Mark Yonally, artistic director of Chicago Tap Theatre, was performing with his company in France last summer when his worst nightmare came true. “The stage was less than ideal—slippery in spots and sticky in others,” he says. “I was doing a slide during a solo when one foot got stuck and the other kept going. I felt a sharp pain in my inner thigh and knew I was in trouble.” Though he managed to finish the piece, the minute he left the stage Yonally sought treatment from Melissa Reh, a CTT company member who is also a physical therapist. Thanks to prompt, expert treatment, Yonally averted serious injury.
Tap dancers sometimes think that they’re immune to injuries. After all, there are no death-defying lifts, leaps or inversions in tap. Still, tap’s constant pounding and the emphasis on faster, more inventive steps can hurt your body. Landing awkwardly on one-footed wings can tear a ligament; overextending on a slam can stress a tendon; dancing on bad surfaces can lead to shin splits. There’s a lot that can go wrong, but by knowing your body and recognizing situations that can lead to injury, you’re on your way to a long and healthy life in tap.
TYPICAL TAP INJURIES
“Tap injuries can come on suddenly or gradually,” says Reh, who specializes in treating dancers at Creative Rehab, a clinic just outside Chicago. “It just depends on whether they’re caused by a single event, like a fall, or by repetition over time.”
Martin “Tre” Dumas of Jus’LisTeN has seen his share of injuries over the years. “Plantar fasciitis, fallen arches, shin splints—these happen a lot,” he says. While tappers’ feet and ankles take the brunt of the stress, accidental twists and constant pounding also take a toll on knees. Other potential problems include strained tendons, exacerbated by overly-tight muscles, and back problems, which can be caused by lack of core strength, tightness in other body parts (particularly the feet and hip flexors), poor technique—even over-compensation for other injuries.
Minor injuries can turn major if left untreated. “Dancers have a high tolerance for pain, but sometimes that can work against you,” says Maureen Kreuser, a Chicago-based naprapath (a therapist who manipulates the body’s connective tissues, particularly the ligaments surrounding joints) with training in several types of alternative medicine. “Seek professional help if you think something may be wrong.”
CAUSES OF INJURIES
Tap injuries don’t just come from traumatic events or poor technique. Here are a few other traps to watch out for:
Bad floors: “Be very careful about your surfaces,” says Dumas. “Tappers were meant to dance on wood with some spring in it. Do not tap on concrete. If you have to perform outdoors, get some wood and put some padding under it, even if it’s just sponge foam from Home Depot.” Even Marley flooring can be a problem, since tappers have to hit it very hard to get the proper sound.
“Tapping has a domino effect throughout your body,” Reh adds. “If there’s no give in the floor, your dancing will cause shock waves to travel through your foot, up your leg and into the rest of your body.”
Some tappers travel with their own portable floors, both to ensure good sound and to avoid injuries. “I can take my floor to a jazz club, a coffee shop—anywhere with a flat surface—and dance,” Yonally says. “That lets me perform in a wider variety of venues and helps me avoid dancing on tile, marble or concrete—all incredibly dangerous.”
Not warming up: “Dancing with cold or tight muscles can hurt you,” Reh says, “since tight muscles—especially those in the foot and ankle—are less able to absorb shock.” (Go to dancespirit.com for Yonally’s six-minute tap warm-up!)
Tap style: Some dancers, including Yonally, say loose-ankle tap (working with relaxed ankles and initiating movement from the hips) is easier on the body than dancing with tight, held ankles. (For more, see DS October 2007.) By switching styles, Yonally was able to overcome a knee injury that resulted from a one-footed wing gone bad.
Similarly, Dumas notes: “Flat-footed dancers who are really into killing the floor are prone to certain kinds of injuries, like shin splints or stress fractures. Also, if you’re really athletic and move around a lot, you’re more likely to get hurt than if you stay in one spot.” (The more you jump, turn and move across the stage, the greater the likelihood of slipping or landing wrong!) If one style is bothering you, try switching things up—Dumas emphasizes that style has nothing to do with rhythmic complexity. “You can be musically interesting no matter what style you use,” he says.
PREVENTING AND RECOVERING FROM INJURY
The key to avoiding injury is knowing your own body. “Don’t let a teacher push you into doing something that you feel uncomfortable with,” says Yonally. “As a dancer, you’re responsible for your own health and safety. It’s better to sit out for ten minutes than ten months.”
You’re also more than just your feet. “Tappers are dancers, athletes and musicians, all rolled into one,” says Dumas. To ensure a long, healthy career, warm up and stretch out after class (even if your teacher doesn’t take you through it!), strengthen your core and upper body, and work on cardiovascular fitness. Stretches and cardio work can be the same as for other forms of dance, but Reh cautions: “Tappers need to be particularly careful about keeping their feet and hip flexors stretched—they’re vital to efficient shock absorption through your body.” (For your feet, try some pliés/relevés before and after class; lunge stretches will keep your hip flexors lengthened.) By keeping the whole body strong and healthy, you minimize the risk of serious injuries.
So when should you see a health professional? “Dancers know the difference between muscle ache and joint pain,” says Reh. “If you have pain around a joint or something that’s not consistent with how you usually feel, seek help.”
Treatment time can vary, but you do have to give yourself a few weeks to heal. “If it isn’t getting any better after, say, two weeks, talk to your doctor and consider other options,” says Kreuser. “Many dancers combine complementary medicine, like chiropractics or acupuncture, with conventional medicine. The key is to find what works for you.”
Stacie Strong is a tap dancer and writer based in Columbia, MO, and Chicago. She is the editor of the book Top Tap Tips and a calendar of tap dance photography.
Photo: Josh Hawkins, joshhawkins.com