We all know how super hard dancers work. Dance is a passion, a lifestyle and an identity for millions of people around the world. And you only get to the top with hard work and grit right? But can you have too much of a good thing?
Most dancers know the stories of dance legends like Nureyev and Cunxin dancing through adversity night and day, spending more time in the studio than any other dancer on their way to greatness. And we have all heard stories of dancers pushing their bodies through performance because the show must go on. These are inspirational stories of motivation and determination, but the fact is while dancers are super humans they certainly aren’t superhuman, and injury caused by over working in dance is a worldwide problem. A dancer who has not experienced some form of injury that has forced them to stop or modify their training is a rarity. This is really no surprise because dancers love what they do. They want to be the best they can be and put a huge number of hours into the studio pursuing their dreams. But all this training can come at a cost. No-one can work as hard as dancers do without running the risk of experiencing injury or illness that is going to stop them dancing in some way. So, could dancers actually train less, reducing the risk of injury or illness, and still progress in their training, perhaps even faster?
The majority of dance injuries are referred to as overuse injuries. The term overuse means just what it says - injury occurring as a result of the body being overused. The tissues in the body become fatigued and susceptible to injury when a dancer is overusing them. This is the risk dancers take in dedicating so much time training. Nobody wants to get injured and one of the hardest parts about injury for a dancer is having to take the time out of dance to recover and rehab the injury. But let’s step back and look at the injury from a different perspective. Maybe the injury is a way in which your body is showing that you are working too hard and the injury has actually just forced you into a period of recovery time? Think all of the days or weeks in the past years that you may have spent not dancing as a result of injury or illness. This is time that your body has spent recovering from training. Wouldn’t it be a better option to dedicate time for recovery as part of your regular practice so that you don’t become too injured or ill to dance in the first place?
Colleagues who work in sports are often amazed when they hear how much time dancers actually train. It is way above the training time of elite or professional athletes. This is partly because of two fundamental principles of physical training used in sport, progressive overload and recovery. Progressive overload refers to the concept that training should stress, fatigue and challenge the body beyond a comfortable limit. As a result, after the training, the body responds by adapting with strength or fitness gains, or whatever physical capacity the training challenged. But it is only after training that the body adapts; it is only when the body is recovering that we improve. Making sure you get enough sleep is just as important as working really hard in the studio. We do some of our best work at night when we are asleep in bed.
These principles go beyond the physical and apply just as strongly to psychological factors. There is a huge amount of psychological pressure that goes hand in hand with being a dancer. Dancers may feel pressure to look a certain way, they may be worried about gaining employment, and more and more there is increasing demand for dancers to have versatility in their performance skills. It’s not always possible to leave our worries at the studio door and often we find they creep into the studio behind us and start affecting our performance. Often the first reaction we have when we notice performance dropping off is to increase our training efforts, but maybe training smarter is a better option than just training harder.
A first step in becoming a smarter dancer is looking at yourself as a whole person, not just a dancing body but also a dancing mind. It’s important to acknowledge that pressures from within and outside the dance world, as well as a combination of physical and psychological factors, can have an impact on your performance. Finding a balance between pushing hard and backing off training when you need to recover is a bit like walking a tightrope; it’s very easy to lose your balance and only you can feel where your center of gravity is. There can be a bit of a stigma attached to taking it easy; no one wants to be seen a quitter or a ‘lazy dancer’. But it’s so important to be aware of your own recovery needs and to know when you can push your training and when you need to spend more time focusing on recovering from the hard work you’ve put in.
So let’s think about recovery in the context of injury or illness again. You push a little hard through training, ignoring the niggle in your foot or tickle in your throat and all too soon you are too sick to get out of bed or you’re watching class from the side waiting for your foot to recover. Can you frame this series of events as your body forcing you to recover after you have been forcing your body to train? If you can accept that recovery in dance is inevitable (and indeed, essential), then you have the choice of taking the recovery pill the easy way or the hard way. There is nothing like coming home from a hard day’s training, feeling you have accomplished something and are on your way to being a brilliant dancer. So reward yourself, take some downtime, even half a day coupled with an easy afternoon’s training. You are much better spending the day recovering and doing some light training than pushing your body with another hard session risking injury or a week in bed.
So how much training is enough and how much rest is too much? Ultimately, this is your choice, nobody knows your body’s limits better than you. A good place to start is to plan your training over the next few months. In sports this is called periodization and IADMS President Prof Matt Wyon’s articles are a great guide to get you on the way here. By scheduling rest periods it means that you may be able to train differently on your work days and Glenna Batson’s article on distributed practice in dance can help you through that. You will also need to think about your existing schedule, when do you have high intensity classes, days or weeks and how can you schedule your recovery time around these periods.
Finally, recovery does not mean being a couch potato. Elite athletes don’t spend nearly as much time in physical training as dancers but they certainly train full time. This means that when athletes aren’t training in the gym or on the field they will often be reviewing games, looking at game strategy or doing mental skills training. This is referred to as active recovery. So why not schedule half a day a week or so to study dance history or even better catch up on your journal of dance medicine and science articles or IADMS blogs! There are heaps of activities you can do that aren’t dancing that will let your mind and body rest and recover and make you a better dancer.
Luke Hopper (Post-doctoral Research Fellow) and Peta Blevins (PhD Candidate) are based at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. Peta Blevins’ PhD advisory team include Luke Hopper, Associate Professor Gene Moyle (Queensland University of Technology) and Dr Shona Erskine (Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts). Peta will present her research investigating recovery in dance at the IADMS conference this year at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.