All dancers get tired—eventually an intense rehearsal or class schedule can take its toll. But some of us experience something greater than periodic tiredness: chronic fatigue syndrome, which is persistent or never fully goes away. Here's how to address and reverse the effects of chronic fatigue and get back to your fully energized self.
What It Is
“Chronic fatigue syndrome can also be called overtraining syndrome," says Bené Barrera, Houston Methodist athletic trainer for Houston Ballet, describing how the syndrome often presents itself in dancers. “It's an imbalance of physical activity to rest. And since dancers are used to placing intense demands on their bodies every day, it's hard to recognize in yourself."
Chronic fatigue can stem from sudden or long-term changes to your schedule. Are you reeling from the first few days of a summer intensive? That's an acute increase in your activity. Is it Nutcracker season, with weeks of shows ahead of you? That might result in cumulative exhaustion. In either scenario, lack of proper rest and self-care can result in chronic fatigue. “If you wake up feeling tired, that's a bad sign," says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with dancers.
“There has been an uptick with this presenting in younger dancers," Barrera says. “Dance is such a specific skill set that it's important for people to train intensively when they're young." But specialized conditioning at the expense of all else can lead to exhaustion, burnout and increased risk of injury.
The Diagnostic Process
Think you might be suffering from chronic fatigue? “Your doctor should first rule out other causes, like hormone or nutritional deficiencies and past injuries and illnesses, and then make a diagnosis based on the information that's left," Barrera says. Be prepared to describe your symptoms to your doctor, and answer questions about changes to your workload and rehearsal schedule. Health care providers can discern what's abnormal for you based on your medical history. What might indicate that you have chronic fatigue, rather than normal tiredness? “There's a feeling of not being able to regroup," Kaslow says. “Chronic fatigue exists on a continuum. If people ask you how you are and you always say 'tired,' or you pass up things you used to do, like doing a center combination one more time, you might become aware that your exhaustion is increasingly dominating your life."
Addressing Chronic Fatigue
The only cure for chronic fatigue is rest, both physical and psychological. “Once you have a diagnosis, you have to address it right away, because chronic fatigue is persistent and can be cumulative," Barrera says. “You need to let your body repair." What if it's competition season and you're not in a position to rest? No dancer wants to be perceived as someone who complains, but “if you're starting to struggle with your energy, let people know," Kaslow says. “A good teacher should ask if you need to take care of yourself." And, she adds, dancers can watch out for their friends and voice their concerns if a peer is consistently drained.
Both Kaslow and Barrera agree that addressing chronic fatigue means time off from dance. Exactly how long should be up to your doctor. While that can be a terrible thought, working through exhaustion could be worse. If you continue to push yourself, you'll be more likely to burn out—or get injured. “Dancers are competitive and that fuels their desire to do more and more," Barrera says. “But sometimes less is more."
Tips to Tackle Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
• When you're able to take a break, rest but don't come to
a full stop. Instead, try out cross-training activities like swimming or yoga, which are gentle and restorative. “You need to explore other ways of moving because your body is used to doing one set of movements," says Bené Barrera, Houston Methodist athletic trainer at Houston Ballet.
• Reassess your meal plan. “You need to eat clean, but eat plenty," Barrera says. “It's critical to understand your nutritional requirements so you're
not working at a nutritional deficiency."
• Think about what you've accomplished and set new goals. Dancers are often fixated on improving by doing the same thing over and over again. “Take time to really enjoy your successes," Barrera says.
• Try mindfulness exercises. They can help control stress associated with an increased workload. “When you're in the shower, notice the water and what it feels like. Really pay attention to what you're doing," says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with dancers. “There's evidence that these kinds of exercises help the body repair physically, too."
OK, so going to the gynecologist isn't exactly fun. But the good thing about your annual visit is that it's a one-stop, totally confidential way to get your most sensitive questions answered. And it's essential that you ask them! After all, there's nothing more important than keeping your dancer body—every part of your dancer body—in tip-top shape. If you're feeling shy or embarrassed, just remember: Gynecologists have heard it all. Here are the answers to some of the questions they get asked the most.
My periods are irregular. Should I be worried?
Teens often expect to get their period on the same day each month, but normal cycles range from 21 to 35 days. “It's also common to have periods outside this range when you first start having them," says Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley, chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. If you've already started your period but it's frequently irregular, check in with your doctor.
Dancers, like many female athletes, often get their first period later than their peers due to their intense activity level. Dr. Colleen Cavanaugh, a gynecologist in Providence, RI, says there's usually no reason to worry (unless you're severely underweight). Getting a first period anywhere between the ages of 10 and 15 is normal. Your doctor may recommend going on a contraceptive pill to help get your periods started or make them come more regularly.
My periods are so heavy and painful. Any advice?
For those prone to painful periods, Dr. Lauren Streicher, a gynecologist and associate professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, recommends popping an Advil the day before you start menstruating, to ward off excessive cramps and even lighten bleeding. Then continue as needed during your period. A heating pad can also be a lifesaver on painful days.
If your period pain regularly forces you to call in sick to school or the studio, or if you need to change a large tampon or pad every hour, it's time to talk to your doctor. Very rarely, severe cramps during menstruation may be a sign of endometriosis, a condition where uterine lining grows outside the uterus. If you're otherwise healthy, your doctor may prescribe a birth control pill or suggest a hormonal intrauterine device (IUD), a tiny T-shaped object that can stay in your uterus for up to five years—certain types have been proven to reduce bleeding and discomfort.
My body is changing—and I'm not sure if I look normal. What does “normal" even look like?
Every teen wonders if her body looks normal—but this is especially true for dancers, who go through puberty in front of full-length mirrors. Remember that normal development looks very different on everyone.
For vulvas (the visible part of your vagina), Streicher says there's a broad range of normal. “They can differ drastically in color, shape and amount of pubic hair, and they're often asymmetrical," she says. “Just like noses can be short or long, so can your labia—the inner and outer folds of the vulva at either side of the vagina."
The same is true for breasts and nipples, which can range drastically in size, shape and color. Asymmetry is also common, especially while developing, so don't be alarmed if one of your breasts is larger than the other. “Nipples range from light pink to brownish black. Some stick out like buttons, and others look more like slits," McDonald-Mosley says. “Remember, different is normal."
How much vaginal discharge is normal?
Most teens will start to notice some clear or white discharge on their underwear starting during puberty. This liquid, called leucorrhea, is completely natural. It may have a mild odor, but it actually helps your vagina stay clean.
How much you see will change slightly throughout your menstrual cycle, getting heavier when you're ovulating. “That's all completely normal," Cavanaugh says. “But if it's dark, itchy, has an intense odor, or comes with pelvic pain, you should see a doctor to check for an infection."
My doctor recommended birth control (for acne/heavy periods/pregnancy prevention), but I'm worried about gaining weight and other side effects.
According to Streicher, scientific studies say that the correlation between birth control pills and weight gain is a myth! That being said, each type of pill affects each body differently. Your doctor will do his or her best to prescribe the best option for your needs. (Streicher says that's usually a pill with a low dose of estrogen). You're most likely to experience nausea, spotting (bleeding between periods) or breast tenderness within the first two to three months after starting birth control, but then those symptoms usually go away. If you continue to notice unwanted side effects, feel free to ask if you can try something different. Just give it some time before making a switch.
What's the deal with the HPV vaccine? Do I need it?
HPV stands for human papillomavirus, a very common virus that is usually sexually transmitted. Some high-risk types of HPV can cause genital warts or cervical or other cancers, while other, low-risk types don't have harmful effects at all.
The HPV vaccine, called Gardasil, protects against the most common types that cause genital warts and cancer, and it's administered through three shots over a period of six months. “I encourage all my patients to get vaccinated as soon as possible," Streicher says. “Ideally, they'd do it even before they become sexually active, and it's FDA-approved for girls as young as 9 years old." No matter your age or sexual experience, ask your doctor about it—your body will thank you later
As a dancer, cross-training is a non-negotiable aspect of staying healthy. But sometimes the prospect of another dreary gym session is…less than inspiring. Banish boredom and take a cue from these three pros—a ballet dancer, a modern dancer and a Broadway performer—who shake up their cross-training with unusual activities. We asked Kendall Alway, DPT, a physical therapist who runs SF Performing Arts Physical Therapy and is the associate director of the ODC Healthy Dancers’ Clinic in San Francisco, CA, to weigh in on the effectiveness of each method. Look no further for exciting cross-training regimens that can keep your dancer body challenged, balanced and injury-free.
AQUA Studio NY (courtesy AQUA Studio NY)
Megan LeCrone, New York City Ballet soloist
Method: Aqua Cycling
When LeCrone sustained a neck injury, she turned to aqua cycling’s low-impact training to help her get back on her feet. The unique class is like spinning—with restorative and high-intensity options—transported to a swimming pool. “The bikes are submerged,” says LeCrone, “and the water temperature is very inviting. Your upper torso, head, neck and arms are out of the water. I could only use my body in a way that didn’t cause strain, and when you’re in the water you feel weightless.”
That weightlessness, or buoyancy, reduces impact on your joints. “When high-intensity interval training is done in water, it’s associated with fewer injuries. Aqua cycling should be very helpful for cross-training,” Alway says.
Rebecca Dean (front) practicing at Ohione Archery (courtesy Nico Gallegos)
Rebecca Dean, member of BANDALOOP
BANDALOOP dancers regularly rappel down buildings, bridges and cliffs as part of the company’s vertical choreography, so Dean has learned to be ready for anything. She cross-trains her focus by practicing archery. “I go to an outdoor range in the redwoods above Oakland, CA,” she says. “I didn’t expect to stick with it, but it’s grounding, requiring deep breaths and clarity.” She recommends archery as a method to connect your mind and body. Alway agrees: “Practicing archery has been shown to increase mental focus,” she says. “As archers become more skilled, they require less and less of their brain to shoot accurately. You could say this is better concentration and centering.” That connection may be an especially important skill for remaining injury-free.
A paddleboard yoga practitioner demonstrates strength and balance (courtesy Thinkstock)
Sarrah Strimel, former An American in Paris ensemble member
Method: Paddleboard yoga
When Strimel performs on a repetitive eight-show-a-week schedule, she needs to even herself out through stretching and strengthening. If it’s warm enough, she combines her passions for yoga and surfing into the perfect outlet: paddleboard yoga.
“It’s exactly what it sounds like,” Strimel says. “You take a paddleboard out on calm water, and in low-wind conditions, and then you do a series of postures on the board.” The board adds an element of instability, turning even the simplest pose into a core-scorcher.
“Studies have found that yoga is especially helpful at improving core stability when it’s combined with other stabilization exercises,” Alway says.
That added effort means your paddleboard might feel more like a wobble board. “Don’t be afraid of the water,” Strimel says, “because you’ll definitely fall in! You really need to use your center, even to do a downward-facing-dog pose.”
(Photo via 305/Thinkstock)
Podiatrist Thomas Novella remembers one of his first interactions with dancer feet. Fresh out of podiatry school, he saw a patient from The Joffrey Ballet and assumed he knew the clear way to help her out. “I thought I was doing her a favor by trimming her calluses off, just like I’d been trained to do,” Novella says. “She called me every day for the next two weeks screaming at me until the calluses started to come back. I immediately learned my lesson!” Now more than 30 years into his career, Novella works with dancers from New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and other dance companies at his practice in NYC, so he’s not only learned the importance of calluses to protect delicate skin, but also things like the risks of an ill-fitted shoe, and the toll that Nutcracker season can put on a body. But not every dancer is lucky enough to have a doctor who knows the ins and outs of the dance world. Dance Spirit asked the experts to break down four common scenarios in which your doctor will be better able to help you if you can give a dance-specific description of your needs.
“Your Feet Are a Mess!”
You’re experiencing pain in your fourth metatarsal and a twinge in your Achilles tendon. It’s time to see a doctor—but you’re afraid he or she will freak out once you take your socks off. To start, “Make sure your doctor knows that some things look like a problem in the normal population, but aren’t in dancers,” Novella says. We know our feet might not be pretty, but it’s important that they be functional, which means something different to dancers than it does to non-dancers. “Things like thick nails, enlarged bunions and enlarged fifth metatarsal joints aren’t unhealthy; they just tell the story of an instrument that has adapted to dance,” he says. Emily Sandow, a doctor of physical therapy at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, suggests describing to your doctor what kinds of shoes and floors have transformed your feet into the beautiful mess they are today—and why you’d actually prefer they stay that way. “Explain that dancing barefoot creates friction that can result in protective calluses, and the pressure of pointe shoes naturally causes blisters and corns,” Sandow says. “After a detailed explanation, the doctor should be able to move more than skin deep to address the primary complaints of pain.”
“Absolutely No Dancing.”
When you go to a doctor with a foot or leg injury, the easiest way for them to ensure you heal properly may be to tell you to stay off of it. But all serious dancers know that a couple of weeks without dance sounds as ridiculous as a couple of weeks without air. Doctors who don’t know a ton about dance may not realize there are ways to modify class to avoid putting stress on an injured limb. “I recommend that dancers actually take their doctors step-by-step through a dance class,” says Katie Lemmon, a certified athletic trainer at Athletico Physical Therapy in Chicago. “If you can, demonstrate a barre on your uninjured leg, and ask specific questions about each step. ‘Can I do this?’ ‘What if I do it without a relevé/heel lift?’ ‘What if I stand on two legs and just do the arms?’ ” If barre is out of the question, lie on the ground and go through a floor barre as your doctor points out things that are unsafe. It may be a painstakingly slow process, but you’ll leave your doctor’s office with a list of dos and don’ts to take with you to class.
“You’re Too Thin.”
You know keeping your body in tip-top shape is important, so when a doctor mentions that you’re a little underweight for your age, it can be distressing. The key is to find out why your doctor is recommending you gain weight. It may be because your bone density is low, or because you haven’t had consistent periods, which could lead to debilitating injuries or health problems in the future. Knowing what the underlying health issue is can make it easier to fix the problem without sacrificing the physique you’ve worked so hard for. “It may be that you’re just overloading on carbs, when you should be focusing on more protein, calcium or vitamin D in your diet,” Novella says. You could also try working with a nutritionist to tailor your diet to be sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need. As long as you’re not severely underweight, in which case gaining weight may be in your best interest, strengthening your body with adjustments to your diet is possible without putting on extra pounds.
“Dance Isn’t Enough Exercise.”
A good dance class or rehearsal (especially several of them in a row!) can be just as rigorous and exhausting as any soccer game, but a doctor who’s unfamiliar with dance may still ask you to step up your exercise regimen. Instead of getting defensive, the key here is to help your doctor understand the specifics of your routine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise every day for children and adolescents, and 2.5 hours per week for adults. So it’s up to you to explain to your doctor when and how you’re meeting that standard. If your doctor’s still not convinced, he may have a point. “If you’re going to the studio four to six hours every day for training in a variety of dance styles, and all weekends are spent in dance classes and rehearsals, you’re probably getting more than enough exercise, but taking low-intensity ballet classes twice a week doesn’t make the cut,” says Sandow. “Keep in mind that dance has been shown to be less physically intense than other athletic sports. This may be due to the quick bursts of exercise followed by longer recovery periods as the teacher explains a combination, or dance’s emphasis on agility and grace, rather than speed, force and power.” Feel free to ask another doctor for a second opinion, but you may also consider adding a little cross-training to your weekly routine.
You’re at a checkup with your doctor, and she asks you to roll down and touch your toes. When you straighten up, she tells you there’s a curve in your spine—she thinks you have scoliosis.
Don’t panic! Having a curvy spine, or even wearing a brace, is rarely a reason to stop dancing. Case in point: Former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan, whose scoliosis didn’t prevent her from having an extraordinary career. Dance Spirit spoke with health care pros and dancers to find out what “curvy girls” need to do to stay healthy and keep dancing.
Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine (photo courtesy Thinkstock)
What is scoliosis?
“Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine,” says Kendall Alway, DPT, a physical therapist and the associate director of the ODC Healthy Dancers’ Clinic in San Francisco, CA. “Usually, the spine, ribs and pelvis appear mostly level and balanced, but with scoliosis, a dancer might have a dropped shoulder and look bent to the side.” There are varying degrees of scoliosis, and while extreme cases can cause your spine to curve like an “S,” it looks different on everyone.
Asking you to touch your toes is the best way for a health care provider to diagnose scoliosis. If you have very noticeable curves, your doctor will probably want to take an X-ray to determine the severity.
It can be scary to be told there’s something wrong with your spine—it’s literally the backbone of your dancing! But scoliosis is actually quite common in dancers. “About one in every four or five dancers has some scoliosis,” Alway says. It can become worse during growth spurts, which typically occur between the ages of 12 and 16, so it’s important to try and catch it early.
How does it affect dancers?
Mild scoliosis shouldn’t hinder your dancing. But larger curves can have a bigger impact on your body: One side might be significantly more flexible and/or stronger than the other. Your shoulders or hips might be uneven, too.
Dancers with scoliosis are also potentially working with poor alignment in their joints because of the twisting in their spines. A 2012 study found that dancers with scoliosis had an increased incidence of foot, knee, hip and spine injury. “Twisted joints become stiff,” Alway says, “so movement is passed to more mobile joints, putting extra strain on them.”
How is it treated?
According to Alway, treatment for scoliosis can involve many different types of therapy. “Physical therapy, joint mobilization, breathing exercises and massage will all help,” she says. “Acupuncture can be used to control discomfort and Pilates can help maintain healthy changes to your body.” Alway stresses that strengthening and stretching the muscles around the spine is essential for treatment, and can even help decrease curves.
Yes, you might have to wear a brace. “If you need it, you need it,” Alway says. “If worn as prescribed, it’s generally 90 percent effective in reducing or stopping curves and preventing the need for surgery.”
Try to find a physical therapist who understands that maximizing and maintaining your range of motion is essential as a dancer. “Work to strengthen your weak side,” Alway says. “It’s important to try not to ‘give in’ to your curves.”
How can you deal?
Marjorie Thompson, Pacific Northwest Ballet School conditioning program director, advocates for lots of communication among dancers, teachers, parents and health care providers. “Find physical therapists and doctors who understand what your dance goals are,” she advises. Dancing with scoliosis is all about developing symmetry within your own body. “It’s about finding your own best possible placement,” Thompson says.
"Curvy Girls": Two Stories
Gigi Crouch (Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy Crouch)
Gigi Crouch, a Pacific Northwest Ballet School Professional Division student, was diagnosed with moderate curves in her lumbar, thoracic and cervical spine when she was 13 years old. “I went to an orthopedic surgeon who prescribed a brace,” Crouch says. After she and her family did a little bit of their own research, they decided to try a different type of brace and the Schroth method of physical therapy. “Those methods have really worked to stabilize my curves,” she says.
Paige Fraser (Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Nick Pupillo)
Paige Fraser, a company member with Visceral Dance Chicago in Chicago, IL, was diagnosed with a 32-degree curve when she was a freshman in high school. One orthopedist suggested she undergo surgery. “But my dad wasn’t comfortable with that,” Fraser says. “We found a chiropracter who dealt specifically with dancers and scoliosis. I saw him twice a week for a few months, and wore a back brace throughout high school. My spine responded well to that treatment.”
Both Crouch and Fraser have found that scoliosis affects their dancing—but they’ve also found ways to make things work on their own bodies. “The hardest thing is finding my center of gravity,” Fraser says. “But ultimately, dealing with scoliosis has made me more aware of my body as a dancer.”
“I think it’s important to find people who are going through the same thing as you are,” Crouch says. She recommends curvygirlsscoliosis.com as a good website for peer-to-peer scoliosis support, both online and in person.
Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine.
It’s measured by looking at a spinal X-ray to determine how severe it is:
• Under 10 degrees of scoliosis is not significant.
• Over 30 degrees of scoliosis is moderate.
• Over 50 degrees is severe.
It’s most commonly seen in dancers, gymnasts and swimmers. It usually appears between the ages of 10 and 14.
The worst has happened: You landed a jump and felt an oh-so-terrifying pop in your ankle. As your friend rushes over with an ice pack, your entire dance career flashes before your eyes. All you really want to know is how bad it is—and how long you’ll have to stay off your toes.
Dancers endure a lot of physical stress on a daily basis, making injuries like sprains, strains, fractures and stress fractures fairly common throughout the body. Here, Dance Spirit breaks down the differences between the four diagnoses—so you’ll know what to expect when your doctor gives you the news.
The diagnosis: a strain
Strains usually build up gradually over time but can also happen suddenly. They occur when muscles or tendons (tissues that connect muscle to bone)—frequently in the lower back or hamstrings—are stressed by prolonged repetitive motion. Strains often come with pain, swelling, limited mobility or muscle spasms. “I usually see strains in dancers who are trying to get a muscle to stretch or contract more than their body can tolerate,” says Katie Lemmon, an athletic trainer with Athletico Physical Therapy in Chicago, IL.
Treatment strategy for strains depends on their severity. You may make significant recovery with a few days off, but you may also need up to six weeks working with a physical therapist, or even surgery. Lemmon recommends turning to a dance-friendly physical therapist as soon as possible, since they can often help correct anything in your technique that might increase your risk for re-injury. “It could be an imbalance in your muscles,” she says. “For example, if the pulling feeling is in your hamstring, you might need to stretch out the front of your thigh. We always recommend a technique assessment to look at how all the parts of your body are working together.”
The diagnosis: a sprain
A sprain is usually accompanied by pain, swelling, bruising and limited mobility. It indicates a stretching or tearing of ligaments, the bands of tissue in your joints that connect two bones. In addition to the classic sprained ankle, you can also sprain ligaments in your knee with an unexpected twist, or in your wrist during acro or partnering. Sprains usually happen suddenly, and they’re more likely if you’re tired or haven’t warmed up properly.
While a mild strain may only require a few days of rest, ice and wrapping, most ankle sprains will require some time in a brace or a boot. Podiatrist Ronald Werter, who works with professional dancers in NYC, says moderate sprains may only require two weeks in a boot followed by two weeks in an ankle brace. The more intense the tear, the longer you’ll have to stay off the foot. If the ligament is completely severed, it could take six months or more to heal. In that scenario, many dancers opt for surgery to repair the ligament, since it typically won’t reconnect on its own.
It’s important not to return to dancing too soon after a sprain. “If the ligament is still overstretched, you may be at risk of making the injury worse or tearing it completely,” Lemmon says. “Even when your doctor says you can go back to dancing, start gradually with movements that don’t require twisting, turning or jumping.” Working with a physical therapist can help you regain balance, strength and range of motion. And your doctor may recommend taping the affected area to add support when you first return to the studio.
(Photo by Lucas Chilczuk)
The diagnosis: a fracture
A fracture, or broken bone, happens suddenly, usually from landing a jump wrong, falling or being dropped while partnering. You’ll often feel and hear a snap, followed by throbbing pain, swelling, bruising and sometimes noticeable deformity. Werter says he commonly sees broken toes in dancers, which, at best, heal with taping and a couple days of rest.
However, a broken metatarsal may require surgery to insert a pin or screw in the bone. “After surgery and six weeks in a boot, it should be stable enough to dance on carefully, but you’ll likely need about another three months to be completely healed,” Werter says.
To avoid fractures, Lemmon suggests checking in with a nutritionist to be sure you’re eating a bone-healthy diet. Often, dancers with poor nutrition or amenorrhea (lack of periods) will have weaker bones, which can make them more susceptible to fractures. The good news is that once your bone completely heals, the chance of breaking it again doesn’t increase in healthy dancers. In fact, Lemmon says, the bone may actually heal stronger.
The diagnosis: a stress fracture
A stress fracture happens when a bone begins to develop thin cracks due to prolonged stress. Dancers usually get them in the bones of the foot (metatarsals or sesamoids) or in the bones of the lower leg (tibia and fibula), and they may not be easily spotted with an X-ray. They’re usually caused by overuse or repetitive pressure on the bone—jumping repeatedly on a hard floor, for example, or even wearing pointe shoes that don’t fit correctly.
“For foot fractures, I start by immobilizing it in a walking boot for just a week,” Werter says. “After a week, if there’s no pain, I’ll wrap it and ask the dancer to take it easy. If treated properly, a stress fracture should be OK to dance on after about three to six weeks.”
Lemmon adds that being diagnosed with a stress fracture, much like being diagnosed with a strain, is a sign that you may be fatigued or need to reevaluate your technique. “A stress fracture in the foot, for example, could actually be caused by an imbalance in your hips or core,” she says. “Taking time off to heal is an opportunity to figure out what caused the injury in the first place.”
You work hard in dance class to perfect your technique and perform at your best. But what you do outside of class counts, too. The truth is, little everyday habits—like carrying an overstuffed dance bag or texting nonstop—could be negatively affecting your body and, ultimately, your dancing. Dance Spirit investigates seven bad health habits that have repercussions in the studio.
The Habit: Crossing your legs.
The Risk: “Doing it once or twice isn’t a big deal, but habitually sitting with your legs crossed can lead to real changes in your body,” says Alison Deleget, a certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Since you’re not sitting evenly on your pelvis, you’re forcing your spine to curve to one side.” Over time, you may develop back or hip pain, and overstretched back muscles on one side of your body may leave you feeling uneven in class. Want to look ladylike without throwing your body off balance? Try sitting squarely on both hips and crossing your feet at the ankles.
(Photo by Ammentorp Photography/Thinkstock)
The Habit: Constantly texting.
The Risk: Typical texting posture—head bent forward and shoulders slumped—puts the equivalent of 60 pounds of pressure on your upper spine, which can lead to wear and tear on the supportive tissues between your vertebrae. “It shortens the muscles in the front of your upper body and neck while overstretching and weakening the muscles in the back, which may make maintaining correct épaulement more difficult,” Deleget says. In the short term, spending hours hunched over your phone could cause headaches or a sore neck and shoulders; in the long term, it could mean herniated disks or nerve impingements. The next time you get a text, try bringing your phone up to your face to respond, or ask Siri to type for you.
The Habit: Cracking your neck, back or toes.
The Risk: You may have heard rumors that popping your joints will eventually lead to arthritis. The good news is there’s no research supporting that theory, and feeling a hip pop during class is perfectly fine. The problem comes when dancers start forcing their joints to pop instead of letting it happen naturally. This can stress the joints’ connective tissues and cause them to overstretch and become unstable. “It’s like dancing on a slinky when you should be dancing on a bed spring,” Deleget says. “That slinky gives much less support.”
The Habit: Walking like a duck.
The Risk: All the older dancers are doing it, but that doesn’t mean you should. “The joints of the knees and ankles work like hinges, designed to move straight forward. Walking turned-out means putting excessive stress on the insides of your knees, ankles and toes,” Deleget says. It won’t lead to better turnout, but it can lead to anterior hip pain—a common and sometimes debilitating injury for dancers.
The Habit: Carrying your dance bag on one shoulder.
The Risk: When only one side of your body carries a heavy load day after day, you’re likely to develop muscle imbalances that can lead to overwork- and stress-related injuries—from your shoulders all the way to your pelvis. “If one side of your upper trapezius muscles becomes more developed than the other, your shoulders may also look uneven when you’re dancing,” Deleget says. “Opt for a backpack, and wear it the proper, ‘geeky’ way—straps secure and chest strap fastened, not thrown over one shoulder or hanging down over your butt.”
(Photo by Bonnin Studio/Thinkstock)
The Habit: Typing in bed.
The Risk: It’s been a long day, you’re exhausted and you have a paper due tomorrow. You may be tempted to snuggle up in bed to write that essay—but resist the urge. “If
you plan on working for an extended period of time, always sit up with your spine in a neutral position. Don’t slouch and definitely don’t lie down,” Deleget says. Making bad homework posture a habit strains the connective tissues in your spine, which can cause pain and stiffness in your lower back when you dance. Sitting up straight improves your core strength and posture for class.
The Habit: Wearing flimsy shoes.
The Risk: Your feet are two of the most important parts of your dancer body, so it’s crucial to shoe them with care. Podiatrist Ronald Werter, who works with professional dancers in NYC, says the worst options for your precious feet are paper-thin flip-flops or super-squishy boots. “They’re worse than walking around barefoot,” he says.“Unsupportive shoes force you to put more pressure on the inside of your foot, which causes the tendons that support the arch and ligaments in the ankles to stretch.” Without proper tension, foot and ankle strength will be much harder to retain.
Werter recommends testing shoes before you buy them by squeezing both the arch and where the big toe hits with your thumb and forefinger. If you can compress them to half the thickness they were before, save your money. Instead, look for a shoe with a hard rubber or leather arch built in.
As for your favorite heels, Werter says they’re OK as long as they’re not higher than two inches. Just make sure that the middle of the shoe, where the shank would be on a pointe shoe, can’t fold easily, so you have strong support.
Wearing a high-cut leo without tights is sure to give you that coveted legs-for-days look. But when it comes time for a grand plié in second position, or a slow sustained tilt to the front, you may find yourself wishing you’d spent a little more time with your razor.
Unwanted body hair is a nuisance—and it’s especially rough for dancers who wear all kinds of revealing costumes. DS turned to the experts for the scoop on a variety of solutions to hairy situations.
(Photo by Alexander Yakovlev/Thinkstock)
Shaving takes the cake when it comes to hair removal on a budget: You only need to pay for razors and shaving cream. That said, shaving yields very short-term results, so you’ll probably need to do it a few times a week to stay hair-free.
“If you shave, you also need good technique to avoid razor burn,” says Dr. Neil Goldberg, a dermatologist in Bronxville, NY. He recommends shaving in the shower, or immediately after. The steam helps soften your hair and open up the follicles, giving you a closer shave. And never shave dry skin. “Use lubricants, like shaving cream, to soften the blade,” Goldberg suggests.
Shaving leaves you with sharp follicles close to your skin’s surface, so ingrown hairs are a common side effect. To avoid them, shave in one direction—against the direction of hair growth—and be sure to exfoliate. “Dead skin has to be shed on a daily basis because hair can’t grow through it,” says Sandra Cossa-Ortiz, an esthetician who specializes in hair removal and skin care. She suggests using a simple scrub.
Jessica Wells, spa director at Bliss Boston, recommends waxing your legs, bikini line and underarms. “Unlike shaving, which cuts the hair off at the
surface, waxing removes hair from the roots,” she explains. “This gives a smoother and longer-lasting result. Depending on hair growth, you can expect to go four to six weeks between waxes.”
Here’s how it works: A salon specialist spreads warm wax over your unwanted hair and covers it with a cloth strip. She then yanks the strip off your body in the opposite direction of hair growth, pulling hair out at the root. It can be painful, and it’s more expensive than shaving (each visit can cost between $20 and $80). But it’s a winner when it comes to efficiency and results. If you’re super-sensitive, there are different kinds of waxes—like hard wax—that can help ease the pain.
Depilatory creams (like Nair) can be used at home for quick hair removal. Creams don’t remove hair from the root but get close to it, which makes the method last about as long as as shaving. As the cream removes the hair, it takes some of the dead skin cells blocking hair growth along with it, so ingrown hairs are less common.
Depilatory creams are budget-friendly (around $10), and a variety of brands can be found at most drugstores. Cossa-Ortiz offers two suggestions for depilatory cream: Use it toward the end of your shower, because the more hydrated your hairs are, the more effective the cream will be; and pay attention to the amount of time it stays on your skin. The chemicals are very strong, and they can harm your skin if left on longer than the recommended time.
If you’re willing to put in a bit of time and a good deal of money, laser treatments will ultimately give you the best results.
Laser treatments beam concentrated light into your hair follicles, damaging them. In time, this damage kills the hairs. It usually requires treatments every six to eight weeks for approximately eight months to zap all of the follicles.
But laser isn’t for everyone. Cossa-Ortiz says laser candidates must have already hit puberty. The hormone shifts that occur with puberty interfere with the hair follicles, altering the process and, ultimately, the results.
Goldberg adds that the best laser candidates have very light skin and dark hair. While girls with other skin/hair combinations will experience hair reduction, it’s typically less effective.
Tip: If you’re on the fence about laser treatment, start with your armpits. It’s a small area that doesn’t hurt—and it’s relatively inexpensive.
The Final Word
Each person’s skin and hair are different, and what works best as a hair-removal treatment for one person may be the worst option for another. Keep this in mind when considering the different methods of hair removal for yourself, and consult a dermatologist or other skin-care specialist if you have further questions.