Dancer Health

Can injury make you stronger?

Anna Tetlow being trained by The Garuda Method founder, James D'Silva. Photo courtesy of Tetlow.

They’re the words no dancer ever wants to hear: “You have to take a break from dancing.”

Getting injured can seem like the worst thing in the world, but are there any positive sides to it? Yes, there are!

Having an enforced “rest” is a chance to stop, take a step back and analyse your technique. This means you can see where improvements can be made and how you can prevent injuries from occurring – or recurring.

If it was up to us, we’d dance all day, every day, right? But is that really the best thing for our body? It’s really not. We actually need rest to get the most out of our body. Overnight, our muscles and nervous system are working hard to repair, strengthen and process all the things we’ve worked on during the day.

And when we need even more rest to heal, our body will let us know, so we really need to listen to it. An injury doesn’t just “happen”. Usually – especially with overuse injuries – it’s the product of incorrect technique or alignment issues, which means it will recur, unless the underlying issues are dealt with. Correcting technique and alignment isn’t something that happens straight away; it takes time and a lot of conscious effort to retrain habits that are probably engrained from years and years of practice. It can be a slow and frustrating process trying to undo bad habits and essentially retrain, so it can actually be a blessing to have time off during this process.

“Having time off dance due to injury allows you to learn and understand what you’re doing wrong or where you can improve and address problems that are causing injuries,” says Anna Tetlow, who trained at the Royal Ballet School, had a professional career in numerous international companies and is now a rehab/movement therapy specialist based in North Fitzroy, Melbourne.

“With each injury you learn more about your body and yourself,” she adds. “Intelligent work often comes from working around limitations, and injuries that force you to stop might be exactly what you need to reevaluate and rebalance your perspective.”

Tetlow encourages injured dancers to seek advice from someone who is highly professional in the field of rehab, someone who truly understands dance, the body and correct alignment and technique.

“See someone who understands the physical and mental side of injury in dance,” she advises. “Ideally, they have experienced it personally, or are experienced in treating many different elite sports injuries and can work around with alternative exercises and treatment options to individualise the process of healing.”

Remember, if you are not getting the results you need, always seek a second professional and specialised medical opinion. Ideally, use a team of professionals who refer to each other and work together.

So, do you have to stop exercising completely if you’re injured? It depends on the injury, but in most cases you will benefit from continuing to move your body, rather than completely resting it. Some of the most effective methods of conditioning for a dancer are a combination of Pilates, Garuda and Gyrotonic. But if you have specific goals – such as recovering from an injury – you will need a structured and personalised plan. Going to a so-called “Pilates” or “reformer” class at your local gym is almost certainly not going to be the best course of action.

“Focus on specialised exercises based on your specific needs in regards to your injury,” advises Tetlow. “You can work on maintaining your strengths and correcting any weaknesses, whilst resting and supporting the injured area. Injuries can ultimately teach you how to really listen to your body and force you to respect it more, so you are stronger, both physically and mentally, to return to dance.”

Don’t forget that the body needs nutrients and rest to recover, so the more you look after yourself, the quicker your body will heal. That means eating well, sleeping well and thinking intelligently about your body. Consider seeking professional advice on your diet, and on any supplements that you may need at the time of healing. High-quality magnesium is a must! Always get medical advice when it comes to using anti-inflammatories, to make sure they are being used safely and effectively.

“Don’t let your injuries or limitations define who you are as a dancer,” Tetlow says. “Instead, take the opportunity to learn more about your body and let that patience and understanding strengthen you inside and out. This will define how you grow in the future, both within the dance world and after your dance career.”

Case Study: Amber Scott, principal artist, The Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet's Amber Scott. Photo by Daniel Boud.

The Australian Ballet’s Amber Scott. Photo by Daniel Boud.

“The first significant injury that stopped me from dancing in the company was a labral tear in my hip. It crept up on me at the end of 2007. It was a bit achey and stiff, and then during a show I felt like a piece of velcro had ripped in my hip socket. After that, I couldn’t really walk or sit properly, so I had to take time off.

In order to avoid surgery, the medical team at The Australian Ballet suggested a conservative approach to rehab. I had a cortisone injection into the area and then spent about 12 weeks building back to my first show. I spent many months with Paula Baird-Colt, our body conditioning guru; Sue Mayes, head physiotherapist; along with Megan Connelly and Noelle Shader, our rehab coaches, to be able to function properly.

It was a slow process that began with Paula teaching me how to find and strengthen the deep muscles of the hip and core, very gentle physiotherapy and a lot of time doing “baby ballet”, re- learning how I should be holding myself and working to avoid causing more trauma to my hip.

I do remember feeling very scared at the beginning. I couldn’t even get dressed without pain, and to lift my leg off the floor I had to reach down and use my hands to help. I felt very sore and worried that I would never regain my flexibility or ability to dance.

I think I went into a bit of shut down. I didn’t go into my workplace much at first because any extra walking or moving was too painful. I think the sudden isolation and change in routine from being a happy, capable dancer made me feel quite uneasy. However, I found the way the medical team really took charge of my situation, giving me guidelines, support and explaining my pain helped greatly to keep calm and just focus on healing.

Taking this time off to heal was a truly career-changing period for me. I had never spent time with Paula, and I had never even thought about the deep rotators of the hip, so to have one-on-one time with such expertise gave my body a whole new way of moving and tools that I have used every day since.

I learnt to respect my body and its limitations. And I learnt to love my physical flaws as much as what I perceived were my strengths. The team gave me confidence and illuminated the fact that beauty in dance is sometimes not perfection; it is truth and presenting yourself in the best way, an honest way.

I guess it was a coming-of-age time, too. The first time your body seems to lose its youthful, invincible quality can seem depressing. However, everything I have learnt from that experience I use constantly when new problems arise, and I now find I can handle situations and pain much more calmly.

My advice for staying in shape while injured really depends on the injury. For the hip, I couldn’t do anything, so I focused on the microscopic level. I really committed to diligently doing the basic breathing exercises multiple times a day. In general, for most injuries, I would say swimming, or just being in water is very therapeutic. I have used hydrotherapy many times for other injuries over the years. Even trying out aqua aerobics, which was a real hoot! Sometimes, it is better to just totally rest until your body is ready for more. It is so hard for a dancer to fathom not moving or exercising! However, the time off can be so restorative for your general health and other body parts. I think getting plenty of good healing food and sleep are very important.

It’s important to stay positive. Get a good book! Call your friends and family whom you get too busy to when you’re working hard. Having a caring support network around you is very important to keep your spirits up. Learn as much as you can about your injury, and focus on understanding as much as you can about strengthening the area. Cook good, healthy food, and don’t beat yourself up too much! It is part of life for every dancer. Focus on how much smarter you want to work when you are back to fitness.”

For more information or advice, head to annatetlowpilates.com.au

By Rain Francis of Dance Informa.

Photo (top): Anna Tetlow being trained by The Garuda Method founder, James D’Silva. Photo courtesy of Tetlow.

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