It's not a last resort: Acknowledging injury as a dancer
by Brittany Cohen
Dancers have an amazing ability to oversee and ignore pain, no matter how severe. Our dance culture has cultivated and glorified the phrase "the show must go on", pushing dancers to act as if they are superhuman in the face of injury to ensure they are able to perform. I was guilty of doing the same. The number of injuries I sustained and refused to acknowledge is likely much higher than I actually realize. I ignored every ache, pain, and discomfort for as long as I possibly could. I found any excuse that allowed me to believe nothing was really wrong and I could continue to dance. Many of you reading this will know exactly what I am talking about. It is time we change the script on how we see the injury experience for dancers. We can do so by first addressing how the culture has encouraged dancers to see actually acknowledging an injury as an absolute last option.
The influence adrenaline and endorphins have on our decision making and self-preservation abilities is unparalleled. Mix that with an intense drive and strong social pull of expectation and competition, and injuries don't stand a chance in being acknowledged or cared for. As a result, dancers will raise their pain threshold and often avoid seeking medical attention until the absolute last moment, until moving with the ability to ignore the pain is just no longer an option. The higher pain threshold of dancers compared to non-athletes is considered to be a result of greater exposure to physical training and high levels of fitness, and their familiarity with, and perception of control over, the interface between physical activity and pain (Harrison & Ruddock-Hudson, 2017). In our dance culture, the "norm" is to ignore pain and injury for as long as possible. We constantly encourage the path of ignorance which leads to limitation and eventually rehabilitation over awareness and prevention, all because we refuse to acknowledge the realistic role of injury in the dance experience.
In sport, there is a general expectation that aches and pains, related to athletic performance and injury, are an integral part of the life of an athlete (Harrison & Ruddock-Hudson, 2017). Dancers (who are performance artists and athletes) commonly see these aches and pains as something to be expected, managed, and pushed through, even to the extreme extent of sustaining an injury. This is where alarms should go off! Dancers should not feel the need to push through pain and injury to perform, whether in class or on stage. Ignoring discomfort and pain while moving is not something that should be expected, praised, or accepted. It is important to understand that, like any movement or athletic activity, there is an inherent risk in engaging in dance, but expecting and celebrating the occurrence of injury is romanticizing the experience of being injured and leading to consequences that can negatively impact the life of a dancer long after they stop coming to the studio.
This perspective of glorifying injury pain as a "norm" in the dance training experience becomes evident when dancers begin to express a differentiation of pain experiences, using terms like "good pain" and "bad pain". To be clear, there is scientifically no such thing! Pain is described as a complex process where both biological and psychological factors contribute to a sensory and emotional experience for an individual (Harrison & Ruddock-Hudson, 2017). It involves two things: 1) physical sensation registered by the brain and 2) the psychological response to that sensation. The first is instinctual and influenced by biological factors (aka the science of the body), the second is influenced by our mindset and environment (aka the science behind the way we think). "The perception of pain as benign and routine, or a precursor to injury, is the central issue to consider when seeking an understanding of the experience of pain in athletes" (Harrison & Ruddock-Hudson, 2017). Expectation of injury across our community leads to an acceptance of dancers pushing past their pain barriers, risking their well-being as they aspire to enhance their abilities. This blurs the line of differentiation between performance pain and injury pain, encouraging dancers to have a positive response to any pain they experience as it is proof of their hard work or development. The concern may only set in when a dancer begins to realize that the injury pain does not subside and starts to interfere with their performance ability, igniting fear. To avoid the impending limitations on their opportunities to perform, dancers will choose to push through, regardless of the growing intensity of the pain.
How do we help dancers fight back against the possibility of experiencing traumatic experiences with severe injuries? We create a realistic expectation and teach our dancers how to prevent them in the first place, through body awareness and safe dance practices. Dancers, parents, teachers, and dance leaders can all change the way we see and speak about injury through honest conversation and by setting examples with healthy responses to pain and injury. From this perspective, acknowledging and managing injuries from their onset is the best way we can save dancers from the detrimental ordeal of choosing it as a last result.
Harrison, C. & Ruddock-Hudson, M. (2017). Perceptions of pain, injury, and transition-retirement: the experiences of professional dancers. Journal of dance medicine & science, 21-2, 43-52.
Want to hear more about the injury norms we encourage in dance and what we can do about it? Check out Episode 12: Dancers Don't Cry Wolf from Season 1 of the Driven by Dance Podcast - https://soundcloud.com/bc-artistry-llc/12-dancers-dont-cry-wolf?in=bc-artistry-llc/sets/season-1. Continue the conversation to change our cultural perspective of injury on social media! Connect with Brittany @bcartistry.dance.
Brittany helps you, the passionate young dancer & their family, develop performance abilities and limit injuries to reach your goals on and beyond the stage! A lover of all movement, Brittany received her Master's in Dance Education from Rutgers University and graduated from Mason Gross School of the Arts with her B.F.A. in Dance Performance. Brittany is also a Certified Human Movement Specialist and a Yoga Therapeutics Instructor, using her knowledge for research in the support of safe practices in the development of dance abilities. She has inspired and supported young dancers & their families through her work with BC Artistry LLC, offering personalized and comprehensive coaching, training, and consultation. Brittany works with other local dance medicine and wellness specialists as the team leader for the Bridge Dance Project New Jersey Chapter. You can learn more about Brittany and her work by visiting www.bcartisry.dance, and share in her passion for dance on Facebook- https://www.facebook.com/bcartistry.dance/?view_public_for=337597600396109 and Instagram https://www.instagram.com/bcartistry.dance/