Talking To Your Doctor About Injuries
She continued going to physical therapy, but her condition only got worse and she eventually had to stop dancing entirely. Three years later, she finally did have surgery to fix the slipped discs, after having reached the point where she couldn’t bend forward more than 45 degrees or lift either leg more than a few inches off the ground. “I could have been more aggressive with my first surgeon,” Elizabeth says, “or gone to see a dance specialist sooner. I didn’t communicate to the doctor well enough what my body could do before my injury, and what my job required of me.” After educating herself both on her condition and on how to speak to her physicians about it, she is now on the road to recovery.
Being able to communicate clearly with health care professionals is vital—especially for dancers, whose livelihoods depend upon remaining injury-free. Whether you’re lucky enough to find a dance medicine specialist or only have access to a local orthopedist or family physician, how you explain your pain and your body’s needs will have a direct effect on your treatment. Here are some things to think about.
1. Don’t Minimize Your Pain
Dancers are experts at concealing and dancing through pain. Whether you’ve just landed the role of a lifetime or just can’t bear to take a break, it may seem easier to pretend your injury simply isn’t that bad.
While this is already a risky idea in the studio, it’s an absolute “no-no” in the doctor’s office. “No matter how good the practitioner is, a key element in planning an appropriate treatment program is getting truthful input from the dancer,” says Peter Marshall, company physical therapist at American Ballet Theatre. If you tell a doctor or physical therapist, “My ankle hurts, but I haven’t had to miss a class yet,” he or she might assume that the problem is less serious than it is. Part of getting the best care is being honest about your pain level.
2. Give All the Details
You’ll be asked to give the history of your injury, and you need to go into as much detail as possible. Here’s what your health care practitioner needs to know:
- The genesis of the injury: In the case of traumatic or acute injuries, this means how it happened. Let’s say you “landed funny” from a jump. Explain exactly how you landed. Did you roll over the outside of your ankle? Did your knee give way? What type of jump were you doing at the time? (A leap, which has forward momentum, is very different from an up-and-down sauté.) Did you feel pain immediately? Was there a popping or clicking noise? Can the injured body part bear weight?
A long-term, overuse injury requires slightly different information. Be clear about how long you’ve felt pain, if you can recall anything that precipitated the pain (for instance, “I did a tour jeté and whacked my arabesque, and my back hasn’t felt right since”) and whether the pain has remained constant or varied in intensity. You should also share any factors that affect the pain: Does it hurt worse to be sitting or standing, warm and moving, or cold and at rest?
- Actions that cause pain: If you’re seeing someone who specializes in treating dancers, this part is easy. Talk about what dance steps you can and can’t do. However, if you don’t have access to someone familiar with dance, you can’t just say, “My hip hurts in rond de jambe en l’air.” Nadia Sefcovic, DPT, a staff physical therapist at Westside Dance Physical Therapy in NYC, explains, “You have to take your dance terminology and put it into layman’s terms.” Make substitutions like “tip-toe” for “relevé” and “split leap” for “saut de chat.” Marshall also recommends demonstrating, either on the non-injured side or with your arms instead of your legs, to help the physician understand.
- Treatments you’ve tried: From aspirin to X-rays to acupuncture, your physician or physical therapist needs to know any steps you’ve already taken in the healing process.
- Other symptoms: Things that may seem irrelevant to you might be vital in helping your practitioner make a diagnosis. “Certain things trigger something in our minds,” explains Sefcovic. “Being woken up by pain at night, changes in appetite, recent weight loss or gain—you could have a more serious problem that needs to get checked out.”
- Your usual performance level: A dancer’s range of motion is greater than the average person’s. If your leg usually goes to 180 degrees in side extension, and now you can only hit 140 without pain, make sure the practitioner understands how your body works. If you can, show your range of motion on the non-injured side, so that the discrepancy is more apparent.
- Stuff you may not have thought of: “After you’ve given the history, you may have secondary information that might be helpful,” says Dr. Kenneth Bell, an orthopedic surgeon who works with athletes in East Tennessee and is a team physician at Maryville College. “You could be dancing on a different surface, with a new partner, in a new pair of shoes. You have a show coming up so you’re rehearsing three times a day instead of once. Those types of changes can affect your injury.”
3. Explain Your Dance Life
Your health care practitioner needs to be aware of what being a dancer actually means. “The doctor needs to understand what you do—that this is not just for fun, or occasional, but it’s your avocation and passion,” says Dr. Bell. “If the doctor doesn’t listen to you, then you’ve gone to the wrong doctor.”
Break down how many classes you take a week and in what styles, as well as the format of a typical class. If you’re a ballet dancer, explain the progression from barre to center. For modern or jazz, go over any floorwork or acrobatic skills you might be practicing. Male dancers should talk about the demands of partnering.
Tell the doctor about any commitments you have in the near future, such as competitions, rehearsals and performances. Go over a timeline for treatment with the practitioner early on in the process, both so that you have a goal to reach toward and so that you can notify your teachers if you aren’t able to participate in activities. “Tell the doctor how long you’d like to be out,” Dr. Bell explains. “You might not get an answer you’re happy with, but the doctor should listen to what you say. Having a guide will help the doctor be able to tell you more realistically what to expect as far as the success of your treatment.”
Finally, remind your practitioner of the fitness level you need to reach in order to perform at your best. “An injured dancer generally needs more thorough rehabilitation than an athlete, because we have to strengthen and reeducate muscles to a greater range of motion,” says Marshall. Always communicate your end goal, which may be several steps beyond what a non-dancer would hope to achieve.
4. Think Positive
Although pain is the reason you’re seeking medical attention in the first place, Sefcovic points out that for long-term rehabilitation, it’s better to focus on ability than pain. “It helps with the psychological side of being injured,” she explains. “Focus on the positive and how far you’ve come. Don’t say, ‘I still can’t do big jumps’; instead, look at it as, ‘I can complete barre and all of center except grande allegro.’” Not only will taking note of positive progress improve your morale, but you’re also keeping your practitioner apprised of how you’re really healing, even if it sometimes seems to be incremental. Remember that you and your doctor or physical therapist should be in it together, and the information you give in the exam and rehabilitation settings can help you end up back where you belong: onstage.
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
Summer intensive auditions can be nerve-racking. A panel of directors is watching your every move, and you're not even sure if you can be seen among the hundreds of other dancers in the room. We asked five summer intensive directors for their input on how dancers can make a positive impression—and even be remembered next year.
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.
We always love a good halftime performance. And we LIVE for halftime performances involving talented kids. (Fingers and toes crossed that Justin Timberlake follows Missy Elliott's lead and invites some fabulous littles to share his Super Bowl stage.)
So obviously, our hearts completely melted for 5-year-old Tavaris Jones. Tavaris may have just started kindergarten, but during Monday night's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the Detroit native danced with the panache of a veteran pro at halftime.