After a few weeks of much-needed rest, many dancers jump right back into class full force. But going from couch potato to full-on dance diva overnight can cause a whole new set of challenges in the form of accidents and overuse injuries.
In the December issue of Dance Spirit, we told you how a short break from dance has the potential to revitalize your technique. But maybe your break has been longer. Perhaps you’ve been out three months or more with an injury, or maybe you decided to stop dancing only to realize after a year you can’t live without it. Regardless, once your rest period is over, it’s vital to be smart about how you reenter the studio: You’ll need to be disciplined to resist the urge to spend all day every day back at the barre. Here’s how to get back into class safely, whether you’ve been out of the studio for a few weeks, a few months or more than a year.
If you’ve been out for three weeks…
So you chose to take a few weeks away from the studio to recharge—which is great! Your first class back is probably going to feel surprisingly (and deceptively) amazing, says Kay Sandel, assistant professor of ballet, anatomy and dance pedagogy at Oklahoma City University. “Your muscles have relaxed—they’re rested and ready to work for you again,” she says. “You’re going to be tempted to do more than you should.”
Your muscles may feel rejuvenated, but over the break they’ve also lost a degree of conditioning. According to Sandel, the biggest danger in those first few classes is injuring the back, knees or ankles when landing big jumps. Even if you’ve practiced yoga or Pilates through the break, your body likely hasn’t experienced the pressure of gravity in grand allégro—meaning your leg muscles might not be ready to catch you like they usually do.
Since your time away has been fairly short, reconditioning shouldn’t take long. Sandel recommends giving yourself an approximate timeline: If you’ve taken three weeks off, gradually increase your activity over the course of three weeks, and expect to be dancing full force in week four.
Depending on how much cross-training you’ve done over the break, this process will vary. If you’ve been completely sedentary, take your first week back very easy, with a basic class every other day. Make sure your small jumps feel strong before attempting big jumps, and even then take them easy at first. If you’ve cross-trained extensively, consider taking class consecutively for two days before cross-training on the third day.
During the second week, gradually increase your activity. By the third week, you should be able to step back into your regular schedule, and by the fourth, you should be back to your usual self—and likely even stronger, since your muscles will be refreshed.
For some dancers, time constraints stand in the way of getting back into class slowly and safely. “In an ideal world, you would have a gradual reintroduction to dance,” says Carol Holyoke, physical therapist at PhysioArts and The Juilliard School in NYC. “The hard part is that once a semester starts, this isn’t always in your control.” But there’s a solution: “Start taking classes and cross-training as a break is about to end.” You can approach the week or two before the semester starts as your reconditioning process, so when classes begin, you’re ready to jump in. “It’s when you don’t have that gradual reentry that injuries occur,” Holyoke says.
If you’ve been out for three months…
After a few months off dance, your body has deconditioned the way it would during a few weeks off, but to a greater extent. The first class will likely feel good (maybe not great), with soreness kicking in the next day. The primary dangers are the same: landing jumps improperly and straining hamstrings.
Getting back into class is similar, too: If you’ve taken three months off, plan three months to be back to your full self. (Sandel adds that this may take slightly more or less time depending on your level of training; dancers who have been training the longest tend to recondition the fastest.) If you haven’t cross-trained, start gradually by taking Pilates or yoga classes and performing a basic barre. When you feel ready to reenter class, Sandel recommends spending a few weeks in a class one or two levels below your former level before stepping back up to your usual class.
If you’ve been out for a year or more…
When you’ve been out of dance for a year or more, a strategic reentry is more vital than ever. “After a long break, your muscles remember to push really hard, but you don’t have the pliability, the strength or the conditioning to do that,” Holyoke says.
Start with dance-friendly cross-training (like Pilates) for a few weeks and give yourself a basic barre at home. When you’re ready, spend a month or two in easy technique classes a couple of levels below where you left off, before gradually increasing the difficulty of your classes. After four or five months you’ll likely be ready for your usual schedule and level of training.
Callie Lyons (photo by Quinn Batson)
After Callie Lyons finished an intense summer dance program in Austria this year, she could tell her body needed rest. Her joints felt tight, and twinges of pain from old injuries were starting to creep in. “My body was pretty much breaking down,” she says. When she arrived home, Callie, who is a graduate dance student at New York University, tried simply reducing her dance load by taking fewer classes each week—but her body wasn’t recovering like she hoped it would. That’s when she did something many dancers fear: With six weeks left until her fall semester began, she took a month off from dance. “It was the best thing I could have done,” Callie says. “I have a better sense of my body now—when you come back, you see it differently.”
It’s normal for dancers to be afraid of taking a break. We’ve heard teachers warn, “However long you take off, it will take at least that long to get back to where you were.” In such a competitive field, who has that time to waste?
The reality, though, is that when a dancer trains intensely for most of the year, sometimes a short break is exactly what she needs. “As dancers, we don’t always think of ourselves as athletes,” says Carol Holyoke, MSPT, CFMT, CMA, a physical therapist who works with dancers at The Juilliard School and PhysioArts in NYC. “What athletes understand is that it’s during the recovery phases of their workouts that strength is really built.”
After finishing an intense dance period, such as a grueling performance run or a tour, a break is the perfect chance to let your body reboot for its next challenge and allow budding overuse injuries to heal. According to Kay Sandel, assistant professor of ballet, anatomy and pedagogy at Oklahoma City University, the benefits of taking a break can be as much mental as physical.
If you’ve been taking in new information faster than your body has been able to process it—especially if you feel like you’ve plateaued technically, no matter how hard you train—a break is a chance to mentally process everything you’ve learned and prepare to receive new material. “You have to recharge your body and mind, and when you come back you’ll probably find that things fall into place much easier than they did before,” she says.
We all know taking a break is necessary when you’re injured, but sometimes the hints that your body requires rest are subtler. According to Holyoke, signs you need a break include extreme fatigue, lots of little pains or injuries, decreased muscle performance (“suddenly feeling like you’re getting weaker in class instead of stronger”) and depression. “If you’re always wiped out, you’re not progressing and everything seems to be going in the wrong direction, you need to rest,” she says. “It’s the same with athletes—it’s overtraining syndrome.” She says people who are over-trained may feel irritable and stressed, and have trouble sleeping. Once you’ve reached this point, the only solution is to take it easy for a few days, or even weeks. When your muscles have healed, they’ll be stronger and ready to accept new challenges.
Callie (center) performing Women's Circle at New York University (photo by Breegan Kearney)
“A break is a repairing time,” says Holyoke. She recommends taking the time to focus on eating lots of nutrients and getting enough sleep. Callie also got a sports massage to encourage her body to relax.
But you shouldn’t be a complete couch potato. “It’s a great time to cross-train,” Holyoke says. Basic yoga or Pilates can help keep your muscles long and strong. Holyoke especially recommends taking the opportunity to boost your cardiovascular fitness with low-impact exercises such as swimming or biking, since aerobic endurance is a common weakness for dancers. If you’re physically up for it, taking two to three basic technique classes each week while you’re on break, or doing a floor barre at home, can help your body maintain some of its conditioning while it recovers. Still, Holyoke recommends taking two days per week of full rest during this period. Toward the end of your break, be sure to gradually increase your activity level to safely prepare your body for its usual workload.
Sandel also recommends incorporating dance visualization into your break—that is, spending time imagining yourself performing certain steps effortlessly. She cites a study by the University of Chicago in which a group of basketball players who replaced practice with visualization improved their free throws just as much as a group who physically practiced daily. Of course, dancers shouldn’t entirely replace class with visualization—but during a break it’s a way to stay proactive.
Even with the benefits in mind, spending time outside of class can be difficult. “It takes a lot of maturity to step away,” Callie says. “We become obsessed with working hard—and we don’t know when to take a step back.”
Holyoke agrees. “You might be worried that people will judge you, or that you’ll fall behind,” she says. “You’ll have to spend time getting back in shape, but that’s OK. In the end, you’ll be better off for it.” Over the course of an entire year of dance, there’s no need to feel guilty about taking a couple weeks here and there to rest. Sandel says, “You’re taking one step back so that you can take two steps forward.”