We’ve all been there- working our hardest, at our physical peak, pushing ourselves beyond our mental and physical limits in class and rehearsal, and then it happens. You’re injured, and it’s not just any old injury. Slapping on some KT tape and RICEing it at night isn’t making this one go away. The doctor prescribes at least six weeks of rest. Wait, what??? All you can think about is your next performance, workshop, and everything you’re missing in class. Anxiety kicks in, and you worry about muscle tone and stamina. Don’t freak out yet! I’m here to tell you through experience that there are ways to keep up your strength and technique while you’re healing.
Last year, as I was preparing to leave for a summer intensive in Florence, Italy, my pointe work partner and I had a moment of split-second miscommunication. I completely rolled over the box of my pointe shoe, tearing the ATFL and straining the deltoid ligaments of my left ankle. I was six weeks away from boarding a plane. All I could think was, how am I going to make this happen?
So, what’s the first step to keeping yourself sane after an injury?
Talk to your doctor, get the proper tests done, whether it be X-rays, MRI, etc. Know what you are dealing with. Depending on the severity, your doctor will determine what approach is recommended. Many studies suggest gradual movement/weight as soon as possible to prevent adhesions (soft-tissue scarring).
Here’s what helped me keep the rest of my body in shape. But, as they say, doctors know best. Make sure you check with your doctor or physical therapist before trying any of these exercises.
I was in a boot for four weeks. The first two weeks drove me crazy! Nothing goes with black neoprene boot. I couldn’t even tendú! My doctor said no weight on my ankle, but I couldn’t just sit around and watch Netflix. With my doctor’s blessing, I worked on my core. I did a lot of Pilates and Floorbarre exercises that focused on my abs, back, arms, legs, and turnout.
Depending on your injury, you can still stretch unaffected limbs. Make sure to build heat first with core work. Many researchers now believe that stretching cold muscles strains muscle fibers, decreases your muscles’ strength, and could cause an injury. Also, consider what types of dynamic stretches (stretches done while moving) you can use rather than static (stretches done in place).
Once I could walk around more, I made a daily date with the public pool.
For my specific injury, I found the best way to keep my upper and lower body strength and recover my ankle’s strength was both swimming and running in the pool. Before it was comfortable to tread water or put weight on the foot (even in the pool), I did laps using a pull buoy which focused on my upper body and alternated it with “bicycles” where I held myself on the edge of the pool and treaded water with my feet flexed like I was riding a bicycle. This gradually went on to include lower body treading while holding onto a boogie board, and then included “running” in the deep end (it looks like running, but you’re not touching the ground). Two weeks later I added running with my feet on the ground in the shallow end of the pool, and then before I was given the “all-clear”, I added a glissade/jeté/temps levé/sauté combination and élevé/relevés. In my case, one of the most difficult realizations was how much calf density I had lost. With an ankle injury, it can be pretty unavoidable. During this whole process I kept the ankle wrapped with self-adhesive compression tape.
In addition to these exercises I did barre stretches using the pool edge as my barre, grand battements, and grande ronde de jambe en l’air (or en l’eau I suppose). All the while, I allowed my leg to float, skimming the water, while I focused on my hips’ rotation.
I’m sure the lifeguards and the other swimmers were very curious!
Ask your PT about the benefits of resistance training for your injury. For my ankle injury, I used graduated resistance bands (from pink to blue) during different stages of my healing process while rolling through from flexion to demi-pointe to full-pointe.
I also used resistance-training as part of my core and stretching practice to help supplement what I wasn’t getting in the studio.
Listen to your doctor and/or physical therapist. If they have given you exercises to strengthen your injury, do them. Even if the exercises seem counter-intuitive to your technique, there’s a reason they’re done that way.
RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). Really, don’t skip this step. Even if you’re almost healed and you feel like you’re “back to normal”, give yourself some time at the start and end of the day to elevate your injury and apply ice.
If you can, find a massage therapist. I am lucky enough to have a friend who is a licensed professional Rolfer™. Rolfing™ is therapeutic technique which aims for total body integration, but can also be specialized for injury. Not everyone has access to a massage therapist with this specialization, but I’m pretty sure your PT knows a good massage therapist who can work with your injury. The ultimate goal is to discourage adhesions.
Realize that this takes time. Listen to your body, and when you get the all-clear to return to the studio, don’t be afraid to modify if your injury is still feeling a little tender. Remember that your body is your one and only instrument for a lifetime.
I made it to Italy! It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. Sure, it was challenging. My legs were very sore the first week because I was still building strength. I was still a little tender, but I modified around my injury until I was feeling 100%. I made sure to give myself plenty of time for self-care before, in-between, and after classes and rehearsal. I came home a stronger dancer, with a greater knowledge of my body, and how to overcome an injury.
Jennifer Burton is a mother, dancer, dance educator, and writer with a BFA in Dance from the University of Texas at El Paso. After a 10 year career in arts journalism, she returned to her first love, dance. She has danced under the direction of Myron Nadel, Lisa Smith, Andrea Vazquez Aguirre, and Leanne Rinelli. She recently had the honor of participating in the Florence Summer Dance Festival under the direction of Lilliana Candotti and Monica Baroni. Burton hopes to enter the Master of Arts in Teaching-Dance program at NMSU this fall.
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