Dance Magazine this week published a piece about why dancers push through pain. It was a good overview of a dancer’s mindset, and it’s one I’ve noted both in dancers who’ve been friends and in clients. Near the end of the piece, the author suggests a path forward for beginning to chip away at the chronic pain so many dancers face and try to ignore.
So how can we reverse this tendency? It starts in the studio. Teachers and choreographers can promote listening to your body, and taking time to heal. Dancers can do the same for their colleagues to encourage a healthier culture. Prioritizing understudies can free dancers from feeling like they need to dance through problematic pain. Additionally, Siem encourages dancers to build personal identities outside of dance so that injury is not personally devastating.
I think there’s something to this analysis, but I also think if we’re concerned about dancer wellness then we must peel back a few more layers of the onion. I once knew an artist who danced with the San Francisco ballet. She told me stories about how her parents would sequester her in a separate room during holidays, so fearful were they of her getting sick and jeopardizing her rising career.
The pressure on young dancers—we’re literally talking about children, here—to attend classes, workshops, summer intensives, and poorly designed “fitness” classes accumulates a disproportionate amount of cumulative stress on their bodies. Dancing through pain becomes the status quo, then, because it’s all their bodies will ever know as they’re pushed into a chronic state of overtraining.
The more I’ve gotten to know the dance world, the more I see parallels between the pressure on aspiring professionals and up-and-coming baseball players. Both dance and baseball require joint actions that are essentially “abnormal” (dancers at the hips, and baseball players at the shoulders); at the highest levels, both require a mix of rehabilitative work and performance-enhancing strength work; and both groups of parents succumb to pressure that serves dance schools or summer baseball showcases but not necessarily the athletes themselves.
It would take quite a leap of faith for a parent to listen to a strength coach who’s never danced in his life when he says, “maybe your daughter should take a month off from this intense schedule.” But that’s exactly what my recommendation would be. Young dancers need at least four to six weeks off every year, during which in a perfect world they would do some type of rehabilitative/recovery/strength work. This tension, by the way, isn’t anything unique to the dance world. Talk to a football coach and he’ll tell you he doesn’t have enough time with his players. It’s up to his strength and conditioning coach to push back a little and offer a different perspective.
When it comes to dancers working through pain, we can all recognize that it’s part of the process. But if we only deal with the pain when it comes rather than working hard to prevent it with periodization, rest, and recovery, then we will always be behind. And that’s a shame for the people who’re actually risking their bodies to create the magnificent art the rest of us get to enjoy.