Introducing Dancers to the Theater

            The theater is magic, and blessed are those who make that magic.” -Author Unknown

            It is performance time for dance schools around the world.  Young children gather at theaters, excited to show friends and family members what they have learned in weekly dance classes, and teachers excitedly anticipate the moment when they will feel a sense of pride, knowing that they have been able to pass this art form on to another generation.

            Quite often when teachers and students enter the theater, it is viewed as a finish line to be crossed.  It is important to remember, that because dance is a performing art, the year-end performance, or recital, needs to be treated as an educational experience in its own rite.

            The theater is a very different place than the classroom.  Since dance educators have spent countless hours in the theater, it is easy to forget that this experience may be the first of its kind for many of the students.  Performing in a theater can be overwhelming, and one of the dance educator’s jobs is to make the experience a pleasant and educational one. 

            As the performance approaches, class time should be spent learning and reviewing the rules of the theater.  Students need to be taught about the hierarchy that exists backstage, how costumes should be treated and backstage etiquette.

            Upon arriving, the younger students should be given a tour of the theater, including dressing rooms and the house, as well as the stage area.  Walking around in a small group both backstage and onstage, in full light, can help quell any traces of fear or anxiety.  The students should be taught the proper names for the different areas of the stage, become acquainted with the wings and the placement of lights and made to understand the importance of being quiet backstage.

            It is also extremely important that the students meet the stage manager and stagehands and realize that a show would not be possible without these important people.

            The theater is, and has always been, a sacred place, and young dancers need to be taught to treat it that way.  It is easy to forget amidst the excitement and bustle of spacing and dress rehearsals that a dance educator’s job is to teach dance students about all the aspects of the dance form.  Since dance is a performing art, learning to respect the theater is as integral a part of a young dancer’s education as is learning proper technique.

Forcing Turnout: Is It Really That Bad For You?

            "Dance, an art form; the body, an instrument. Learn to play the instrument so you can master the art form."-Debbie Dee

       Turnout is an integral part of ballet technique.  It involves externally rotating each leg 90° so that the inside of the leg is visible from the front.  Turnout originated in the 1600’s during the reign of the French king, Louis XIV.  Ballet was performed on a proscenium stage, which necessitated sideways movement while displaying as much of the body as possible.  The shoes that were used were elaborately adorned, and it is believed that part of the reason for turnout was to display the beauty of the shoes while performing.

              When the “rules of dance” were written down by Pierre Beauchamp, they included the five positions that are the basis for ballet today and the concept of turnout.  Today’s turnout is much more exaggerated and extreme than it was originally, and perfect 180° turnout is the ideal to which today’s ballet dancers aspire.
            Unfortunately, not everyone’s body structure allows for perfect turnout.  The rotation must originate from the hip since it is the only ball and socket joint in the leg.  The ability to turnout is predetermined by the shape of the head of the femur, or thighbone, the angle that is formed where it inserts into the pelvis and the flexibility of the muscles and ligaments surrounding the hip.  While the actual skeletal structure cannot be changed, the flexibility of the hip can be increased through specific stretches to allow for a greater range of motion.

            Since few dancers are born with an ideal body structure for turnout, ballet dancers often feel the need to force their legs to rotate more than is anatomically feasible.  Dancers bend their knees, outwardly rotate their feet and then force the body to hold that position while they straighten their legs.  It is quite easy to spot the dancer who is forcing turnout.  Teachers need to check to see if the dancers’ kneecaps, or patellas, are facing the same direction as their toes.  If they are not, the rotation is being forced and the dancer is probably struggling to hold the position.

            It is the struggle to maintain forced turnout, which can lead to a variety of problems.  In an attempt to hold forced turnout and remain balanced, the dancer begins to grip the floor with the toes, which keeps the plantar tendon in a contracted state which inflames the tendon and eventually results in plantar fasciitis.  The dancer may also begin to pronate, or roll forward at the ankle.  Pronation causes the dancer to use the inside of the foot when pushing off the floor for relevés and jumps instead of using the bottom of the foot.  In addition to making the movement less efficient, this action puts pressure on the big toe joint, which will become inflamed and irritated, and eventually a bunion will develop.

            Forcing turnout from the ankle also causes the tibia, the large shinbone, to twist.  This twisting irritates the tibialis posterior muscle, which attaches to the tibia, and can result in shin splints.

            All of the unnatural twisting weakens the ligaments that are responsible for the stability of the ankle and the knee and disturbs the natural line of the Achilles tendon, causing tendonitis.  Tendonitis can also develop in the patellar tendon, which attaches the quadricep muscles of the thigh to the tibia.

            Lastly, in order to balance while forcing turnout and pronating, the body compensates by tipping the pelvis forward.  As this happens, the curve in the lumbar spine increases, causing swayback, or lordosis.  Lordosis stretches the hamstrings, puts a strain on the lower back and decreases the shock absorption quality of the spine.

            The feet are the body’s foundation.  Just like any change in a foundation causes detrimental shifts in a building, when the feet are placed in an unstable position, the other body parts must shift to compensate for the instability.  It is imperative that turnout originate at the hip joint and not be forced from the ankle or knee.  An efficient, healthy dancer is one who learns to make the most of his or her body, respecting and working with its strengths and within its limitations.

Common Injuries of Muscles, Ligaments & Tendons

            “There are three steps you have to complete to become a professional dancer: learn to dance, learn to perform, and learn how to cope with injuries.” - D. Gere

            Dancers ask a lot of their bodies on a daily basis.  Although they may try to dance healthy, sometimes an injury is unavoidable.  It is important that injuries be cared for immediately as I described in an earlier post on injury care.  This week’s post describes some common soft tissue injuries of the muscles, tendons and ligaments that are common among dancers.

            Anytime a soft tissue injury occurs, cells called fibroblasts gather at the site and form a web that eventually becomes scar tissue.  The swelling that occurs with an injury is partially caused by this gathering of cells.  Although fibroblasts are necessary, the body overproduces them.  It is important to keep the swelling minimal to discourage large amounts of scar tissue from forming.  Scar tissue is extremely strong, but its fibers are not organized in a parallel fashion like those of muscle tissue.  The jumbled pattern of fibers makes scar tissues inelastic.  Gentle stretching is recommended as the injury heals because it is believed to realign the scar tissue fibers to encourage elasticity.

            One of the most common dance injuries is often referred to as a “pulled muscle” and is actually a strained muscle. A strained muscle occurs when excessive or rapid stretching causes a tearing of muscle fibers.  Muscle strains can vary in degrees from a minor tear to a complete tear and can involve tearing within a muscle, muscle fibers tearing away from a tendon or a tendon tearing away from a bone.  Hamstring and groin strains are the most common among dancers.  The RICE method, followed by gentle stretching once healing has begun, is usually sufficient treatment, although complete tears require surgery.

            Sprains are tears that occur in ligaments and can be caused by improper body alignment or a sudden twisting movement.  Dancers usually experience ankle or knee sprains that often occur during turns or when landing from a jump.  Sprains, like muscle strains, can range in severity from a minor tear to a complete tear.  The RICE method should be used immediately.  Some sprains may require immobilization while the ligaments heal and/or physical therapy to re-build strength around the injured joint.  Since ligaments are not as elastic as tendons or muscles
, they have great potential for re-injury and must be allowed to heal completely before a dancer returns to class.

            While strains and sprains are acute injuries, fasciitis and tendonitis are chronic conditions that can linger and be very frustrating and painful for dancers.  Fascia, which is the tissue surrounding muscles, can become inflamed from overuse or as a result of body misalignment.  Tendonitis is similar to fasciitis but involves inflammation of the tendon and its sheath, or the membrane that surrounds it.  Tendonitis causes pain whenever the connected muscle contracts and pulls on the inflamed tendon and can be caused by body misalignment, muscular imbalances or inadequate conditioning.  The most common site for this condition in dancers is at the achilles tendon.  Incorrect alignment of the foot combined with the tendency to not place the heels down between jumps and relevés contribute to this chronic condition.  Caring for both these conditions involves using the RICE method and ibuprofen to decrease the inflammation and bring the dancer relief.  When the inflammation decreases, a sports medicine doctor or physical therapist will be able to prescribe stretches to strengthen the joint, determine what may have caused the condition and help the dancer correct any flaws in his or her pattern of training that may have contributed to the inflammation.

            Injury prevention should always be the dancer’s goal.  Awareness of body alignment, proper training and creating balanced muscle pairs can help to keep soft tissue injuries from occurring.  If an injury does occur, proper care will allow the body to heal itself quickly.

Muscles, Tendons & Ligaments

“It is a dancer’s responsibility to know the parts of her instrument and study how they work in unison to create a beautiful work of art.”

            Understanding the different parts of the body and how they work is an essential part of dance training.  Physical activities, like dance, require a thorough knowledge of the instrument in order to produce the best possible performance.

         Skeletal bones are the body’s foundation, but they require muscles to hold them securely together and to allow for movement.  Muscles are organs that are composed of thousands of individual fibers.  These fibers have four important qualities:  excitability, contractility, extensibility and elasticity.  Excitability means that muscles are able to receive stimuli, or messages, from the nervous system and react to them through movement.  When a muscle receives a signal to move, it contracts, or shortens, to pull on the bone to which it is attached.  The abilities to shorten and exert a force and to release afterward are contractility and extensibility.  Muscles are also capable of being stretched.  Elasticity is the quality that allows the muscle to return to its original length after being stretched.

            In order for muscles to move the skeleton, they must be connected to the bones by tendons.  Tendons are thick bands of tissue that can be stretched and, like muscles, are elastic and will return to their original length.  Studies have shown that tendons respond to forces like muscles do, and when they are used repeatedly, they will also grow stronger.  A recent study published by The Proceedings of the Royal Society in March 2012, showed that, in addition to connecting muscles to bones, tendons act as shock absorbers.  When a dancer lands a jump, it is the tendon that absorbs the primary shock and not the actual muscle.  Resultantly, the tendon is also thought to act as a spring and provide recoil strength after landing.

            While tendons connect muscles to bones, ligaments connect bones to each other.  The main purpose of a ligament is to limit or prevent certain movements.  The knee joint is one joint in the body where ligaments predominate.  The medial (inside) and lateral (outside) collateral ligaments limit sideways motion of the patella, or kneecap, while the posterior cruciate ligament prevents the knee from bending backwards.  Ligaments do not possess the same amount of elasticity that muscles and tendons do.  Once a ligament is stretched forcibly or for an extended period of time, it will not return to its original length and may require surgery.  It is for this reason that a bone dislocation should be cared for as soon as possible to prevent permanent ligamental damage.  Some people are born with extremely loose ligaments and are incorrectly labeled “double-jointed”.

            Knowing the body and how each part functions helps dancers to understand how to get the most from their training, understand how to care for injuries if they happen and learn how to optimize their performance.