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IT'S SUMMERTIME! And if you're like many dance students, you have enrolled in a competitive training program, taking between two and five dance classes a day. It's a chance to study with master teachers, perform in school workshops or even jumpstart a professional career. All of this requires lots of hard work. Yet the biggest challenge for young dancers can be learning how to avoid injuries.

Unlike mature dancers, teenagers are especially vulnerable to "stress overload," as they repeat the same steps over and over again. Why? Because the growth plates in their bones are still open, making them more susceptible to injury. Poor work habits cause additional problems in young dancers who fail to warm up and cool down, or fully rehabilitate a prior injury. The good news is that it is possible to reduce injuries by following basic rules provided by dance medicine specialists.


Dr. William Hamilton, who is the orthopedic consultant for the School of American Ballet (as well as my husband), finds that fatigue causes a lot of problems in dancers who suddenly increase their workload. As a result, it's best to ease into a busy schedule of classes, rehearsals or performances rather than giving 110 percent immediately. Unfortunately, most enterprising students believe that only "lazy" dancers pace themselves. One 15-year-old ballet student made this mistake in her summer program last year by dancing full out before her body had adjusted to four classes a day. Five weeks later, she was sidelined with a chronic case of tendinitis. Her roommate, who took it relatively easy at the beginning of the program, performed the lead role in the school workshop.

All dancers need time to build strength and stamina, particularly in ballet; a study by Dr. James Nicholas, published some years back in the Journal of Sports Medicine, found that ballet technique is more physically demanding than professional football. So, unless you have added extra dance classes or Pilates exercises to your routine in the spring, your body must adjust to a demanding summer schedule.


The next step in injury prevention is to distinguish "good" pain, which is often a sign of progress, from the "bad" kind that leads to long-term problems. As a general rule, if something hurts for more than three days, it is time to back off. You also need to pay attention to leftover aches and pains from an old injury. One 17-year-old male dancer who had sprained his ankle in June resprained it a month later when, still feeling weak and unstable, he started an intense summer program. According to Marika Molnar, the director of Westside Dance Physical Therapy in New York, "Dancers with prior injuries often need special exercises to correct residual tightness or weakness" to avoid reinjury.

If you suspect an injury, ask the faculty of your summer training program for a referral to a dance medicine specialist. In general, overuse injuries such as tendinitis heal best when you modify your activities, eliminating dance steps that hurt. A sprained ankle, on the other hand, is an acute problem that requires RICE, an acronym for "rest, ice, compression (with an Ace bandage) and elevation." In both cases, you may benefit from physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications. But use caution: Injured dancers who self-medicate on a regular basis with aspirin or Advil can develop problems such as ulcers or kidney damage.


Ideally, it is best to prevent dance injuries before they occur rather than treat them after they happen. Besides practicing good health habits each day, such as eating three balanced meals plus snacks and getting ten hours of sleep (recommended for all athletes who are training intensively), smart work habits will also prevent problems. Unfortunately, many young dancers take the opposite approach: They go on crash diets to "get in shape," get overtired and stretch their cold bodies by plopping down into a side split before class--a sure way to become injured!

To prepare for dance class, start off with breakfast (such as a glass of low-fat milk, cereal and fruit), then give yourself time to warm up. A ballet barre, for example, will get you ready for class by increasing your body temperature, suppleness and muscular control. Once you are warm, it is time to stretch by slowly lengthening (not bouncing) each muscle group for twenty seconds, holding the rest of the body stable. Remember to stretch your turnout, the front of your thighs and the inside and back of your legs, as well as your back, waist and shoulder muscles. If you ignore certain areas, you can create muscle imbalances. It also pays to wind down by taking five to fifteen minutes to stretch after class or rehearsals, reducing fatigue and muscle soreness.

In the future, consider adding weight training and aerobic exercises to your routine to prevent injuries. Today's choreography is extremely demanding, and dance class will only take you so far. Dr. Larry Demann, Jr., the chiropractor for the New York City Ballet, believes that "conditioning programs should be an integral part of training dancers, just like they are for gymnasts and baseball players."

Remember: All of us have good days and bad days. If you can learn to back off when you are really tired or sore, you can nip many problems in the bud. Dancers with serious injuries should use the summer for healing and rehabilitation. Meanwhile, eat right and get your rest. After all, dancers are athletes as well as artists.

Senior Editor Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice and associate professor at Fordham University-Ah, in Alley School. She writes Dance Magazine's "Advice for Dancers."
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Title Annotation:prevention and care for injuries due to overuse and stress
Author:Hamilton, Linda
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2000
Previous Article:Vaslav Nijinsky.
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