Your Injuries Are Your Teachers: 3 Tricks To Get Through Injuries
by Alena Gerst, LCSW, RYT
Being injured comes with the territory of being a dancer.
There are the usual aches and pains across all methods of dance, from competitive dance, theater dance, hip hop, ballet, modern/contemporary, hoofing, the list goes on. Repetitive stress injuries, falls, and more often than non-dancers realize, general clumsiness when outside the studio.
If you want to be a dancer, you may as well get comfortable with the idea that there will be injuries. How you handle them, both physically and emotionally, will significantly contribute to the duration and strength of your recovery.
You may already have sustained an injury, and have a clear idea of how your recovery process worked for you. Or maybe you did not have an overall approach, and just went with the flow. Either way, nobody wants an injury to happen, but it can help to have a strategy and be as prepared as you can be.
Here are 3 tricks to consider when you're faced with an injury.
1. Think of your injuries as your teachers.
The dance legend Mikhail Baryshnikov said, "The more injuries you get, the smarter you get."
This could not be more true. When you come up as a young dancer, you are far less aware of your limits. You hear the music and you dive in, full force. But as you become more mature and seasoned as an artist and athlete, one of the primary ways your body teaches you how to be a mindful dancer is through injuries.
Your body is your most persistent teacher. If you don't listen, you will be reminded in a louder and clearer way that something needs your attention. I once had a knee injury that persisted until I could barely walk. The scans of my knee showed a healthy joint. When I went to physical therapy, we learned that the problem originated in my hip.
The adjustments I made in class affected my whole body in such a positive way, which I believe made me a healthier dancer over the long term. All thanks to my injured knee, my persistent teacher.
2. Tell yourself the show must not go on
Young dancers are trained to "dance through the pain." Are you tired? Muscles fatigued? Feeling consistent pain? I worked with a choreographer who danced in the original version of CATS on Broadway. She said her breakfast each morning consisted of coffee to wake her up, and Advil for the pain.
I am not going to advocate for or against pain relievers. But I do want to encourage you to acknowledge your aches and give yourself breaks when you need them.
I recall doing a dance-heavy show on a casino contract in Atlantic City. That translated to mean the show’s run-time was shortened in exchange for a whopping 10 shows/week instead of the usual 8. The set up also meant that none of the big production numbers were cut...they just had to be done in quicker succession, with less time in between for costume changes and rest.
At that point, I was prescribed steroids to help me continue with damaged vocal chords (big mistake!), one of my colleagues was taking a significant amount of pain relievers to get to the end of the contract, at which time she would have her hip replaced. Seasoned professionals were succumbing to injuries left and right on that show.
One day, my new husband, a non-performer who was in the early stages of getting to know the workings of the business, looked at me incredulously and said, "This whole 'show must go on' thing is bulls%$#!”
He was right.
Well, the show will go on. But occasionally, if you are injured and you want to have a long and enduring career, not with you.
3. Love your body
We say we have a “bad shoulder” or a “bum ankle.”
These are prevalent phrases, but consider this: your body is listening and responding in kind. Your shoulder is not “bad.” It is injured and in need of attention.
For young dancers, it is common to feel like the body has failed when slowed down or sidelined by an injury. As a psychotherapist for dancers, I have people expressing to me intense feelings of anger, hurt, and betrayal by their bodies.
“How could my body do this to me?”
Your body is not betraying you.
Think of a small child. If you berate, criticize, and push that child beyond his or her capabilities, they may respond to a certain point. But they will learn that they cannot trust you.
Now think of your body in a similar manner. Your body is not there to betray you. I challenge you to ponder the idea that your body actually loves you, and wants you to do well.
But all of the cells in your body, including those that help to make up your "emotional body,” will do better when they trust that you are on their team, and you will take care of them to the best of your ability.
That could mean experimenting with different nutrition approaches. What works for some does not work at all for others. The only way to know what helps you function optimally as an artist and athlete is through trial and error.
You may also have to think about cross training your fitness routine, so your only exercise isn't dance. This can help stave off repetitive stress injuries. It can also go a long way to feeding your emotional needs by entertaining your other interests.
And one of the hardest things for dancers to accept is some down time. Many training programs require dancers to train and perform at a vigorous and unsustainable pace. This practice leads to fatigue, injuries, and worse, in my opinion, are feelings of guilt and worthlessness when your body prohibits you from dancing.
Your body has given you a precious gift: the desire and the ability to dance. Handle it with care, and you will recover more quickly, intelligently, and completely than you thought possible.