How to avoid injuries when dancing (part one)

How to avoid injuries

As a dance teacher and physiotherapist, something my students have often asked me is, “what can I do to avoid getting injured while dancing?” Although dance isn’t often considered a “sport” in the traditional sense, many genres of dance are highly athletic, and just like athletes, dancers are at risk of “sports” injuries. Join me in a five-part series as I discuss some important aspects of preventative care, including 1) warm-ups and cool downs 2) physical conditioning 3) adequate rest and recovery 4) footwear and floors, and 5) self-care and management.

*As my current area of focus within the dance world is primarily partner dances, many of my examples will be based on this style of dance, but the themes I will be discussing are broadly applicable to other forms of dance.

Do I really need to do a warm-up?

How many of us would head to the gym for a workout and immediately hit the treadmill in a full sprint without a warm-up? Yet, how many dancers have showed up to a social dance where the first song playing is so good that they just have to dance, regardless of how fast and energetic the song may be?

Properly warming up your body before hitting the dance floor can reduce your risk of such injuries as, muscle strains, tendonitis, and overuse injuries. Every dance practice, performance, and social dance evening should begin with a warm-up to prepare your body for exercise, and end with a cool-down to kick-start your post-dance recovery.

How does a warm-up help?

Warming up with light aerobic exercise not only improves performance, but may also reduce the risk of injury. Warm-ups lead to a number of physiological changes in your body that are necessary to prepare you mentally as well as physically, including:

  • increased rate and depth of breathing, which increases the intake of oxygen and release of carbon dioxide
  • increased heart rate, which allows more oxygen and fuel to be delivered to working muscles
  • increased elasticity of muscles and tendons, which increases range of motion of joints and reduces risk of tearing
  • improved proprioception (joint position sense) which improves not only balance and stability, but also awareness of body position which can help with aesthetic aspect of your movements
  • improved signalling of nerves, which improves reaction time and your ability to generate a muscle contraction

How do I warm up?

Your warm-up should start with 5-10 minutes of light aerobic exercise, enough for you to break a light sweat and get your heart rate up. This could involve a brisk walk, an easy jog or bike ride, skipping, or some other full body, rhythmic activity (such as some gentle, repeated basic steps of your dance).

At this point, your body should be feeling a little warmer, and you can now start to do some mobility exercises that take your muscles and joints through their full range of movement, such as arm and leg swings, ankle circles, trunk rotations, and hip circles.

The mobility exercises you incorporate at this stage should be specific to the type of dance you are about to do – this is particularly important to remember especially for those of us who participate in several different styles of dance. For example, if you are a tap dancer, mobility exercises that target your legs, ankles, and feet are important, such as ankle rolls, and pointing and flexing the feet. Similarly, if you do any partner dances, such as swing or Latin styles where you connect through a hand hold, it is important to make sure you take your shoulders through their full range by doing arm circles. Think about some common moves that your dance requires – what movements do your feet, hips, shoulders, and neck need to make? Are you a ballet dancer who works a lot in turnout? Or a breakdancer whose neck needs to safely move through arm balances? Try to incorporate these fundamental movements into your warm-up.

If you are a dance teacher, keep in mind that the warm-up you lead should be targeted not only to the style of dance you are teaching, but to the age, fitness level, and technical level, as well as to the moves you will be teaching in that class. You may also have to adapt warm-ups within your classes – for example in lead-follow dances, or styles in which one partner is doing lifts and the other being lifted, you may need to provide different warm-ups for students in different roles within the dance.

Don’t forget about the cool down!

After a dancing, 5-10 minutes of low-intensity aerobic activity helps bring your body back to its resting state. This could be as simple as going for a walk, or dancing to a slow, relaxing song, followed by gentle stretches of the major muscle groups you have been using. Cool-downs lower your heart rate and body temperature, reducing your risk for the post-dance soreness and helping with recovery of tired muscles.

Dancing is a great way to stay active. Taking the time to properly warm-up and cool-down will help reduce your chance of injury and keep you happy and healthy on the dance floor. Stay tuned for my next post on cross-training and conditioning to supplement and enhance your dancing. In the mean time, if you have experienced a dance-related injury, consult a physiotherapist. They will be able to do a thorough assessment of your injury, and prescribe a treatment plan including a personalized exercise program to help get you back on your feet.

See you on the dance floor!