Dance Injuries: How to Help Prevent Them and Prepare for the Inevitable
How many times as a dancer have you defended the athleticism of dance? I’m sure quite a handful. Particularly when comparing it to sports such as football or basketball. The beautiful thing about dance is that we are not only athletes but also artists. From teachers to choreographers, dancers’ bodies are given such shapes that require the perfect balance of flexibility, presentation, and strength. However, unlike traditional sports athletes, dancers spend exponentially less time performing exercises other than the ones designed by our dance predecessors.
This has led to dancers experiencing injuries that are typically left undiagnosed or treated and that aren’t as common in other forms of sports. There are many factors that contribute to dancers not training like other athletes, but some of the most noteworthy is the fear of “bulky” muscles and the history of dance itself. Dance derived from industry leaders who set a standard that dancers must meet in the way they looked and moved.
Many of the classical components of dance weren’t even designed in a way to accommodate how our bodies are built to move; they were designed to create a certain aesthetic. Luckily, as time has distanced us from these ideas and body sciences have developed, the industry is shifting to support healthier dance habits, therefore, creating a healthier dancer. There is now more intention with how instructors teach and programs that studios offer to help dancers become stronger and combat some of the most common injuries before they happen overall keeping our bodies happier, healthier, and dancing longer!
What are Some Common Dance Injuries?
The most common dance injuries that we see in dance studios are hip injuries, knee injuries, foot injuries, ankle injuries, and stress fractures according to Johns Hopkins. These parts of our bodies are made up of bones, muscles, fascia, and ligaments making them.
For example, did you know: we have had 17 muscles* that make up the hip, 30 joints in our feet, and 4 major ligaments controlling our knees? These sections of our bodies have many layers meaning any injuries we may get have the possibility of being quite complex.
Now, let’s talk about the hip, shall we? What I have seen more than anything else is something called “snapping hip”. Snapping hip as an overuse or imbalance injury that typically involves the IT band and greater trochanter, or the bony outside section of your hip). Imbalances can come from some muscles being stronger/ more flexible than others. (ref. NCBI “Snapping Hip Syndrome”) This was something that went predominately undiagnosed in dancers a decade ago due to the lack of widespread knowledge, but now is something that can be worked through with physical therapists.
In addition to the snapping hip, the SI joint is one of the most undereducated areas of the body in young dancers. Your SI joints or “back dimples” are located in your sacrum or the flat section at the base of your back above your tailbone. These are actually 2 joints on the side of your spine that move. Injuries can occur to these joints once again due to overuse and improper cross-training.
In the foot and ankle, there are many injuries such as Achilles tendonitis that causes medium to moderate aches and pains in the Achilles tendon (or the tendon slightly above the base of the back of your foot).
Noteworthy common knee injuries in dancers include torn meniscus. Our meniscus is fibrocartilage that provides a “track” for your knee to function on. This injury is commonly caused by turns with excessive weight on the joint and improper alignment. To help visualize this, think of the improper alignment where your knees and toes are not going in the same direction. These injuries can happen in a freak incident or over time.
What is a Way to Help Preventing Common Injuries? Strength Training!
What we see in common with a majority of these injuries is overuse, or using the same muscles and doing the same movements repeatedly until the point of injury. If you think about your dance classes and your dance training, many of the movements are extremely similar, but just have a bit of a different finesse. How often are you turned out versus how often do you work in a parallel position? Have you ever been taught how to do a proper squat? PS your knee has to be BEHIND YOUR TOES? Mind-blowing!
On TikTok and Instagram, you see “traditional” athletes of all forms working in gyms, performing conventional exercises such as running on a treadmill, lifting weights, working agility drills, and plank challenges til’ the cows come home. These practices are not as common in young studio dancers, but they should be.
When incorporated into weekly training, they assist in evening out strength and flexibility. Often dancers focus too much on their flexibility, and not enough on their strength, which creates an imbalance in their muscles, which leads to injury.
Think about if two car tires had a string tied on the top and the bottom and only the top part was pulled really tight. That is what a muscle imbalance is like. For a body reference, try to think about this in regards to your quad and hamstring. Imagine your hamstring is really loose and stretched, but your quad is really tight.
Strength is great for a multitude of reasons outside of preventing injury. Think about all of those tricks that you want to nail, that perfect turn you’ve been dying to get, or perhaps that additional height in all of your jumps to make it seem like you are soaring? Strength training can help get you there in less time than just running technique over and over and over again. If you are concerned about the “bulky” muscles associated with working out, don’t be.
Simply working out will not cause you to bulk up ( this requires a lot more than just a cross training regimen). I promise you will still have those beautiful and magnificent lines, except they will be even better than before.
Overall, by adding cross-training into your routine, you will not only be helping your body feel its best, but you will also be progressing your current dance abilities. It's a win-win!
What do you do if you injure yourself? Stay Calm!
In classes, have you ever felt that pull or pinch your muscle? Or maybe, you even fall in class and feel the rush of concern? Well, the number one thing you want to focus on is staying calm by taking a few deep breaths and trying to gather your thoughts. Sometimes even something as simple as counting backward from 10 slowly can assist your brain in stabilizing your emotions.
As a dancer who sustained many injuries, I completely understand the immediate freak-out moment that happens! However, it is monumental to be able to stay in control while your instructor assesses the situation because your endocrine system (or the system that controls your hormones) plays a huge part in inflammation and recovery.
The second thing that you want to do in the event of an injury is to assess the severity of the situation. If your injury feels mild, typically rest, ice, and elevation will do the trick. I want to emphasize the rest section. As dancers, we feel strongly about the dedication to our craft. Some choose to wear a badge of honor in the ability to “push through” an injury and continue to dance. This is a culture that has trickled down from the olden days of dance.
As science has developed, professionals now recognize that dancing while injured will make the injury worse and prolong the healing time. Even if you think it is something minor that “doesn’t hurt that bad'', continually dancing on an injury may lead to a more severe injury that requires medical attention. Remember, you only get one body, so many of the choices you make as a young dancer will follow you into adulthood.
Finally, when in doubt, seek medical attention. Recognize that your instructors have a vast knowledge of dance injuries and the body, but unless they are a doctor, physical therapist, or certified athletic trainer, it is best to seek medical attention from a sports doctor if an injury is severe enough or in your injury is reoccurring. Even if an injury seems like it is chronic or like you will always have that “bum hip”, these are things that if attended to properly can be healed and corrected. Living in pain is not the answer because believe it or not, dance is not supposed to hurt when done correctly and attended to in the correct manner.
First-aid Kit: The top 3 things to have (plus some additional accessories)
You can't always prevent an injury, so let's talk about the best things you should have on hand in your dance bag “first aid kit”.
- Get yourself an ice pack. The kind that you squeeze to activate. The sooner you get ice on an injury the better. Remember, don’t put ice or an ice pack directly on your skin and you don't want to keep it on your injury for longer than 20 minutes at a time unless otherwise directed by a doctor.
- Bandaids and Neosporin, especially for all you bunheads out there. The number one thing everyone is always searching for is a bandaid. They are great to keep germs out of that marley burn, blister, or toe that needs to be covered up. Try to have a few different sizes so you are always prepared in case you or a friend find yourself in need.
- Tiger balm/ Biofreeze/sore muscle balm. After an intense day in class or rehearsal, this balm will help you feel a bit better so you can get moving and stretching.
- Additional accessories you can have are:
- KT Tape: Only if you have been taught how to use it by a practitioner.
- An Ace Bandage or brace to wrap an unstable joint on your body such as a rolled ankle: Although this is not a permanent fix!
- Foam rollers or tennis balls: These are a great way to warm up your muscles or help with soreness if you know how to use them correctly.
- A smaller, easy to locate bag or pouch to put your dancer first aid kit: The faster you can access these things, the better. It's also just super fun to have a cute accessory in your bag.
As dancers, we are strong, artistic, talented, and bendy beyond belief. We create the vision that choreographers ask of us all while feeling our feels and throwing our bodies around. Always remember, dance is not meant to hurt you and cause injuries, but you have to put in additional effort outside of the classroom, or outside of just the classes you want to take. If your studio offers them, take the conditioning class and seek more knowledge about how your body works. If you don't have an offering at your studio, the web has some great resources out there. If something doesn't feel right, don't do it and seek medical attention. There’s no way around it, dance injuries can be scary and sometimes frustrating, however, if you stay aware of your body, cross-train and stay prepared, you will be way ahead of the game and your body will be happier and healthier because of it.
If you have any other questions or want to talk more about this, I would love to connect. You can find me on Instagram @kinectedmovement.
Until next time,
Dani Sanders, CPT, FMT
Injury Prevention Director at Balance Dance Studios
Please note, the author is a personal trainer and movement specialist. This is general advice and in no way is meant for self-diagnosis or treatment. Please seek medical attention or advice in the event of pain, injury, or for specific treatment.
*Most modern anatomy defines 17 muscles, but there can be a fluctuation based on how it is determined
Deu, Raj, et al. “Common Dance Injuries.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/sports-injuries/common-dance-injuries-and-prevention-tips.
Musick, Sierra R. “Snapping Hip Syndrome.” StatPearls [Internet]., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 26 Aug. 2020, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448200/.