So first lets start with a reality check. If you are partaking in a physical activity on a professional level, chances are you are going to get hurt. Actually, in all honesty, you will get hurt. I’d go so far as to put money on it and I bet I’d walk away a very wealthy woman. Our bodies are amazing creations able of withstanding unbelievable amounts of physical strain, but everyone has a breaking point. And if you are going to dedicate your life to constantly pushing your body’s physical abilities, there will come a day where you push just a little too far and something has to give. Athletes seem to understand this fact. Many dancers though do not seem to have accepted this grim reality.
There are many reasons why we dancers deny of our own limitations. Firstly, we classify ourselves as artists before athletes. We are much more focused on the aesthetic components of our physicality than on the functionality of what we demand of our bodies. Often what is biomechanically best gets ignored because of our desire for beauty. This aesthetic obsession also has a tendency to cause dancers to shy away from learning about our bodies from a scientific or medical perspective. We worry that this knowledge will somehow detach us from our visceral relationship with ourselves and therefore make us less of artists. We will do anything in our power to ignore pain and deny injury.
When we finally admit that we are injured, it is often so far gone that there is no quick fix for our problems. The time we were avoiding taking off for healing and the money we were trying not to spend on professional help is now not only necessary but has multiplied in quantities. And what is worse, is that we are being thrown into the medical world often without much knowledge of how to travel this new terrain.
Now I say all this not to make anyone feel bad. I say it because I’ve been there. I’ve been in the shoes of the dancer who scientifically knows very little about her body, is dealing with injury and, despite wanting answers, has no idea what to do, where to go or who to talk to. I remember my first major injury vividly. I was closing a door, put my knee up to help push it closed, felt the knee cap pop out and then back in, felt a searing pain and then hobbled home. I ended up in emergency at 2am with a doctor telling me that everything would be fine and just not to dance for two weeks. Two weeks went by and I still could barely bend my knee, plus the rest of my body was craving excercise. What happened after that was almost two years of on and off pain, many doctors offices, lots of money spent and me being very overwhelmed and confused throughout the entire experience. It wasn’t even until after the injury had healed that I learned that the term for my injury was a subluxation of the knee cap.
It was going through this injury which made me I realize that I couldn’t depend on my doctors to know it all. Dance science research is a very recent a specific area of study. Many health practitioners have very little knowledge or experience working with dancer bodies and therefore they don’t fully understand what we need. As dancers we take pride in knowing our bodies well. We often speak about how in tune we are with ourselves and yeah, that’s great, but if it’s all “just a feeling that can’t be explained” then really what good is it when it comes to getting better? Doctors want to help, but if you can’t put it in to words, then it can be pretty hard for them to do their jobs.
In the past four years I have taken the time to learn a lot about my body. It has been some of the most useful knowledge I have been given. And here’s the best part, it has made me a better dancer. If I thought I was in tune with my body before, well that was nothing compared to how I am now. Now, I know the difference between good and bad pain (I’m not just talking about lactic acid build up versus injury I’m talking strain, tear, break, dislocation ect.). I know how to identify my physical weaknesses and what to do so as to help balance them and hopefully avoid injury. I know how to modify movement when injured so as to avoid worsening the injury while also still getting the benefit of the exercise. And best of all I know how to talk to my doctor.
When I go in to to see my doctor, physiotherapist, chiropractor or any other practitioner I get the most bang for my buck. This doesn’t mean that I wait until I am falling apart at the seams to go see them. It actually probably means I go to see them sooner. I want to be in their office preventing an injury from occurring, rather than stopping a new one from getting worse. I know now that forking out the money sooner means less money, less pain and more time dancing.
Also when I walk into the exam room I no longer sit there passively expecting my practitioner to do all the work. I give them as much detail as I can about what I was doing when the pain started, what I have been doing since then, and where I would like to be. Instead of just letting them diagnose me, we discover the answer together. And once a diagnosis has been found I don’t just accept their solution, I examine it, consider it and ask A LOT of questions. If my physiotherapist gives me an exercise or my chiropractor tries a release technique and I don’t find it is targeting the correct muscles I tell them right away. Sure, they know tons more than I do, but my knowledge base is quickly growing and I try and use it to our advantage. I never leave an appointment without clear instructions about what continual care I should be doing at home so that I am not back in their office the next week.
Now I am also very lucky that I have practitioners that are willing to take the time to explain things to me and are open to my feedback. But if they weren’t like that I wouldn’t be going to them. This is my body, and I don’t want to waist its time, my practitioner’s time or my money. But the journey to find the right team involved even more questions than my current visits do. Before, I still shopped around for the right fit before, but now I’m not just going off a gut feeling, I have knowledge to back me up.
Artists talk a lot about the mind/body divide and how damaging it is to our art, but how about how damaging it is to ourselves. I’m not saying that we all need to go out, become doctors, and then return to dance, but understanding how our body works from the inside will only make things better on the outside. I’ve heard the concerns about dance class becoming a science lab where artists are more concerned about whether or not they are using the correct muscles than actually dancing, but I doubt that will ever be the case. A beautiful dancer is also a smart dancer and a smart dancer is interested in more than just dance. Sure, maybe (and it’s a BIG maybe) the general public can go to their physiotherapist without really understanding what is going on and come out healed, but we are not the general public. We are underpaid, overworked, physically active artists. Lets demand as much of our minds as we do of our bodies. I bet if we put the two skill sets together the results would be astounding.
Dance is a short lived career path for most. It is a job full passion and not a ton of practicality. I never want to dim the passionate artistic flame inside of me, but I would love to find ways to help it burn brighter and longer. Learning about the science of my craft is the closest I have come to lighting an eternal flame.