Health & Body

When Bodies Change: Help Your Dancers Stay Injury-Free During Puberty

At Kansas City Ballet School, Peter Pawlyshyn makes adjustments for students during growth spurts. Photo by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios, courtesy of Peter Pawlyshyn

When students go through puberty, the body they've been diligently training may suddenly change. Growth spurts can throw off balance and reduce flexibility, a combination that can increase the risk of injury.

You can help your students hold on to their technique and confidence during this transition, as well as teach them how to use their changing bodies safely and effectively.


Recognizing Puberty

The first step to keeping your students healthy overall is to be understanding and convey that it's completely natural for their bodies to change, even if it temporarily affects their technique.

Most females experience puberty between the ages of 11 to 14, although dancers tend to have a delayed experience, says Julie Daugherty, an American Ballet Theatre physical therapist who works with students at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at ABT. Male dancers experience it between the ages of 12 to 18. “When students are in the middle of a growth spurt, they may say they are feeling tight or can't lift their legs as high, or they may not be able to do the splits anymore," Daugherty says. “They can also start to have issues with knee and hip pain or various muscle or tendon strains."

In addition to aches and pains, Peter Pawlyshyn, school director of the Kansas City Ballet School, says he notices imbalances in his students once developmental changes begin to occur. “There's a weakness, a wobbliness," he says. “We encourage students to be very up-front and honest with their teachers, so they know what's going on."

Risk Management

The top three reasons injuries occur are muscle/tendon imbalances, incorrect alignment and growth spurts, says Lyle J. Micheli, attending physician for Boston Ballet and professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School. When a dancer starts to grow, her bones lengthen more quickly than muscles and tendons. If she doesn't have enough time to build up her strength, she is especially at risk of injury during this time.

Encourage students to focus on core strength to develop stability and control, and stretching counteracts tightness in the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, hip flexors and gluteal muscles during growth. Daugherty suggests incorporating Pilates mat work two to three times a week.

If a student experiences consistent pain or an ache that progressively worsens, she should consult a physician. You may also want to consider coordinating a local medical team committed to helping your dancers if they need it. Kansas City Ballet School has an off-site network of three orthopedic surgeons, a physical therapist, a nutritionist and a psychologist. “They allow our students to get an appointment at a moment's notice, and they have been equally as invested in our dancers as we are as a staff," Pawlyshyn says.

Adjusting Your Curriculum

Teachers should be very careful about the intensity of their students' training and how many hours a week they are dancing during this time, Micheli says. He has noticed at several prominent ballet academies that teachers “back off on the intensity and total volume of training" during puberty, which is helpful in preventing injuries. Consider replacing one technique class a week with a strengthening and stretching class.

Daugherty agrees: “Instead of pushing really challenging steps during periods of rapid growth, teachers should focus on more of the artistic quality of dance, musicality and acting."

Another option is to concentrate on “the basics"—clean, simple, centered movement. “Make sure they are dancing with good alignment and working on their trunk control, because they are still struggling with finding their coordination and stability," Daugherty says. However, be sure to explain to your students, who might be expecting to work on difficult steps, that slowing down a bit will help them in the long run because they will have stronger technique and core stabilization to lean upon once they are done with their growth spurts.

Ultimately, it's about teaching young students to properly care for their bodies —their instruments. “We try to impress upon our students how important it is to keep up the health of the body for the longevity of their training and dance career," Pawlyshyn says. “I tell them, 'Your body changes, it ebbs and flows, throughout your career. You just have to be knowledgeable and rely on your training, and your technique will come back when things settle down.'"

Common Injuries During Puberty

Students should seek medical attention if you see any indication of these conditions:

Iliopsoas tendonitis and snapping hip syndrome

Cause: Tight iliopsoas (hip flexor) muscles.

Symptoms: Pain in the front of the hip near the groin indicates tendonitis. An audible popping sound during a grand battement or développé (snapping hip syndrome) is due to a muscle or tendon passing over the greater trochanter bone at the top of the femur.

Achilles tendoniti

Cause: A tight Achilles tendon (the large tendon in the back of the ankle) or weak calves.

Symptoms: Irritation and inflammation of the Achilles tendon, along with pain in the heel and lower calf, especially when jumping.

Patella tracking issues

Cause: Widening hips (in girls) in combination with weak quadriceps and iliotibial bands leads the knee's patella bone to run off-center.

Symptoms: Knee pain and/or giving way of the knee.

Osgood-Schlatter disease

Cause: Overuse of the knee while growing. Male dancers are sometimes prone to this injury when practicing additional jumps.

Symptoms: Pain and swelling in the area below the knee on the upper shinbone.

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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