Dance injury is common, with roughly 80% of dancers sustaining an injury each year. Four dancers shared their experiences of injury with Erin Sanchez
What is your injury story?
Elly: I have been with Richard Alston for 8 years. About three years ago I had a stress fracture in my fourth metatarsal, I felt it happen just as I was walking across the studio after a rehearsal. It seemed to come from nowhere at the time, I waited a whole weekend thinking it was nothing before I was advised to get an X-ray. I was put in a boot for 6 weeks and had a lot of rehabilitation physio sessions throughout and afterwards to retrain myself. Previous to that injury I had on and off shin pain and a grumbly left knee – in hindsight some warning signs that I was probably not working in the most economical way for my body. I had weak spots and had developed some bad habits.
Erin: During my 2nd year at NSCD, I quite severely injured my lower back. For a few months, I had no idea what was wrong, and so I continued to dance through a considerable amount of pain. After an MRI scan and multiple appointments with consultants and physiotherapists, I found that I had a compressed lower spinal disc and suspected damage to the long ligament in my sacrum. After this, I started a rehab program based on a series of Pilates style exercises, alongside developing a close working relationship with my physical therapist. These combined helped me to overcome the worst of my injury, although I still do suffer from pain in my lower back, and I have come to accept that on some level I always will have to manage and deal with this ongoing issue.
Lukas: When I was 14 years old, actually from 10 probably, my knees would ‘pop out’ and pop in again. When I was 14, my knee went out and wouldn’t go in again. It locked bent. I went to the doctor and found out that I had a torn meniscus in my left knee. I was training very hard in dance, and I had to get it repaired. And two years later when I was 16, my right knee tore in the middle of competition season, and I had to get that repaired. And when I was 19, my left knee tore again and I had to go and get it repaired again. So, I’ve had three meniscius repairs. And [the doctor] wasn’t actually going to repair the third one, but then he found out how intense my job is and he decided to repair it. And, two months ago, my left one went again. I think it tore pretty bad, so I am just waiting on an MRI result to see if they have to take it out or shave it off. My knees have been a constant thing in my career as a dancer and choreographer. I am very well versed in the meniscus tear part of this body of mine. But I think you learn from your injury.
James: I started my movement career as a professional freerunner in 2005 and was part of the few 2nd generation athletes trying to figure out the discipline in the UK, pushing early boundaries, interpreting movements, and designing a career. Along this process, with very few people leading the way before us, we were bound to pick up injuries, it also didn’t help that I was young and had little to no respect for my body beyond the superficial understandings of an active teenager. My first major injury was during my foundation year at Rubicon Dance, a very bad fall onto my left hip. However coming from the freerunning world where at that time the attitude was ‘if nothing is hanging off, you are fine’, I didn’t seek advice or medical attention and to this day do not know what that injury actually was beyond a serious decline in my ability to participate fully in my incredible academy training. Then came the pinnacle injury that really shaped my resulting dance career. I trapped my ankle on a bad landing and tore the lateral ligament. This was the most pain I have ever felt, and this time it was luckily obvious that I needed to see a doctor. Even with a fresh tear and barely off my crutches, I refused to back down and started my first year at Laban without even letting them know I had been injured. I didn’t… no, couldn’t jump for my entire first year and never returned to “normal”. Even today, 10 years later, this ankle is problematic and I imagine it always will be. The final stage of my injuries was a ridiculous game of injury ping pong between my left and right ankles. Compensation tear to my left ankle, then rinse and repeat on the right. I even tore my ligament 3 days before a show and did the performance, having had an emergency backstage pre-show treatment from a physiotherapist. It is safe to say that my lack of decision-making skills at my grassroots stage led to a flourishing spiral of recurring injuries that not only held back my progression in ability but considerably altered my lasting relationship with my body and my physical state post dance.
What do you think you learned from your injury?
Elly: I learned to have patience and compassion towards my body and a huge deal about alignment, anatomy and firing up the right muscles. I’ve got a more tuned in knowledge of my body, how it feels, when it needs rest, when it needs more strengthening work, and how to work within my abilities in order to extend them. I also learned the importance of having awareness of how I was feeling each day, to work mindfully. To notice if I was feeling stressed knowing that’s not a great place to be when you’re throwing yourself around the studio and taking lots of risks.
More than anything, I feel a lot stronger and then I did before my injuries, mentally and physically. – Elly Braund
Erin: I feel I learnt so much from my injury, and I still am today. I learnt how to take care of myself both physically and mentally, as you don’t always have the luxury of physical treatment or someone there to reassure your anxieties. My injury also gave me the time to really learn about my body; how it works, what it responds well to, what it definitely doesn’t, and almost how to become my own therapist. I also learnt that, ultimately, we only get one body. I found myself getting caught up in pushing my body through pain for that assessment, that really important show, or that really great audition. But the hardest lesson I learnt was that these things are nowhere near comparable to causing lasting damage to your body.
I feel that actually instead of the physical skills we spend so long training, the most important skill we can develop as dancers is knowing our bodies’ limits, knowing when to stop and having the confidence to say ‘no- I actually can’t do that’. – Erin Politt
Lukas: I was very young when the first injury happened, and I was just like, ‘How fast can I get back dancing?’ I was young and in the middle of competing, and I didn’t want to let my team down and didn’t want to be out for too long . It was when the third injury happened and I had just won Got to Dance in the UK, I was at a very big peak in my career and then 4 months later this knee tore, and when they did repair it, I was like ‘Okay, I’m clearly doing something wrong. What do I need to do to not have this happen again?’ So, a big thing I learnt through that third one (and a bit of age) was to really listen to my body and train it correctly. And I worked with, Natalie (Rogalski, APPI physio), who assessed me and told me all the millions of things wrong with my body – ha! – everything that was overdeveloped and underdeveloped. We retrained my body from scratch, so I would last longer. Then I just learned to listen to my body from that point; so when I was fatigued, not pushing through it. When I felt my knees were a little bit weak, not pushing through it. Cross training, going to the gym, just being smarter. Unfortunately, it took me three times, but now I always preach when I teach how important it is to keep your body in check because it’s our job, it’s our career, it’s our livlihood. So I learnt to protect my body in other ways, other than just dancing.
James: I stopped to think for quite a while before responding to this question. I’m not sure I learned anything from my injury. At the time when I was dancing professionally, I had such a confrontational view of my body. So much so that the injuries felt like a physical and intentional attack. I think it was that attitude which stopped me from taking a step back and treating myself with the care I needed to recover. I was in a battle with myself and didn’t want to admit defeat. Only when I decided to move away from dance did I start to see the ignorance of my approach. It wasn’t the injury which taught me to consider all the moving parts but the perspective I gained once the injury wasn’t so personal or career threatening. I now work as a cinematographer and injuries, and my body for that matter, are not part of my work in the same way. This gave me distance and the ability to objectively consider the injury cycle without it being detrimental to my livelihood. Ultimately what I have come to realise is that the prolonged existence and severity of my injuries were caused by the lack of psychological durability to look beyond the here and now, and play a longer game for the benefit of my career and my wellbeing.
I truly believe that my mindset at that time in my life caused more damage to my physical state that any one of the physical traumas, and that the mindset I was employing to keep me moving was often the cause of the trauma. – James Williams
What was the hardest thing for you about your injury?
Elly: The process was not easy to begin with, I felt guilt for my colleagues having to do more work to cover me. The feeling of helplessness was tough; the frustration and the ‘why me?’ I hated even the look of having the boot, I’d felt in some way I’d lost my identity as a dancer. I think it was an important process to go through, I let go of a lot of attachments during that period and I came out with an entirely different approach to my job and life. The other thing that I forget about was actually starting to dance again and dealing with the fear of the injury returning. It’s like I had to rebuild the trust in my foot in my nervous system as well as working to rebuild physical strength.
Erin: By far the hardest thing for me, was feeling completely alone. Of course, there are many people who completely understand exactly what you’re going through, however, I found it so difficult to deal with the silent stigma that still surrounds injury. A lot of the time I felt looked down upon, I felt weak, and guilty, for not being ‘brave’ enough to suffer through my pain for my art form. The bravest thing I could have done, and what anyone can do, is to ask for support. I feel as a community, we can be more accepting and understanding of just how hard it is to be injured. We can place some responsibility on our own shoulders, to reach out to injured dancers to make sure they still feel valued, supported, and not alone.
Lukas: The hardest thing about my injury was the impact it had on my career, and my mental health. Especially the third time, they were like, ‘You’re done. You need to stop dancing.’ And I was only 19 and at the top of my career. So the hardest part about my injury was the impact it had on my ability to feel like I saw any future with [dance] anymore and it was only not really having an option other than dance and this industry I’m in. I didn’t get a degree, I didn’t go to school and it was kind of like ‘This is my only option.’ I pushed through that and reassessed, especially the third time.
The hardest thing was overcoming the mental part of things when you are such a physical being, sitting. [I was told] ‘You can’t put any weight on it for 7 weeks, and it’s going to take you another 4-5 months to build it up again’ All of that is so hard on your brain, to feel like you are just so limited. It was getting around that and being like ‘Okay, this is the long game here. This is my body, I want to have a career here.’ – Lukas McFarlane
James: The hardest thing was not being able to participate. When I was in training and was told to step out of Allegro or when I was touring with companies and picked up niggles/etc. The internal pressure to not let the rest of your team down, and you do feel like a true bonded team, is overwhelming. That was certainly the hardest part for me.
What was the most helpful thing for you in resolving your injury?
Elly: The support of Richard Alston Dance Company, the compassion, generosity and expertise of Nicky Ellis and Sudhir Daya (Osteopath and physiotherapist, Integrated Health). Luckily my injury happened just before our summer break, therefore I had the necessary time off to recover and rehabilitate.
Erin: Acceptance. Not ignoring it, not hoping it will just go away by itself, but acknowledging my pain, allowing myself to be injured, and giving myself the permission and time to recover.
Lukas: Knowledge. Knowledge was really helpful. Knowledge of what I was doing wrong, knowledge of what I needed to be doing, knowledge of what had gone wrong in the past. And that is all from people like Natalie and people like Mark (Archer, physiotherapist with APPI) People that just re-educated me. I am still learning more. I go in sometimes, and I always have a million questions, but only because the more I know the more I am able to take care of my body better right.
Knowledge was the most helpful thing for resolving my injury for sure. Knowledge and perseverance. – Lukas McFarlane
James: My injury was never really resolved, I led myself away from dancing professionally for a few reasons but certainly, one of those contributing factors was a sense that my body was betraying me. Again, I was not in a place to give myself a fair perspective and my attitude was a detriment to that ultimate resolution.
What advice would you give to other injured dancers?
Elly: Don’t let little niggles go by, some things work themselves out but learn to notice what pain may be a sign of a weakness or working with incorrect alignment. See money spent on seeing an osteopath as an investment in your body, your tool.
See injury in a different light- as a learning curve, a way to get stronger, to gain knowledge, I look back on my injury’s as great teachers that occurred at a time when I needed to learn something, to step back to appreciate what I had achieved and to rediscover my love for dance. – Elly Braund
Erin: See the big picture. Know that being injured is not the end of your world. Find something else you enjoy other than dance. Keep your mind active, occupy yourself, inspire yourself, don’t get bogged down in the rubbish bits that you can’t change. Focus on what you can change. Read some anatomy books, be curious about your body, you can never learn too much. Try to stay positive, set goals and reward yourself when you meet them. Celebrate the small improvements, they matter. Recovery, mental and physical, is not linear. Its not easy, and it won’t just happen, but it will teach you a whole load of skills. You will get better and you will come out of the other side as a stronger person.
Listen to your body. Trust your body. We only get one! – Erin Politt
Lukas: Patience with injury, At the time I know it feels like it is the end of the world, and also it feels like every day is forever. But taking three months, four months, five months off and then being able to dance for the rest of your life, or pushing through after one month and doing something worse and then not being able to dance for 10 years… What’s more important to you? I think being patient, understanding that you have one body and it is your career, it is your livelihood, it is your dancing. Without it, you can’t do what you love. So, it’s important to listen to it, take care of it, cross train, and be patient with it. It needs lovin’!
James: I can only speak from experience, but certainly taking time to have the injury evaluated and then moving forwards with informed actions. That sounds so simple and obvious, but I didn’t do it, and I know many others who have/had a similar mindset. Often the simple solution is the best, even though simply doing nothing is often the most challenging for people who spend their lives moving and shaking.
Don’t battle with yourself, seek advice from as many available sources as possible. Don’t discard information, take it all in and then make informed decisions that will keep you in the game for the long haul. – James Williams
Dancers can access National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science (NIDMS) specialist clinics to access high quality, dance specific healthcare for free via the NHS.
To find more info and find your nearest clinic, visit www.nidms.co.uk
Originally published in One, Issue 6 – Spring 2019