These dancers are the reason I do what I do, all I aspire to, and why I love ballet so much….
So by now you’ve all figured out that I seriously idolize Svetlana Zhakarova of the Bolshoi Ballet. She is one of the most mesmerizing dancers of all time in my opinion and seeing her perform in Swan Lake at a very young age made me want to be a ballerina. Here’s another one of my favorite solos of all time – the Grand Pas Classique from Paquita. Watching it makes me miss my days as a prima!
Considering my recent injury, I found this article and thought it would be a good one to share. Unfortunately, chronic pain is a fairly normal condition in any professional dancer’s life. For me, it was bad hips and knees – for others it’s their back, feet, or susceptibility to muscle strain or pulls. Although pain certainly is part of the profession, the smart thing to do is always go get a professional opinion if the pain is chronic or extremely sharp. I know for my own part, I hated going to see doctors for injuries while I was performing because I didn’t want to risk taking time off. Today I always tell my students if it hurts badly in a way it shouldn’t, they need to stop whatever it was that caused the pain and go have someone check it. This article is very informative – perhaps the most important part to note is that habitual improper technique can easily lead to years of problems with pain and injury. Read and enjoy!
The Hurt Factor
By Nancy Wozny
Andrea Dawn Shelley navigates the controlled adagio of Spencer Gavin Hering’s new work Ash with steady precision and understated femininity. No one would know she’s struggled with knee pain most of her dancing life. Shelley, a former dancer with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater and co-founder of iMEE, a dance company in Santa Barbara, California, has been dancing with pain since the age of 14, when her knee cap dislocated coming out of a pirouette. Four knee surgeries later, Shelley finds she’s in as much pain during rest or slow rehearsal days as when she’s dancing.
Dancers know that pain comes with the profession. Each body is unique, and so is the discomfort that it can generate. Pain that lasts over three months earns the “chronic” label. It has a different character and different causes than acute pain, which comes from sudden injury or the post-surgical healing process. The fact that pain is an invisible aliment further complicates the situation. Dancers can be torn between fears of time off and a life lived in discomfort. Yet no dancer blindly accepts pain as a constant. Think of it more as a problem to be solved—and solved before pain patterns settle in. Aggressive research of pain’s origins, coupled with physical therapy, advances in surgery, and alternative treatment methods, have helped dancers break out of the pain cycle.
Know your pain
Diagnosis plays a key role. Chronic pain need not be inevitable, says Dr. Peter Lavine, an orthopedist who treats dancers in Washington, DC. He recommends rigorously sleuthing your pain’s source. “Pain doesn’t sneak up on you,” he says. “Usually it’s related to an injury you are extremely familiar with.” Dancers often accept an initial diagnosis without investigating further. “Never hesitate to get a second opinion,” says Lavine. “Sometimes you need a new set of eyes on the problem.” Understanding pain’s root makes a difference in the entire approach to treatment. For instance, Lavine makes a distinction between neurological pain, where damage to nerves is involved, and degenerative pain, a by-product of overuse injuries or inflammatory conditions like arthritis. “An epidural could help neurological pain, while it’s not effective for problems like arthritis,” he says.
Getting to the bottom of your pain profile involves a thorough physical exam. Sometimes pain traces back to a condition that has little relation to dance. Your primary care doctor can rule out sources of spasm such as ovarian cysts or irritable bowel syndrome. “Food allergies can be a culprit,” says physical therapist Marika Molnar, who treats New York City Ballet dancers. “Lyme disease is another one that is frequently missed.”
Dancers tend to avoid any kind of treatment that might take them off-stage even for a short period. New York City Ballet principal Joaquin De Luz danced with knee pain for nearly two years. Finally tests revealed a serious tracking problem in his knee. “Adrenalin is a powerful drug,” says De Luz. “When the spotlights come on, you go out there and think you can overcome injuries.” After researching the best knee surgeons in the country, De Luz opted for surgery. After four months, he was back dancing pain-free.
Habit and help
Sometimes pain stems from something as treatable as how you are working. Molnar has seen many a pain problem resolved by looking more closely at a dancer’s technique. Change the habit and pain levels can change as well. “It’s possible to learn how to do things with the body in a way that changes the message to the brain,” says Molnar. (See sidebar.)
Even when technique doesn’t seem the culprit, alternative somatic practices like the Feldenkrais Method can yield real benefits. This uses gentle movement sequences that explore the brain-body connection and gradually alters habits that may be contributing to pain. Shelley investigated Feldenkrais early on in her professional career when she first began having pain. “While it didn’t make the pain go away,” she says, “it opened my mind to how relaxation is a factor in reducing it.”
Molnar has seen dancers benefit from less familiar alternative approaches, like skin rolling, also known as myofascial release, which is like massage. In this hands-on technique, the skin is lifted, stretched and squeezed. Because of the amount of nerve endings in the skin, practitioners say this permits new information to flow through the nervous system. “Lifting the skin can send a different message to the brain,” says Molnar, “and cut in between the pain.”
The emotional cycle of pain
There’s a longstanding debate about pain’s mental aspects. What can’t be seen is in your head, right? Yes and no. A dancer might feel more discomfort than the diagnosis indicates. Pain signals play out differently in each person. “What we tell ourselves about the extent of our pain can influence the amount that we feel it,” says Rachel Winer, Ph.D, a Houston psychologist and former dancer in private practice. “Pain can be facilitated or inhibited by attention, memory, and emotion.”
Unfortunately, Shelley eventually came to equate dance with pain. “I remember the day I realized pain was separate from dance,” she says. “I had assumed that everyone was in pain.” For Shelley, pain has been more about resolve than resolution. She takes a disciplined approach to managing it. Shelley found that aggressively icing sore limbs, occasional pain medication and a rigorous approach to warming up made dancing doable. So did taking hold of her artistic life. After several years with Houston’s Dominic Walsh and other companies like Miami’s Maximum Dance Company, Shelley wanted more control. She and her partner Spencer Gavin Hering recently started iMEE Dance Company. As co-artistic director, she decides what movement she can—and can’t—do. “I know my limitations,” she says. ”I don’t need to go over a new phrase repeatedly, and I can stay away from movements that cause me trouble.”
At peace with pain
While few dancers manage a pain-free career, they can have more control over pain than they realize. “Dancers need to become good pain discriminators,” says Winer. “There’s a big difference between good pain from learning a new movement and the kind that doesn’t go away or gets worse with time.”
Many dancers act as though ignoring pain were a way to make it disappear. But pain is the body speaking directly to the brain. Though many dancers shy away from medication, thinking it can make them fuzzy, Dr. Peter Lavine finds traditional anti-inflammatories a good place for dancers to start. And for nerve pain, “Ultram and Lyrica have been shown to be helpful and are non-narcotic,” he says.
Lavine, Winer, and Molnar all agree that, in most cases, moving (correctly) improves chronic pain. “It’s essential to life and pain reduction,” Molnar insists. “Movement circulates the blood and gets your body working again. Dancing is good medicine.” De Luz remembers his first pain-free plié post surgery. “My knee felt rusty, but it was amazing,” he says. Shelley maintains her resolve to stay a creative performer despite unpredictable pain. “Sometimes, I go through dark places,” she says. “I think I should quit because I have been dealing with it for so long. But then I step onstage and it’s all worth it. I am not willing to give that up. I enjoy it too much.”
Nancy Wozny is a culture and health writer in Houston.
What you do makes a difference.
Poor technique can set a dancer up for prolonged trouble. Unless you change the pattern, the pain will remain. Ask a physical therapist to take a look at what you are doing at the barre that could be contributing to your pain. Remember that where pain feels like it occurs may not be its source. Pain often points to one place doing too much while another place is doing to little.
Marika Molnar, NYCB’s physical therapist, cites a dancer who came to physical therapy complaining of pain in the left knee at the infrapatellar junction (where the patellar tendon inserts). The pain began as intermittent, but had become constant. Molnar observed him do a series of basic movements such as demi-plié, relevé and tendus. “It was clear that he rolled in excessively on his left foot,” Molnar says. “He needed a greater awareness of the turnout of his left hip. Focusing on motor control of the hip, knee, and ankle maintains a healthy alignment and takes the stress off of the patella tendon.” The dancer felt a marked reduction in pain when he began to take a more holistic view of his body, concentrating on the connections between the foot, knee and hip joint.
To address similar problems, Molnar recommends doing 20–25 demi pliés in parallel while maintaining correct alignment. She then increases the neuromuscular challenge by having a dancer do the same movement with weight on just one leg, adding variety, complexity, and diversity to the neural system to gradually retrain the dancer’s work patterns.—NW
The National Dance Education Organization has just announced their 2011 conference dates – from October 19-23, 2011 in Minneapolis, MN.
Topics of discussion for dance teachers will include: How many roles do we play? How are we identified and how do we identify ourselves? Are we teachers, artists, administrators, dancers, interpreters, choreographers, writers, mentors, historians, and/or advocates? How are we creating paths into the future for ourselves, our communities and our profession?
These conventions are designed to help us all share our expertise, stories, questions and creative spirit so we ALL learn and strengthen dance throughout America.
So all of us in the dance industry are all too well aware of how short lived a professional career on stage can be. As I mentioned in my first post, I was forced to retire after only five years of professional performing due to two major knee injuries and early onset hip arthritis. I don’t take any of the time I was given for granted, and I feel lucky that I am able to continue working with the art form in any capacity. However, many of us probably don’t stop to think what other professional dancers go on to do when they take off their costumes for the last time and their names get removed from the programs. I stumbled upon a supplement pamphlet online for Dance Magazine titled “Beyond Performance: Dancers talk about career choices before and after taking their final bow.” The full PDF file can be found at http://www.dancemagazine.com at the bottom of the homepage, but I have included the article written about former NYC Ballet dancer Marisa Cerveris, who went on to be a dancewear fashion designer.
Marisa Cerveris’s idea for a dancewear line began as a young dancer studying at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. “The leotards did not adhere to the small of my back and the fabric would billow out,” she says about the dancewear available at the time. “As dancers we work so hard to sculpt and shape our bodies. I thought it was crazy that the leotards didn’t accentuate that.”
Cerveris, who has no formal training in clothing design, acquired a basic knowledge of sewing and fabrics from her mother, who would make clothing and Halloween costumes for Cerveris and her siblings growing up in Huntington, West Virginia. It wasn’t however, until the dancer joined New York City Ballet that she began seriously experimenting with designing. Cerveris says she took apart her garments and those of fellow company members, tweaking their fit and getting feedback from the other dancers who served as her fit models.
She also gleaned a lot of information from watching and listening to the various costume designers while dancing with NYCB in Europe, and on Broadway (in The Phantom of The Opera). “We would always go for costume fittings at Barbara Matera’s shop in Manhattan. I would listen to Barbara speaking with Peter Martins and talking about costume design and showing fabrics as they were fit- ting us,” says Cerveris. “I got to see firsthand the creative and collaborative process, and all that seeped in.”
When she retired from the stage in 2000, Cerveris received a grant from Career Transition For Dancers. She purchased her first industrial sewing machine and set to work in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to develop her line of ByMarisa designs which have no elastic or center seams.
“My approach to designing dancewear is the same as my approach to being a dancer: line is most important to me,” says Cerveris. “I am basically trying to paint the body with fabric.”
At first, she used to worry she didn’t have enough to say that was different in dancewear design. But the lyrics from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park with George—“Anything you do, let it come from you, and it will be new”—inspired her to get out of her own way. “This is what I have to offer. It is pure and it is sincere and it comes from me,” she says. The uniqueness of ByMarisa dancewear led the costume designers of Robert Altman’s 2003 film The Company to her to give the film’s dancers a signature look. More recently representatives of TV’s Dancing with the Stars did the same. She has now expanded the line to include workout wear for yoga and Pilates. “Everything I have become is because of my former career.” —Steve Sucato
The average career span of a professional dancer is mid-teens to late 30′s – then they usually move on to become choreographers, teachers or artistic directors. What are your career goals for dance? My personal goals as a dancer all revolved around being on stage. I never thought I would want to teach because performing gave me so much joy, but I have been surprised at how fulfilling being a dance teacher really is.
To all those who’s life has been profoundly impacted in some way through dance…
My own journey as a dancer began 20 years ago in a very classical Russian school. At the time I adored my classical training and was taught with a mindset that this art form would define my entire life. Now although I don’t take anything for granted that I learned while studying with this particular ballet master, she was of the school of thought that every young dancer needed to be molded to perfection, rather than teaching that dancer to use what they have naturally been given to strengthen everything else and highlight what they are individually best at.
I myself did not have natural turnout, or a perfectly ideal shape for ballet, but I loved it so much I would not and could not give it up for anything. I went through all the blood, sweat, and tears of not being good enough, but kept pushing myself in spite of it. When I eventually left that ballet school for a more contemporary studio, I was finally taught to just dance from my heart and felt a sense of liberation that it is difficult to put into words. I was able to experiment with other styles of dance, and was truly inspired by those wonderful teachers to become my own personal best. Thanks to their instruction I spent several wonderful years performing in the corps and eventually as a principle dancer for the Joffrey Ballet, until two blown out knees forced early retirement. However, shortly after leaving the stage I was invited back to my home studio to join the staff and teach ballet. I had never previously thought anything would fulfill me like being on the stage, but I have discovered that dance education truly has the power to change the lives of the students.
My motivation in starting this blog is to network and share experiences with other dancers whether they be professional, students, or just avid supporters; and to promote dance education for all young people who have the same passion I did. I will be regularly posting on what various companies are doing to bring out the best in their students, sharing personal experiences from my career, and updating on the activities of the National Dance Education Organization.
Thanks for reading!