This week we are pleased to offer part II of the series on Maximizing Peak Performance for Competition…read part I here.
by Robin Kish MS, MFA
How often has it been a part of a dancer’s training to believe, “No Pain, No Gain,” “If you’re not sore you didn’t work hard enough,” and of course the best of all, “The Show Must Go On.” It is a part of the dance culture to push as hard as possible with little regard for the short term or long term consequences. I have heard countless stories over the years of dancers performing with sprained ankles, stress fractures in the lower legs, and pain levels that would make any sane person stop all activity. At the end of all these stories, the tag line is usually the same, “I had to dance because my dance group, teacher, choreographer, studio, parent etc… was counting on me.”
This type of attitude is not unique to the dance population but is also prevalent in competitive sports. The major difference here is most of the time athletes have athletic trainers, physical therapists, and many times team doctors that know how to keep the athletes going and when an athlete has hit their limit. So how can a dancer decide when enough is enough and it’s time to seek help?
- Loss of skills – A sudden or gradual decrease in technique is a strong sign that something harmful is occurring in the body. For example, if you have lost the depth of your demi plie or the height of your releve you are losing range of motion in the ankle which could be linked to an ankle sprain or tendinitis. Why does it matter that your demi plie or releve is a little off? As you lose your range of motion, your body begins to compensate putting a greater demand on other muscles and joints. Imagine a stack of blocks, when everything is balanced, the weight is distributed equally with very little stress. However start taking a few blocks away at a time, and the stress begins to build until the structure collapses. You can only continue for so long until the ankle refuses to perform the necessary skills for successful performance.
- Loss of flexibility – How are your splits? How is your turn out? Have you had a negative change in your flexibility? If your flexibility remains the same or improves over time, you are doing well; however, many times dancers find one day they realize they have lost range on one side. Also, if while stretching you no longer feel the stretch in the muscle and instead feel like you have hit a brick wall, that may be a sign that a structural issue may be involved. If you experience these issues, working with a professional such as a physical therapist, massage therapist, or a dance-familiar somatic instructor may help unlock the limitations keeping you from finding a deep stretch. (Editors note: “Somatics” refers to body/mind trainings such as Pilates / Yoga / Franklin / Feldenkrais / Alexander, etc. We will have a future article on how this kind of work can significantly help dancers to achieve peak performance – i.e, “dancing longer and dancing stronger”!)
- Pain – If you have either of the above issues and pain, right away an alarm should go off in your head to consider this is not something that is just going away. Yes, pain can be a badge of honor of all your hard work; however, pain is the body’s way to scream for some attention. If you trip and roll your ankle, immediate sharp pain is felt to signal something has gone terribly wrong. This is the easy type of pain to identify as it is sudden and you know what you did at that very moment. The more difficult pain to acknowledge is the nagging, achy, throbbing pain that seems to increase over time. If the pain you are feeling is causing you to modify movements, avoid exercises, or grimace when your choreographer says, “lets run it from the top,” these are signs that you need to seek out medical advice and diagnosis for your issues. (Editor’s note: Readers may remember our previous article that talked about how to identify “good” pain vs “bad” pain. The “good” kind is what we associate with using muscles in a new way, like a ballet dancer taking a jazz class for the first time –it’s a generalized sore dull ache. We all know how that feels! The “bad” pain is an indication of any injury, and is more localized (in one place), often sharper, or comes and goes with specific movements.)
If you were to take a tally of any loss of skills, loss of flexibility, and pain that creates limitation, then it is important to seek out medical professionals to help you regain your maximum potential. As a dancer you will be able to push through your losses and pain for a while, but your body will eventually give up–just like a car can only run on fumes so long before it won’t just run anymore. The sooner an issue is addressed the faster a dancer will recover – and the sooner you will go on to achieve peak performance in all your dance pursuits, competition and otherwise!
Robin Kish, M.S. MFA is Assistant Professor in the Department of Dance at Chapman University. She teaches dance technique, Pilates, Anatomy for Dancers, Injury Prevention, Choreographs and oversees student choreography. Robin has taught graduate level courses in Anatomy for Dancers at the University of California Irvine and California State University Long Beach. She is on the teacher’s Committee of IADMS and recently co-chaired the program and schedule for PAMA’s (Performing Arts Medicine Asso.) 30th anniversary conference in Aspen, Co. In 2010 Robin was awarded the Certificate in Safe and Effective Dance Practice from Trinity College London. She has presented papers at both IADMS and PAMA conferences and has also mentored several students who have presented papers and posters at both venues. As a product of the private studio / competition environment she is passionate about bringing dancer wellness and safe teaching practices to the industry. Contact at kish(at)chapman.edu