Two Pros Talk About Recovering From Injury

Injury is an unfortunate part of a dancer’s life and, if you haven’t already, you’ll likely have to cope with one during the course of your career. A serious injury that keeps you out of the studio for weeks or even months doesn’t have to mean retirement. Here, two pros talk about how they came back strong from injury by keeping their bodies in shape, staying positive and allowing themselves time to heal.

Name: Justin Leaf

Company: James Sewell Ballet

Condition: Symptomatic accessory navicular, with disrupted ligaments between two bones in the foot

Rx: Pilates

During a rehearsal last October, Justin Leaf injured his foot: “We were improvising,” he recalls. “I made a simple movement of sliding my left foot out to the side, and I felt intense cramping on the inside of the foot.” He was able to finish the six months remaining in the season, but his foot didn’t heal.

To Leaf’s surprise, an x-ray revealed that he had an extra bone in his foot, making his kind of injury more likely. The ligaments that were connecting the extra bone to the navicular bone had been torn. The doctor recommended surgery to remove the extra bone; second and third opinions confirmed that it would be necessary if Leaf wanted to continue dancing. After the operation last May, he spent six weeks in a cast and on crutches.

Leaf’s physical therapist designed a six-day-a-week Pilates regimen that didn’t involve putting weight on his foot. At home, he performed a series of mat exercises that maintained the strength in his abdominal muscles. “Pilates views the core as the ‘powerhouse’ and source of strength for limbs,” Leaf says. “Working on the core in that way, I maintained the entire body.” At his physical therapist’s office, he worked on the Pilates Reformer to keep his quadriceps and hamstrings in shape.

After following the routine for the three months it took for him to completely heal, he gained an awareness of his body that he didn’t have pre-injury. For instance, he learned how to use his lower abdominal muscles instead of engaging his hip flexors.

Name: Jon Drake

Company: Oregon Ballet Theatre

Condition: Herniated disk

Rx: Thera-Band, massage, water barre

Two years ago, Jon Drake was executing a double rivoltade when he took a spill. “My first sensation wasn’t particularly painful,” Drake remembers. “But after the show, when my muscles had the chance to cool down, I was almost paralyzed. I had very little feeling in my leg, and I needed help getting up off the floor.”

After an MRI and x-rays, Drake was told he had a herniated disk that was putting pressure on a nerve and causing numbness in his left leg. The road to recovery was rough: He was in traction for three months and spent another three months out of dance class—but he was determined to stay in the best shape possible during his recovery.

A team of specialists, including a doctor, a physical therapist and a massage therapist, devised ways for him to exercise. His first doctor prescribed painkillers and muscle relaxants, but another later took him off the meds, because it could hinder the healing process by allowing him to move more freely than he should.

Drake’s physical therapist emphasized the importance of keeping his muscles warm and limber. “I could relax, and she’d stretch me through the proper positions [of her exercises],” says Drake. She used an inversion table that relieves pressure on the vertebrae by placing the body in an almost upside-down position. “[After using it,] my mobility started to come back and my back didn’t hurt every day,” he says, adding that he now has a table of his own.

Since the injury prevented him from lifting weights, Drake’s massage therapist showed him how to strengthen his upper body by contracting and releasing muscles. Though he felt ridiculous at first, Drake knew the exercises were effective, because after several repetitions, his muscles were fatigued. To keep his feet in shape, he did resistance exercises with a Thera-Band, pointing and flexing his feet.

Some of the best advice came from his former gymnastics coach, who recommended working out in a pool. After only two months, when Drake was still forced to remain prostrate most of the time, he was able to stretch and do small combinations in water. “Taking [an actual] barre was too strenuous, but in a pool or a hot tub, I could get through the positions and stretch [more deeply],” he says. At first, just executing a plié was a challenge, but after a few weeks, he could perform an entire barre.

Dancers may feel like an injury is the end of their career, but it usually isn’t. Even serious injuries can be overcome with the right combination of medical advice, physical therapy and personal determination. Following a six-month rehab, Drake is now healed and dancing in Portland with Oregon Ballet Theatre. If you get injured, keep a positive attitude, be patient, and work within your new limitations: Sometimes healing takes as much time and effort as getting your dream job.

Making the most of the recovery period.

1. Cross train. Many injuries that keep you out of dance class may not keep you from other exercise disciplines, such as Pilates, weight training, Gyrokinesis, Yamuna Body Rolling, yoga or swimming. For dancers who must stay off their feet, swimming is an especially good option. It not only builds cardiovascular health, but also puts little pressure on joints. Partner with your doctor and physical therapist to create a regimen that works for you.

2. Use a Thera-Band. There are numerous resistance and stretching exercises that can be done with a Thera-Band. For instance, roll your ankles in the shape of the letters of the alphabet (upper and lowercase), using the Thera-Band for added resistance. Or, sitting with legs extended in front of you, flex feet and wrap the band around the balls of feet. Take one end of the band in your right hand and the other end in your left hand. (Keep ends parallel to each other.) With feet flexed, turn out legs as far as possible, then return to parallel. Work up to three sets of 10 repetitions.

3. Work your mind. A great way to stay motivated and inspired is to spend your downtime learning about dance as an artform. Rent DVDs of performances by artists you admire, and study what it is that makes them special. Read biographies of dance icons, and record your thoughts and ideas about these figures in a journal.

4. Take responsibility. Learn as much as you can about how your body works. You don’t need a medical degree to be informed about how you can protect yourself from subsequent injuries—research online, ask your physical therapist to recommend easy-to-read dance injury prevention books, and keep track of the professional advice you receive in a blog or journal.

5. Be positive. Just because your body is down doesn’t mean your attitude has to be. Use your time out of class to gain strength and flexibility you never had before and to correct muscle imbalances.

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What’s in Your Dance Bag—Based on Your Zodiac Sign

Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.


You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)


As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.


Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).


Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.


We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.


You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.


Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.


You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?


You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.


You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.


Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.


Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

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