June 04, 2020

“Ouch, that hurt!” is a common thing that most dancers say at some point in their dance journey. There is no doubt that between the detailed practices, the stretching to maintain flexibility, and the tireless rounds during a competition, dancing is a rigorous activity. Whether you are just starting out or you are an experienced pro, dance injuries can happen, especially if you are not warming-up and conditioning your body properly.  However, there are steps that you can take to prevent them, as well as professionals who can help you in the event that you do get an injury. One of these professionals is a physical therapist.


A physical therapist is someone who helps people treat, as well as prevent, injuries through different exercises and movements. They have to go through a rigorous specialized physical therapy educational program as well as pass a national exam in order to become a physical therapist. This process takes many years and they are experts in body mechanics, something that is very important to dancers. 

Daniel Shapiro is a highly successful former competitive ballroom dancer of sixteen years. Trained from the age of 5, Daniel went on to win many titles and was a representative of the United States at Blackpool when he was just 10. Daniel explains how he became interested in becoming a physical therapist, “One day I was at a competition watching an event and one of the couples had to withdraw, and that was because of an injury. I thought ‘Well, this can be avoided.I feel like this is a pretty avoidable thing. I don’t see why athletes need to get injured.’ From there, I got interested in physical therapy, went to physical therapy school, and wanted to give back to my sport. Not only to my sport, but to many other sports as well. That was the biggest driving force as to why I wanted to work with dancers, and I’ve worked with some of the best. Both in terms of treating any injuries that they may have had or have been dealing with, as well as working from a preventative side, making sure that not only are they the strongest, fastest couple on the dancefloor, but that they are also bullet-proof and injury-proof. That way they don’t need to worry about anything except for performing at their best.” 

Daniel treats a wide variety of injuries. Daniel says, “The most common dance injuries are for sure groin strains, the muscles on the inside of the leg, up near the pelvis. Now that is the most common injury that I see amongst dancers, that’s the most acute, meaning that is what can happen as a result of some crazy kick or a split that wasn’t landed properly, but I have yet to meet a dancer that doesn’t have ankle pain, knee pain, hip/lower back pain or even neck pain. Although, we can call them long-standing injuries and pains, in terms of injuries specifically, definitely groin strains and knee pain, for sure. A dancer’s body is a body that is going to hurt.” 


From the outside looking in, it seems as though a dancer will be plagued with aches and pains forever. However, there is good news! These injuries are easily preventable. Daniel explains how, “What dancers need to do is look at training from a different perspective. It’s not just doing round after round, 4 minute dances at a time or doing your burpees or your jogging, there’s a missing component. Every dancer knows that they need to survive at least 2 ½ to 3 minutes from your average dance competition in the US to any international competition, but what couples miss is stability. Which means that if you ask them to stand on one leg and lift the other, the chances are they’re going to be shaky and falling all over the place, no matter how great of a dancer they may be. Whether they’re US Champion, World Champion or just an up and coming amateur, it doesn’t matter. So it’s things like that, where every joint is not necessarily secure, that’s why there is ankle pain, that’s why there’s knee pain, that’s why there’s hip pain, neck pain and lower back pain. As dancers, we’re great at explosive moments. They’ll get the job done, no matter what the cost to their bodies, but it shouldn’t be that way. There’s no reason why you can’t work on your stability, work on actual eccentric contraction balance, and then only really worry about performance. Not ‘Oh man, if I don’t land this, I’m really toast.’ So a lot of stability work needs to go into it, in addition to endurance and it’s a really delicate balance.” 


However, if you do have an injury, seeking help from a physical therapist can be absolutely essential in making sure that you can continue your dance journey. Daniel states, “So when you have an injury, a lot of dancers, and actually many athletes, will take the one and done with the advil. They’ll take an Advil, done, pain goes away and they’ll say ‘Oh my goodness, it’s a miracle, how did that happen!?’ Then they’ll start practicing, and then all of a sudden ‘ooo that doesn’t feel too good’, so they’ll pop another advil. Whereas popping advils will destroy your insides, block pain and actually make pain worse, physical therapy will not. With any injury, a dancing injury or a non-dancing injury, physical therapy helps to restore the balance to the place that is injured. If there’s a muscle spasm in the lower back because we keep forcing different movements, physical therapy helps to alleviate and restore the balance and the proper contraction that the muscle needs to do. So any physical therapist will approach the injury as a restoration and want to get you back to functioning properly. A lot of people don’t go that route, especially dancers, which is interesting, but dancers don’t care. The show must go on! The show CAN go on, you just have to approach it properly with physical therapy.”


Besides practicing, there are a few ways that dancers can improve their dancing significantly. Daniel details,”Practicing is great. Rounds are great, but it’s really specific exercises and stretches that they need to do in order to enhance everything that they do. If during practice, they keep praciticing a move, let’s say it’s a jump, a turn and then they have to stick a landing, but because they haven’t trained their balance and their propiosepic kind of connection, they can’t land it. I had a dance couple show me a move, a jump, triple turn and then land in half a split, and it just was not happening. He would just drop down and stumble, we went through balance exercises and then kind of a step-by-step process on how the body is supposed to rotate to land properly, and then BOOM, he stuck it within twenty minutes. That’s pretty remarkable! That’s the kind of stuff that I’m talking about. Dancers don’t have a good awareness of their bodies, even though their bodies are going in a million and one different directions as they’re dancing. The brain, the mind-muscle connection isn’t there and that’s what they need to focus on while they’re practicing, because without it you will always reach a plateau and you can’t break it. No matter how much technique you learn, there’s always those one or two elements that are missing to really make you into an unbelievable dancer.” 


There is also a debate in the dance world about stretching. Do dancers really need to stretch or should their bodies just whip into shape immediately without doing anything to warm-up? Daniel says it’s all about HOW you stretch, “When it comes to stretching, it really depends on the sport. In terms of dancing, dancing is a very active, ballistic,explosive sport, so we need to stretch AND cool down for this sport. When it comes to stretching, I would not recommend static stretching before dancing. Static stretching is where you hold a position longer than twenty to thirty seconds. We need to do active stretching, dynamic stretching. Muscles should go through contraction and extension. Couples that I work with, there’s no static stretching. Everything is a moving stretch, everything is preparing you to be able to perform that explosive work for the dance. Whether it’s a competition or practice, it doesn’t matter, it’s the same thing. Stretching is a good thing as long as it’s done properly. Now after you’re done dancing, you can throw in the static stretching all you want, but there still should be elements of active and dynamic stretching. When you stretch, it’s not like your muscles are becoming longer. Stretching is a neural adaptation, so the fact that you’re going through different movements, that’s actually what causes the muscle to relax or to be prepared to contract. If the muscle doesn’t contract and is 1/36th of a second slower than it needs to be, then you can get a spasm, or an injury. It is important that you stretch, but you stretch matters because you need to be ready to go. Not to do anything, you’re asking for it. A dancing body is a moving body and it needs to be stretched that way.” 


Your shoes could also make a difference. Daniel states, “Can shoes make a difference? Yes and no. When you’re on a heel, whether it’s a women’s shoe or a man’s shoe, your weight is automatically shifted forward. There is a change in your weight distribution. Dancers are in these shoes for an extended amount of time, there’s no going around that. Now, because of this, you are placing certain structures under more stress than others. It’s an occupational hazard, every sport has one. Just because that happens does not mean that you have to be injured. You don’t need to suffer from foot pain, knee pain and hip pain, as long as you take care of it. That’s why the training aspect is so important and not just from a go go go standpoint but also from the stability standpoint. If you can get that stability within every joint of your body, you’re good. However, if your feet are in shape, then everything else is in shape.”


Even though the country is slowly opening back-up, many dancers have not be able to access their dance studios, teachers or even partners. However, there are still ways that you can improve your dancing. Daniel says, “A simple exercise is to stand on one leg with your knee towards the ceiling and towards your chest and trying to maintain that position for as long as you can. Thirty to forty-five seconds of you trying to hold that position and then move the free leg around. You can move it from the side to the back while still standing on one leg is a great exercise that you can do right now, especially with the down time. Stability exercises are the best thing that you can do. Wall sits are also really good. I incorporate wall sits into a lot of the trainings I do when I work with dancers because it really tests your endurance and correct positioning. Making sure that our hips are aligned, our knees are in the right place, because most of the time they’re not, especially when we get tired. When we get tired all sorts of confrontations start to come out, our knees move, our shoulders lift, our backs start to arch and these are all things that dancers can start to work on right now. When this whole thing is over, you hit the dance floor without skipping a beat!” 


For more information about Daniel and his clinic Project Physical Therapy, go to https://projectphysicaltherapy.com/


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