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Q: I have a ballet student who feels a click in her working knee every time she does a fondu in any direction. It happens just as she straightens it, and it seems to be relatively painful. What do you think is happening?

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Health & Body
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It's news that Dr. David Weiss doesn't like to give. Sometimes dancers see him thinking they have shinsplints, when they actually have a stress fracture, a more serious injury that requires a longer recovery. “When dancers come in with stress fractures, I see a lot of denial," says the NYU Langone Medical Center orthopedist. “They say, 'This is just shinsplints, isn't it?'"

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Photo by Igor Burlak, courtesy of Tamara King

A raspy voice and sore muscles are not obligatory for teachers, but that's often what happens after hours of teaching. Being a dance teacher is physically, mentally and emotionally demanding. Unfortunately, whether it's because you're pressed for time or that you're focused solely on your students, self-care isn't always the top priority. You might think you don't have time to attend to your personal well-being, but what you really don't have time for is an injury. Here are seven strategies that will help keep you injury-free and at the top of your game.

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Like any dance teacher, Christopher Busbin witnesses his students' popping joints and often experiences his own. "My shoulders were always cracking, and I thought it was from torn rotator cuffs," he says. Busbin, who teaches at Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Birmingham, Alabama, saw a massage therapist, who discovered that the stress in his joints was caused by overworked trapezius muscles in his back. "Now that I know the real source of the problem, I can help prevent it by addressing it myself," he says.


Joints pop and crack when pockets of air build up inside the body, a result of misalignment, gaseous release or impingement of connective tissue. Anneliese Burns Wilson, director of ABC for Dance, which makes The Body Series books for dancers, says that frequent body cracks are normal. “I believe that when the body cracks, it's making adjustments to bring itself back to correct alignment," she says.

Dancers are more prone to joint popping than less-active people, especially around the feet, ankles, shoulders and elbows, which makes it difficult to decipher whether a noise is dangerous or harmless. Even more questionable is when dancers actually force a joint to pop. The ability to tell the difference between an innocent sound and a harmful one is key.

Wilson does not advise intentional, repetitive joint cracking, especially out of habit. Deborah Vogel, neuromuscular and dance medicine instructor at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio, also warns to never allow a peer to manipulate body cracks. “It's one thing when a dancer innocently twists her own spine with little force, but I would never allow someone else to touch my neck, back and ankles," she says.

Popping sensations that indicate problems are usually accompanied by pain, swelling or a decreased range of motion, stemming from hyperextension or strain of ligaments and tendons. This can result in a “twanging" sensation, not unlike if you plucked a guitar string too hard. Pain like this should never be ignored, because it can lead to sprain or tears in the involved ligaments and tendons. If left untreated, they may require physical therapy. See an orthopedic specialist if pain persists for several weeks.

Preventing dancers from hyperextending into their joints is the best way to prevent popping. Vogel says that flexible dancers often push into their knees when standing, causing the rest of their joints to misalign. Wilson warns that knee joints hold the most potential danger. “A knee making sounds could be a sign of misalignment of the patella; an indication that there is wearing down of the cartilage underneath the kneecap," she says.

Extreme hyperextension often causes imbalances in muscle strength, which can force a joint to track improperly. One way to combat this is for dancers to cross into other styles; for example, a ballet student taking modern dance to work on parallel positions. Be sure that during stretching, students aren't dropping down into joints, but working the muscles actively.

For Busbin, tips like these have saved him from pain. “As dancers, we put our bodies through a lot over the years," he says. “Injuries like these can creep up on the best of us."

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At San Francisco Ballet School, Henry Berg's conditioning program is affectionately known as “rehab." Dancers take this class when they're coming back from an injury and building up to their full school or company schedule. Rehab often starts on the floor with non-weight-bearing exercises and gradually progresses through a classical ballet barre and center. “I try to get them back as fast as possible," says Berg, “but they have to work slowly and correctly."

Not all schools can offer a separate rehabilitation class for injured students. More likely, dancers show up for class after having some time off for injury and are anxious to go full speed ahead. But teachers need to keep a close eye on them and make sure they don't do too much too fast. Watch for warning signs of overuse, practice good communication and encourage dancers to complete work outside the studio to ensure they make a full recovery.

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FSU maintains a cutting-edge conditioning studio. Photo by Meagan Helman, courtesy of FSU

When Florida State University professor Tom Welsh arrived in Tallahassee in 1991, dance science was uncharted territory. "Mostly, it was technique teachers who were looking for ways to keep their dancers dancing," he says. "It was just a field people imagined could happen." He immediately set to work building the university's dance science program from the ground up. Over the course of his 26 years at FSU, Welsh has created a successful dance science model, based on four elements: collaboration with physical therapists, a state-of-the-art conditioning studio, injury prevention and management initiatives and devoting time to research.

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Kristen Rizzuto, Photo by Kyle Froman

If you had to limit your advice to one idea that could have a profound impact on the training of young dancers, what would it be?" Physical therapist Rocky Bornstein offers these simple balance exercises to offer your students.

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You’ve likely seen dancers wrapping recovering joints or taping sore muscles with bright, colorful kinesiology tape. The lightweight, stretchy adhesive is said to improve athletic performance by helping the wearer feel where her limbs are in space. Others like that it provides light support without restricting movement. Devotees even say it increases blood and lymphatic flow by lifting the skin away from muscle tissue, which can speed recovery from an injury.

It turns out, though, there’s no science to back these claims. In a recent study, participants performed weight-training exercises at the same level whether they were wearing kinesio tape, no tape or just strips of plain, sticky fabric. This suggests that performance improvements felt while wearing kinesio tape are due to the placebo effect. But if you feel a difference in your dancing, stick it on. It can’t hurt! 

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