Having dancers as friends is to know that they are immensely graceful individuals, but it’s also to know that they are prone to injuries – a result of long, intensive rehearsal sessions, lack of adequate warm up and cooling practices, and just pushing themselves too hard to get their body to move in incredible flips, twists, twirls and jumps. As a physical activity, dance demands flexibility, strength and stamina from its dancers. And much like sportspeople, dancers too exert their bodies but the aches and pains get hidden behind makeup, costumes and that all-too familiar maxim loved and quoted by almost every performer: ‘The show must go on’.
At a time when dancing trends are all the rage on Instagram and Tiktok, it becomes all the more necessary to factor in the aspect of injury. In fact, late last year, dance groups and institutions in the UK advised young amateur dancers to be careful before taking part in dance challenges that were performed by professional dancers. In 2020, in the US, there were reports of Tiktok users injuring themselves while trying to recreate moves from the hit song, WAP, performed by rappers Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. Some of the common injuries that befall dance practitioners include ankle sprains, shin splints, snapping hip, cartilage tears and back problems among others.
Mint Lounge talked to contemporary and classical dancers to understand what they do to recover from their injuries, and also, to learn how we can incorporate a few of their wellness practices into our lives.
Learning from injuries
Pooja Desai, a Bharatanatyam dancer and graphic designer, had a severe shin injury in 2018 which lasted for an entire year. For Desai, who has been dancing since she was a kid, the injury was the result of all the years of wear and tear she’d undergone as part of the training. Looking back, however, Desai, who is a student of Bharatanatyam guru Praveen Kumar, calls the injury a blessing in disguise. “For most of us, work takes priority over health until something serious happens. For me, the shin injury pushed me to realize the importance of taking care of the body,” says Desai who underwent treatment from an orthopaedic doctor and a physiotherapist to recover.
Also read: How regular dance classes can benefit older adults
Odissi dancer and teacher Akshiti Roychowdhury spent her formative years in Nrityagram in Hessarghatta, Bengaluru, where she remembers dancing 24/7. The training at the gurukul included body conditioning which meant relatively injury-free years as a student. But last year, while undertaking independent training in the martial art form of Kalaripayattu, Roychowdhury got a hamstring tear on her right foot. The tear impacted the right side of the body, from her foot up to the neck. The Kalaripayattu treatment she was undergoing to recuperate necessitated complete bed rest with no dance for the entire duration. “This was the first time I was away from dance for a whole year and I was upset because it took time away from my daily riyaz and training. As a dancer, I found it difficult to not move,” says Roychowdhury “but I had to do it because giving my body complete rest was the only way I would be able to get back to dance.”
Listen to your body
Talk to dancers and you will have most of them sharing stories about their injuries. And interestingly, like Desai and Roychowdhary, most of them echo the same thought: Of how the painful experience led them to listen to their body and take care of it.
“There’s a Kannada vachana, ‘Dehave Degula’, which says ‘Body is a temple’. And as a dancer who’s medium of expression involves the body, it’s really up to you about how you take care of it,” says Hemabharathy Palani, dancer, choreographer and senior artistic consultant with Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts in Bengaluru. As a yoga practitioner and teacher as well, Palani has a better understanding of the body’s physiology and psychology, which she says comes of help in identifying the kinds of injuries that occur. It’s this knowledge that guided her when she hurt herself on stage during a performance. “I was able to identify that my bone had cracked and I knew what first aid measures I had to take before going to the doctor,” she says.
For Roychowdhury, the gap year taught her to attune herself better with her body and be careful enough to not push it beyond a point. “I listen to my body because that’s the only instrument I have. It’s speaking to you always, and if, as a dancer, it’s your main means to communicate to the world, then you have to take care of it.” “That moment when you become aware of how your body works is a beautiful one. This awareness comes from experience,” says Sonia Soney, a contemporary dancer and choreographer.
The importance of cross-training workouts
Soney was diagnosed with a herniated disc a few years back. While she has healed from it, her main priority today is to take care of her body over only spending hours dancing. Soney works out for five days a week and prefers to mix her routines. She tries a combination of yoga, HIIT and Pilates. According to Soney, there are more benefits to doing different workouts on different days instead of sticking to just one routine. “You end up working more muscles; minimize the risk of injuries; and each work out powers you differently. While HIIT helps build your endurance, Pilates’ stretching exercises aid in strengthening while yoga adds more flow and makes you flexible,” says Soney.
Bengaluru-based pole dancer and instructor Rebecca Zodingpuii credits her agility on the pole to her years of practicing yoga, calisthenics and aerial silk. The 40-year-old’s command on the pole belies her age and that she says has come with hours and hours of practice over the years and enduring injuries. “I am extremely injury-prone,” Zodingpuii laughs adding, “but what I have learnt over years of working out is to take it easy when the body is hurt. You let it rest but once it gets better you get back to your routine.”
Desai like Soney swears by cross training i.e. mixing up routines and does low impact exercises like swimming, yoga and walking. During her recovery, she recalls swimming being immensely helpful. “Swimming is one of the best work outs. It keeps you active but doesn’t put pressure on your bones,” says Desai. On busy days, she chalks up a walk for 20-25 minutes. Stretching exercises for 20-25 minutes are a compulsory routine for her.
Sports massages are good
Zodiingpui says that massages help heal her injuries. She gets a weekly massage done by a physiotherapist. “Massages are important, our bodies need it,” she says. Soney recommends sports massages for athletic people and dancers—a sports massage is extremely painful but essential to loosen tight muscles. She also believes in the potency of the Murivenna Thailam – a medicated ayurvedic oil with analgesic properties that’s used to treat a variety of pains and injury-related conditions.