Coming Back from a Break

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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.

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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.

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