The body is the dancer’s instrument. Anytime that a musician purchases or plays a new or different instrument, there is time spent adjusting to the new instrument and adapting to its differences. As dancers, however, we take our bodies for granted and do not always acknowledge the physiological changes that occur. By not acknowledging these changes, we can become self-defeating and grow frustrated quickly when our bodies do not respond the way we are expecting.
A major change that every dancer experiences is the growth spurt that occurs during the adolescent years. This period of rapid growth typically occurs between the ages of 11 and 14 and lasts between 1 and 2 years. Dancers who are in the midst of this growth spurt may experience difficulty balancing, a loss of flexibility and strength, and a lack of coordination.
Any type of growth affects how the body moves through space and responds to the demands place upon it. Unfortunately, during the adolescent growth spurt, there seems to be no set pattern of growth. Quite often the arms and legs grow faster than the torso, which shifts the dancer’s center of gravity causing balance issues. In some cases, one arm or leg may even grow quicker than the other, completely undermining any sense of balance that the dancer may try to establish.
In the body, bones grow quicker than the soft tissues of the body- the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Since the tendons, muscles and ligaments are attached to the bones, they are pulled taut as growth occurs. Because they are pulled so tightly, the dancers become less flexible and their muscles lose strength as well.
As this rapid growth continues, the nervous system struggles to keep up with the skeletal and muscular systems. New nerve cells, or neurons, and nerve pathways are formed. Since these pathways are brand new,it takes time for movements that used to seem so easy to become natural once again. As a result, the dancer may seem and feel uncoordinated.
With all of these changes occurring, the dancer may feel as if he or she is no longer in control of his or her body and may grow very frustrated. Progress in class may suddenly stop, or dancers may feel like they are regressing and may not understand why.
It is important that dancers be patient with themselves during this period of time. They need to respect what is happening in their bodies and find other ways to work that will help their technique without causing frustration or predisposing them to injury. Dancers should adjust their expectations of themselves and the way they approach class. They should focus more on alignment and placement during this period of time than on range of motion. The legs should not be held or lifted as high in exercises, but instead the dancers should think about the position of the legs. The growth spurt is also an ideal time for dancers to work on strengthening the core through Pilates and yoga exercises.
Focusing on placement, alignment and core strengthening will challenge the dancer during the growth spurt without straining the body, frustrating the dancer, or setting the dancer up for an injury.
The adolescent growth spurt is a challenging time for dancers, but it is only temporary. It need not be a setback if the dancers understand what is happening in their bodies and are educated about how to deal with all of the changes and work with their bodies to continue to be healthy dancers.
More information about dancing through the adolescent growth spurt can be found on the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science website.