Injuries: How to Handle Injury & Preventable Factors

On the table with one of my favorite people, PNB Physical Therapist Boyd Bender
I feel it is time that we have an open, honest conversation about injury. One of the worst things you can do in this dance world is to speak publicly about a current injury. A dancer doesn't want to be thought of as weak, a liability, a repeat offender, or anything else. Even worse, a dancer doesn't want an employer to turn to them years after their last injury and say, "I read that you've had this injury before and you lied about your health when you arrived." But I am going to do it anyway. I am going to proclaim in public that I am injured. I feel that it is important that dancers stop hiding issues like this and speak out about our experiences. Every professional dancer will face injury at some point, and while many will share their comeback stories after they're fully recovered, few will share about it as they are going through it. Yes, I have been lucky enough to spend the last 2 1/2 years healthy (albeit minor aches and pains). But today, and for the last month, I am suffering from an injury that kept me from performing at my last gig and has forced me to take the last month completely off from most physical activity.

Where does one start with a topic like this? Usually the first question is, "How did you get injured?" Again, another taboo topic, but I'm gonna be as honest as possible here. While there are times that a dancer may become injured due to some freak occurrence, one can usually look to a variety of components that contributed to their injury. I have a pretty clear idea of what caused me to suffer a lumbar (lower back) sprain.

There are what I consider to be four factors that, when neglected, often lead to a dancer's body breaking down. Rehearsal/ performance conditions, rehearsal procedures, physical maintenance, and rest periods. When I became injured back in the beginning of May, I felt that three of these factors had absolutely contributed to me needing to pull myself out of a performance series.

When it came to rehearsal conditions, we rehearsed for weeks on end in a studio that was not sprung and without proper heating. Throughout the rehearsal period, we were also asked to perform on concrete at multiple venues indoors and outside, often without any spacing rehearsals.

Our rehearsal procedures were also uncommon throughout much of the process. While we had six weeks to prepare for our performances, we learned a majority of our choreography at breakneck speed. After urgently learning the material, we immediately began running the complete works full-out. A very important part of the rehearsal process was lost. The actual rehearsing, digesting of material, and building of stamina. As for rest periods, our typical 2-day weekends during rehearsal weeks were often taken away by outreach and event performances.

What I looked like sleeping in that child's loft bed
Lastly, housing wasn't provided for out-of-town dancers. I definitely learned my lesson here, as a host that I found through a home-exchange website stopped responding to my messages after I had already arrived. This left me to move 5 times over 5 weeks; sleeping on couches and a child's loft bed for an entire month. While I made sure that I had enough sleep, my body and mind couldn't ever fully rest. Not having a proper place to sleep surely had a great impact on my spinal health.

It seems that the only factor that was positively met during my stint was in my physical maintenance. I found a great chiropractor, San Francisco-based Dr. Kevin Linzey, who not only was a skilled practitioner, but cared more about my ability to practice my art than charging me a rate I couldn't afford. If you look at all of these items, you can see that it came as no surprise that I left this gig in so much pain that it prevented me from performing.

In a full-time company without freelancers, there is a common procedure that most dancers follow when it comes to an injury. Initially, most dancers aren't sure if their injury will improve enough to perform. Unless they experience a fracture or major sprain, there is always the possibility that the dancer can dance through/around their pain. It isn't uncommon for a dancer to mention to artistic staff that they have an injury and need to rest for a few days or take it easy in rehearsal. This period is an assessment for the dancer to determine if treatment and/or rest is improving their condition or if it is going to take a longer period of time to get better. Once a dancer determines that they are unable to dance, the director will usually find a replacement for the dancer and allow the injured dancer to take the necessary time to rehab and get better. From here, a dancer will usually open a worker's compensation claim, which is their legal right as an employee of the organization. Generally, worker's comp will provide the necessary treatment (doctor, X-ray, MRI, therapy, surgery, etc) for a dancer to get back on point. Beyond taking care of treatment, worker's compensation will often pay a portion of an injured dancer's salary, so that they can sustain themselves during the recovery process.

The initial stage of dealing with an injury as an independent contractor looks very much like that of a fully contracted dancer. When I woke up one morning barely able to walk, I sent the director an email giving him a heads up about my condition. Following the email, I hobbled on in to the studio to have a conversation and come up with a plan. Prior to entering the studio, I had already come up with my own ideas of how to resolve my potential absence. If you enter a tricky conversation with a plan, it can likely alleviate some of the stress that an injury can throw on an organization. Most freelancing jobs that I have worked have used 10 or less dancers. One dancer going out can cause a lot of stress and panic when there is nobody to cover for that person. My plan took into account that we had a week and a half before the performances. If I acted immediately on my pain and took myself out of the show, I may have put undue stress on the company had my back calmed down quickly. I told the director that I was going to get as much treatment as possible and would give them an answer by the beginning of our performance week, if not earlier. We, then, agreed that I would teach other dancers significant parts of choreography (as much as I could in my state) that only I knew. I also mentioned that I had some strong medication to help with my inflammation and that I would take it to give myself the best chance of a quick recovery (I always ask my doctor for a prescription when I travel for work in the event of an emergency while I am away from home. I have never used it in my 3 years of freelancing until this moment. Still, most any traveling freelancer should carry emergency medication with them in the event that they get injured. This saves a great deal of time, money, and stress). Once I had fully informed him of the possible scenarios, it was his choice to wait or take me out of the shows. We agreed to wait.

The hardest part about assessing an injury while nearing a performance period is staying calm. Most people's natural tendency is to keep testing their injured area to see if it is feeling well enough to perform, whether taking class or stretching into the injury. I really wanted to jump into class to see how much I could do when the medication started kicking in and relieving my pain. But I knew that I needed a few more days before I could test anything. Once I finished the medication and most of the inflammation had dissappated, I tested out my back with a few exercises at home. When I realized that twisting and bending was still causing me pain, even with my recovered mobility, I immediately messaged the director that I would need to pull out of the performances. I did this a day earlier than we agreed. I figured that the more time the company had, the more prepared my colleagues would be and the less stress would be added to their preparations.

Freelance dancers, unfortunately, don't have the privilege of utilizing their employer's worker's comp if they get hurt on the job. Since most freelancers are independent contractors, the leadership of different dance companies have absolutely no responsibility to a dancer beyond paying them and other loose terms in their agreement, even if they contributed to them getting hurt. If a director doesn't provide a safe workplace and a dancer chooses to continue with that production, the dancer has to deal with the conditions, speak up in hopes of resolving the issues, or, in a last resort, quit the job. If, like me, a dancer does become injured, they are on their own in taking care of their health.

My E-stim unit (my savior)
As soon as I became injured, I had an appointment with the chiropractor I had found. I also started seeing an acupuncturist, getting massage, and using an E-stim (electrical stimulation) unit that I was given by my physical therapist when I had been previously injured. While I knew I couldn't afford to pay for multiple treatments per week, I sucked it up and put nearly $300 on my credit card during the first week alone to try and get better. Not only was I losing money for therapy, but I was also in danger of losing money because I could no longer fulfill the terms of my contract. I knew that this would be a great financial stress for me, so I went ahead and asked the company if I could perform office work to continue getting paid. My flight didn't leave for another week after I stopped rehearsing and if I couldn't pay for my therapy, I surely couldn't afford to pay to change my plane ticket. Also, if I was still in town, I might as well make myself useful. This is always a reasonable request to consider if you are hurt and have to remain on location.

Luckily, the company agreed to let me do this, and I continued helping the organization by writing a blog, doing menial office work, and speaking at outreach events. While it was very helpful that the company was willing to do this for me, they had no responsibility to agree to it. Since returning home, I have taken nearly a month off with no physical activity for 2 weeks. I started incorporating gym exercises on week 3 and yoga on this 4th week. I have also maintained my therapy and am on a clear road to recovery, if hurting a bit in my pocketbook.

Now that I am home and have spent the last month recovering (and I'm feeling a lot better), it is easier to look back and see where things went wrong. There were multiple factors that amounted in my getting injured. It is clear to me that prevention is the most important item I would like to address in this post. I did my best when I began to fear for the worst by pulling the director aside and speaking about my concerns. After a good conversation, unfortunately, the conditions only showed minor improvement. At that point, I had to make a decision. Do I quit the gig or do I continue dancing in an environment that has a high risk for injury? For multiple reasons, I decided that quitting just wasn't the right decision. Once I did become injured, I handled the situation in a very thoughtful and respectful manner.

While injuries are not always preventable, they can be greatly reduced by considering the conditions and procedures that dancers have to rehearse in. I call on all companies that hire freelancers to please think about the four factors I've mentioned above before hiring dancers as independent contractors. While you are hiring them to help raise your level of dancing, create something new, or to fill in gaps in your productions, please take into consideration that our health is extremely important to us and our survival is our body. If conditions are dangerous and a dancer gets injured, you have no obligation to them. If a freelance dancer gets hurt because of conditions that could have been prevented or thought out more carefully, they can't make a living, may struggle to pay and get care for a faster recovery, and may lose their dancing career altogether. I urge each and every employer to consider what I have written and to do their best to assure dancers who are independent contractors (or any dancer) a safe and respectful environment.


1 comment:

  1. I am so sorry to hear about your injury. I have also danced for employers that did not understand the safe conditions that a dancers need( ie sprung floor) and many in my cast were injured. It took me over two years to recover from back issues from that particular show. This is a great article. Injuries are also common in dancers because we don't often take the time to to condition outside of class or rehearsal to correct muscular imbalances or lack the nutrition education in order to eat correctly to help heal the recovery process. I specialize in training and conditioning dancers to help prevent injuries outside of environment conditions . Please check me out a at www.theartisticathlete.com