Dr. Selina Shah works with dancer Amanda Farris (Alain McLaughlin, courtesy Selina Shah)

The Truth About Soreness: Answers to All Your Burning Questions

We all know the feeling: You wake up the day after class or rehearsal just to find that you literally. cannot. move. To answer all your burning (pun intended!) questions about the way-too-relatable topic of soreness, Dance Spirit enlisted the experts: board-certified sports medicine specialist Dr. Selina Shah, and Michelle Rodriguez, MPT and physical therapist to Broadway shows like Carousel and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.


What even is soreness?

If you're working extra hard—taking more classes than usual, or dancing a super-"puffy" piece—your body's normal aerobic metabolism (how it uses oxygen to produce energy) can get overwhelmed. That's when anaerobic metabolism kicks in—producing lactic acid and metabolic toxins. "This buildup of lactic acid and other toxins isn't harmful or abnormal," says Rodriguez. "But once it reaches a certain level, you'll experience soreness."

How can you prevent it?

Because it's chemical buildup in your muscles that makes you feel sore, the key to minimizing the ouch is to flush these chemicals out sooner rather than later. "For some dancers, getting on a stationary bike for five minutes with no resistance can make a difference," says Rodriguez. You might also try self-massage, icing, or baths (see sidebar). Otherwise, Shah says to make sure you're taking time to warm up properly: "Doing a little bit of light cardio and literally warming up the muscle should ease your discomfort."

If you've ever been so sore that you couldn't walk on the second or third day of a summer intensive, you've experienced firsthand the importance of what dance-medicine professionals call "ramping up." While taking breaks should be part of any year-round training regimen, you don't want to go straight from not dancing at all to dancing eight hours a day. "Soreness occurs when muscles have gotten weaker and aren't used to working that hard that fast," says Shah. A week or two before your intensive, start to gradually increase the amount of physical activity you're getting each day.

What if it's not just soreness?

Don't freak out, but it's important to keep in mind that some overuse injuries can feel like soreness that just doesn't. go. away. Pay attention to how long you've been feeling sore, says Rodriguez: "Delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, can happen within six to eight hours, and last for 48 to 72 hours. After that, if you're still pretty sore, you should get seen by a medical professional."

Also pay attention to where you're feeling sore. "Usually it's muscles that make you feel sore, but tendons also can," says Shah. Ligaments and bones can't get sore—so if you feel like that's where the pain is coming from, get it checked out.

Is soreness inevitable?

In short, yes. "Soreness isn't necessarily a sign that something's wrong," says Rodriguez. Nor is it a badge of honor: "Soreness is just a marker of how strong or fit that particular muscle is in that particular dancer at that particular moment in time," says Shah. "You may get sore in some areas where your friends don't, and vice versa." If you take good care of your body, though, you'll be able to minimize the pain enough to dance full-out—even on the sore days.

The Dancer's Soreness Toolkit

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Massage! Foam rolling can feel a little too intense to muscles that are already sore, says Dr. Selina Shah, so don't roll out until a day or two after you first feel sore. Michelle Rodriguez, MPT, recommends gently kneading your own muscle tissue after a soreness-inducing day.

Stretching! Stretching is most beneficial at the end of class or rehearsal, when muscles are warm, says Shah.

Strategic breaktime! "If you don't need to run to the bathroom during your five-minute break, lie on the floor with your butt up against the wall, and put your legs straight up on the wall," suggests Rodriguez. "You can then do little ankle pumps to flush out your legs."

#Bathleisure! "Try alternating between hot baths and ice baths," suggests Shah. The circulation boost caused by the change in temperature will help ease soreness.

Hydration! Sleep! Electrolytes! Enough said.

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For the young child, it was love at first sight.

"I saw a beautiful, black Clara," Ashton says, "and I wanted to be just like her."

Ashton has dedicated 14 years of ballet training in pursuit of that childhood dream. But all the technical prowess in the world can't help Ashton surmount the biggest hurdle—this aspiring dancer was assigned male at birth, and for the vast majority of boys and men, performing in pointe shoes hasn't been a career option. But Ashton Edwards, who uses the pronouns "he" and "they," says it's high time to break down ballet's gender barrier, and their teachers and mentors believe this passionate dancer is just the person to lead the charge.

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Shouldering the Load: What kind of dance bag should dancers use?

Walk into any dance convention, audition or class, and you'll see a vast variety of dance bags lining the walls. But can the style of bag you use (and how you wear it) have an impact on your dancing?

Don't worry—you won't have to shoulder the load alone. Dance Spirit spoke with two physical therapists who specialize in working with dancers to find out what dance bag is best.

What should dancers look for in a dance bag?

Dr. Meghan Gearhart, physical therapist and owner of Head2Toe Physical Therapy in Charlotte, NC, recommends dancers opt for a backpack-style dance bag rather than a duffel or cross-body bag.

"A bag that pulls the weight all to one side creates a side bend and rotation in the trunk," Gearhart says. "That is going to lead to muscle imbalances that will affect dancers while they're dancing, as well as just in regular everyday life." Muscle imbalances can mean limited mobility on one side of your body, as the muscles on one side are overly contracted and the other side is overly extended to compensate.

Gearhart suggests dancers pick a backpack made from a lightweight yet durable and breathable material, such as cotton, linen, nylon or polyester. Straps should be wide enough to not dig into your shoulder muscles, so avoid drawstring styles with rope straps. Adjustable and padded straps are best, so you can wear the straps at a length where the bag rests at the middle of your back.

Dr. Bridget Kelly Sinha, physical therapist and founder of Balanced Physical Therapy and Dance Wellness in Matthews, NC, emphasizes the importance of finding an even weight distribution when choosing a dance bag.

"If a dancer has a lot to bring, like when heading to the theater for a full day of rehearsals and performances, then I recommend a rolling suitcase to offset the load," Sinha says.

How should dancers wear their bags?

Even if you've selected the perfect dance bag, it's important to be mindful of how you wear it.

Gearhart advocates wearing both straps when carrying your backpack. She also suggests placing heavier items towards the back of the bag, where they will sit closer to your body. A bag with straps that are too loose (or a bag that is too heavy) can create an increased arch in the lower back or cause a dancer to compensate for the weight by leaning forward. Ideally, Gearhart recommends a dancer's dance bag weighing no more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight.

"I usually tell dancers to use their common sense. If you don't have tap today, you don't need to bring the tap shoes," she says. "If your water bottle makes the bag too heavy, just carry it." If your studio offers lockers, take advantage of that storage space to lessen the number of clothes, shoes, and dance accessories that live in your dance bag.

And if you think your bad dance-bag habits have given you alignment issues, seek out a dance physical therapist to prevent further injuries.

"As a dancer, your body is working so hard all day," Sinha says. "It does not need excess strain from your bag."

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