeled that advice and used it as a reminder to not rush her healing process.

The pandemic has only helped her take a more intentional approach to her recovery. "It pushed me to take some more time to heal, and I'm glad because I really do feel like I would've probably tried to teach a lot earlier," she says, laughing.

The Healthy Habits That Helped Her Recover

Meditation, journaling and prayer were key factors in Rox's recovery, and have remained her go-to healing habits even almost a year after the accident. "I always did these things, but it just became more heightened in the situation that I was in," she says. "Now, I'm just so much more aware and prepared to take care of myself on a different level."

Betty Rox stands smiling, while holding two 10 lb. dumbbells.

Jason Facey, Courtesy of Betty Rox

How Her Teaching Has Shifted

So, how has this life-changing experience made Rox a better teacher? For one, it has made her more aware of her body. "I want people to be able to experience what's happening with their bodies, and not just rush through the process," she says. "It's made me aware of how much I want to explain to my students how to properly utilize their bodies and connect to the movement more."

As she approaches the one-year anniversary of the accident, Rox is back on her feet and teaching her first class on Instagram Live this weekend.

How Being a Dancer Helped Her Heal

"I think our bodies register healing very differently because we are used to doing so many things, and I think they've gotten equipped to making changes very quickly," she says. "Our bodies are in a whole different process when it comes to healing because of our background."

Health & Body
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From oversized mouse heads in The Nutcracker to Jabbawockeez masks, most dancers have experience performing with restrictive costumes or headpieces. But as we transition from taking class at home during the COVID-19 pandemic to sharing a studio with others, masks aren't just a costume accessory: They're a necessary health tool.

While masks are not a replacement for other COVID-19 prevention measures that we've been following for months, such as social distancing and practicing hand hygiene, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear face masks or cloth face coverings in any public setting or instance where it's difficult to maintain at least six feet of social distance—and that includes the dance studio.

We spoke with medical experts and dancewear manufacturers about what to look for in a protective mask for dance.

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Just when young dancers need oxygen the most—during a challenging balance or speedy petit allégro—it often seems they instinctively hold their breaths. Sometimes this happens as a reaction to stress; other times it might simply result from a constant sucking in of the waistline. No matter, it is an important habit for dance teachers to break.

"Dancers do not want their bellies sticking out, so most of them never breathe deeply enough and only take very shallow breaths into their upper rib cage," explains Marika Molnar, founder of Westside Dance Physical Therapy. "This reduces the amount of oxygen that gets into the blood to nourish the working muscles." Limiting the breath can also bring aesthetic and functional issues, from appearing stiff or uncoordinated to experiencing fatigue and exhaustion from not getting enough oxygen to your working muscles. In order to start coaching a deeper breath or diaphragmatic breath, it is necessary to help students understand the muscles at work with every inhale and exhale. While much time is spent having dancers work on their core, most often the abdominals are the focus and the topmost muscle is ignored: the diaphragm. The diaphragm is best described as a thin, dome-like muscle that acts as a partition separating the thoracic cavity, or chest, from the abdomen.



"I think visualization helps a lot," says Molnar. "If you have a round, blown-up balloon, and you put your flat hand on top and press down, you will see that the balloon increases in circumference as the pressure on it increases. This is what happens when you inhale: The diaphragm descends and flattens out, the rib cage expands while the abdominal contents get pushed down and outward, and air rushes into the lungs." When you actively release the diaphragm through an exhale, it returns to its starting position and allows the abdominal muscles to contract.

"Using a correct breathing technique can help to stabilize the lumbar spine and distribute the forces of gravity more equally around the lumbopelvic spinal muscles through their fascial connection to the psoas muscles," says Molnar. Other benefits of diaphragmatic breath include slowing down the heartbeat, stabilizing blood pressure and encouraging a sense of calm by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Along with visualization, Molnar recommends palpating students' back ribs and explaining that they should direct the breath into that area, allowing the abdomen to rise and fall as needed. "Dancers tend to pick this up very easily, because they are very kinesthetic," she says.

Breath as a Practice

Though we conceive of breathing as a natural skill, many experiences as we grow tend to stifle our innate ability to breathe deeply. Molnar prefers to teach dancers to think of breathing as a practice: "Do it every day, just like your barre," she says. While there are many ways to improve your lung capacity through specific breathing exercises, here are a two of her favorites that can be practiced anywhere at any time, in 5 to 10 minutes.

Counting the Breath

1. Start by exhaling through your mouth. "Purse your lips to really call in the deep abdominals," says Molnar. You can place your hands on your abdomen to feel your abdominals contract.

2. Inhale through your nose, with your mouth closed and your tongue resting on the roof of your mouth, its tip behind the front teeth. Move the back of one of your hands to your back ribs and feel them expand (don't be concerned with keeping the belly tight; allow it to expand naturally).

3. Begin to count to four in each direction of the breath.

4. See if you can increase the length of each inhale and exhale by one or two counts. Eventually, you might increase the exhale to a count of eight.

5. Then add a one-count pause at the end of each inhale and at the end of every exhale. Slowly increase that pause to four counts as you get more proficient.

"In a group class the teacher could give a combination like this: Four counts to inhale through the nose, four counts to hold, eight counts to exhale through pursed lips," says Molnar.


Breathing and Walking

"One of my favorite exercises is to combine breathing and walking," says Molnar. "Let's say you can walk three steps on your inhale and three on your exhale to start; after a while you may be able to walk five or six steps on each inhale and exhale."

This exercise is a great way to bring mindfulness to the breath and encourage coordination of breath and movement. Use the same tactile cues as above if they are helpful.

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Tip: If you get lightheaded doing this exercise in a standing position, try it sitting or lying on your back.

The Parasetter

After treating professional dancers and students for many years, Molnar developed the Parasetter, a patented roller that includes an elastic wrap for the waist, to assist in three-dimensional breathing exercises. "I love using the Parasetter," she says, "because it gives you great feedback from the posterior rib cage as you take deep inhales, and if you wear the rib wrap, you can get the sensation of the whole rib cage in motion."

PhysicalMindInstitute.com

Marika Molnar founded Westside Dance Physical Therapy in NYC. Photo by Rachel Papo

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There's a new must-have accessory for the dancers who've begun to venture back into the studio. Face masks are essential to protecting both teachers and dancers (not to mention their families) from coronavirus. But they definitely make dancing more complicated.

How can you prepare for—and adjust to—the new masked normal? Here's practical advice from Dr. Steven Karageanes, a primary care sports medicine specialist who's worked with the Rockettes and "So You Think You Can Dance," and Anna Dreslinski Cooke, a Chicago-based professional dancer who has experience dancing in cloth masks, disposable masks, N95 masks, and face shields.

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Q: How can students build jump work into their practice while at home? Should they wear tennis shoes and jump only on carpet?


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Q: How can I help parents understand that time spent in technique class is as valuable as learning choreography for competitions?


A: Parents love to see their children onstage almost as much as students love to perform. That being said, no amount of flashy choreography is going to sustain the long-term development of a young dancer. The rewards of improving technique go beyond winning competition trophies—good form prevents injuries and influences movement quality far beyond teen years.

There's a growing body of research that shows the addition of strength and integration exercises decreases the prevalence of injuries for pre-professional and professional dancers. But what about the recreational dancer who just wants to perform? There isn't as much research available for that group, but in 2013 the Journal of Athletic Training published a study that looked at 569 injured female dancers ages 8 to 16. The most common injuries they found in this group were knee injuries, followed by back, and then foot/ankle. They found knee injuries were often connected with the knee dropping inward (valgus) in jumping, rather than staying in line with the hip and ankle. Back and foot injuries were often associated with hypermobility of the hip and ankle joints (over-turning out at the hip and pronation). These early injuries caused by poor technique can haunt a dancer for years. It's a problem when young dancers focus on flexibility and big tricks over strength.

Perhaps placing some articles on injury prevention around the waiting room or in your studio newsletter will help your parents understand why building a strong technical foundation is so important to the long-term health of their children.

Health & Body
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Q: I have students who are struggling to engage their abdominals when dancing. What might you suggest to help with this?
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A 25-year-old student recently asked a question that brought back a rush of memories for me. And it's also pertinent to our current COVID-19 restrictions.
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