Is Your Dancer Hiding That She's Hurting?

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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.


Encourage Appropriate Activity

Unless dancers are in a cast or suffering from a severe back or neck problem, they can speed up their recovery time by keeping themselves conditioned. “They can't just wait until the injury gets well," says Berg. “Floor work—non-weight-bearing exercises—will help them start using muscles correctly. Then they won't have to think as much about their torsos when they stand up for barre." Students should focus on the injured part right away to start regaining strength and mobility.

Cardiovascular conditioning is also important for injury prevention. “It helps decrease injury rates," says Dr. Judith Peterson, who consults for Pennsylvania Ballet. “Dancers have improved blood flow, and blood flow is helpful in healing." Riding a bike, walking, rowing or using an elliptical machine will develop and maintain cardio endurance and prevent fatigue in the studio. Visualization can also help speed recovery. “Have them work through a jump in their head," says Peterson. “This mental preparation will improve brain and muscle connections."

Supervise Closely

When dancers return to class, they should maintain proper alignment and work thoughtfully. “The major thing is for them to stand up correctly," says Berg. “You have to keep an eye out for things like rolling arches and too much opening of the hip." Encourage them to move slowly and modify exercises until they are strong enough to progress.

If a dancer's technique is strong but she still has pain or keeps reinjuring the same spot, there could be an underlying problem, such as low bone density or poor nutrition. “Some dancers are more susceptible to injury," says Peterson. “There might be a metabolic issue, or maybe the dancer has normal bone health but just keeps overdoing it." If recovery seems to be moving in the wrong direction, have them revisit a doctor or physical therapist to see if they need more-specialized treatment.

Be on Alert for Red Flags

Dancers might insist they're ready to go and hide the fact that they're still hurting. Teachers should look to see if these students have slower response times, more landing errors and less endurance than usual. Other red flags could be swelling or a dancer's reluctance to do certain kinds of choreography. “Dance is physical, and there are going to be issues," says Peterson. “But if a dancer is icing a knee six days out of seven, that's a little different."

Henry Berg leads San Francisco Ballet School students in class. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet

Encourage students to share any concerns they might have regarding discomfort or pain. “If discomfort does not lessen or continues to get worse, the dancer is not ready to be dancing at the current level," says Susan Kinney, director of physical therapy at The Boston Conservatory. “Rest and repair time is necessary for building strength and endurance." If a dancer needs to sit out for more than a few days, it's crucial for the teacher to communicate with the dance medicine clinician and come up with a plan that fits the student's specific needs.

Create an Individual Plan

Physical therapist Susan Kinney recommends dancers follow these basic guidelines that she developed with Michael Owen, dance director at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Massachusetts. Devote a one- to two-week period to each step before progressing to the next.

  • Begin with a modified barre that is one-third the duration and intensity of class.
  • Once a full barre is discomfort-free, have the student participate with full barre and modified center work.
  • Once a full barre and full center work are achieved, discomfort-free, the student can add petit allégro.
  • Once a full barre, full center work and petit allégro are all pain-free, the student can add grand allégro. Once a full barre, full center work and all jumps are comfortable, the student can add pointe work.

Try this exercise from Henry Berg's conditioning class at San Francisco Ballet to regain muscle tone and maintain proper alignment without bearing weight:

Lie on your stomach with your legs in a wide second position, flexing your feet very hard. Keep abdominals engaged and feet slightly off the floor. Gradually draw in your legs to first position. Repeat four times.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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