How to Come Back After an Injury

I have been living between New York City and Philadelphia for nearly 2 months at this point. And while I am still working hard on finding stable teaching and choreographic work, it has allowed me plenty of time to ease myself back into shape with my favorite NYC ballet teacher, Nancy Bielski, as well as trying some new instructors and dance styles (I just tried Gaga at the Mark Morris Dance Center) to expand my scope of the scene up here. While I have been getting a great many questions about what I'm auditioning for or where I am performing, I've found it nearly impossible to explain my situation. In fact, I don't really know what my situation is and where the performing part of my career is leading me. For a long time, I tried to force myself back into shape after suffering such a severe injury in Oakland nearly 2 years ago. At times, I went about this in the appropriate ways. But at other times, even with 13 years of dancing professionally behind me, I fell down a path that was not most conducive to repair. I found it difficult to appropriately strengthen a body damaged by years of wear and tear and a mind weakened by too many daunting situations in too short a period of time.

The inspiration for this post? The other day I found that one of my former students had posted three photos of herself on her Facebook account. Initially, I was cheerful to see this talented student posting some photos. But I quickly realized that these images, which included big jumps and extreme extensions, had been taken only one day after returning from nearly 6 months off due to injury. Granted, this student is a child, I was mortified to think that she had spent so much time off in order to return healthy to dance and out of pain. Whether she was motivated to post these photos online out of excitement or ego, I'm actually glad that this happened. Not only did this allow me to intervene to keep this dancer on the right path. It reminded me that I (ripe into my 30's) have committed such acts of excitement, even if I didn't post images of it online.

There is no guidebook for returning from an injury. Every injury is different and every person's body will react differently to therapy, conditioning, and exercises. But what I have learned is that there is truly an appropriate way to come back from a long-term injury. After your doctor has given you the OK to return to class, you must resist the urge to jump into class full force. Getting the green light to return to dance doesn't mean that the work of recovery is over. It means that you are in a safe place to start producing the building blocks of your technique.

My "barre" at the gym
After getting approval to start taking class again last May (after nearly a year off from taking full class), I started things off correctly. I feel that there is often a lot of pressure to take another's class the first few times that you start executing your plies and tendus. Not everybody is like me, but I always feel pressure to follow the instructors combinations to the T. Now, as a professional, I may alter a few things in class, I still tend to do things that I shouldn't be doing if I am taking somebody's class. For this reason, my first week back to class I prefer to find a space either in a studio, gym, or at home where I can start with some simple plies, tendus, and jetes. I focus this first week on remembering what it feels like to pull my inner thighs together, to support my spine with my core muscles, and beyond. By the end of this first week, I may progress to rond de jambes. But I am reluctant to push too fast, too soon because I want to remain healthy.

Posing for Instagram, but only working up to tendus this day
Once my first week has passed, I take a day or two off and continue to build on the structure of class. I add rond de jambe, rond de jambe en l'air, fondu, adagio, frappe, and grand battement exercises at a rate of one new exercise per day. If I feel that I need more strength, I may repeat a combination twice or refrain from moving forward to a new exercise until I feel ready. I try to resist the urge to add two combinations at a time. Again, this is all about building blocks. I focus on executing exercises properly with the correct muscle groups versus forcing my way through combinations without noting what muscle groups are initiating action. I know a great many dancers that move too fast in their progression towards being in shape, and what happens is they execute exercises using the incorrect muscles. Not that they don't know which muscles they should be using, but they haven't built enough strength in the right ones to avoid gripping superficial muscles. This often causes new pain or injury. At this point, feel free to enter somebody's classroom, but be sure to tell them that you are recovering from an injury. For me, I still like to work up to this point by myself, away from the pressure of any watching eyes. Keep in mind that it is completely appropriate to start adagio with your working leg at 45 degrees or to only perform fondu or frappe on flat for some time. Give yourself a pass at judgement and offer yourself some empathy towards health.

At this point, now that I can complete barre to a degree, I feel comfortable to finally enter a classroom. Again, after speaking with the teacher before class starts, I feel more at liberty to do things on my terms. For the next few weeks, I work my way towards jumps. Sometimes, I add one combination a day. Sometimes, I choose to only execute combinations like adagio once to allow my body to acclimate. The biggest part of this return game is to make sure that I am pushing myself along my own schedule without holding back everywhere because of fear or pushing too quickly out of impatience or excitement.

I am mostly reluctant to take any dance classes outside of the genre of ballet during my recovery period due to the structure provided by ballet class. Most classes in contemporary, jazz, musical theatre, hip hop, and beyond begin with a warm-up in center, followed by technique exercises and choreography. The structure of a ballet class gives you something to hold on to for starters (barre), a period of time between each exercise to analyze how your body is responding to information, and an easy opportunity to bow out when you have reached your maximum. Dance classes in other genres, at the beginning of a recovery period, can make it difficult to gauge when and where to stop and can potentially prolong recovery or result in new injury.

After I have progressed past center, I spend the most attention coddling my jumps. Throughout this past recovery period, I began to get in shape and then fell off the wagon due to my Core-ography project, traveling for work, and a lack of classes that inspired me. Now that I am in New York and back on track, it has taken me nearly one and a half months to finally finish class. Strength for jumps is the first thing to disappear after a long period off. And since there are so many different things involved in launching yourself into the air and because it is the end of class when your muscles are tired, jumps are the last thing to build back up. The last thing you want to do is jump straight into saut de chats or other large jumps, feel great on the way up, and realize that you don't have the strength to slow down the force of gravity in your landing. TAKE YOUR TIME. Perhaps, start doing a few combinations holding onto the barre. Then, progressively move forward at your own pace. This time around, I spent nearly two weeks only working through petite allegro.

One of the biggest issues in recovery is excitement to get back in class. Whether you missed moving your body, you are responding to end of class adrenaline, or you just can't let go of that ego, don't wait for the instructor to stop you or, worse, your body. Be reasonable and keep your long-term goals in sight. Dancing feels amazing for the mind, body, soul, and ego. But nothing creates more emotional injuries than a continuous stream of physical ones. As I continue to work myself back into what I consider performance shape, when people ask me what I'm auditioning for or where I'm performing I tell them this. I am getting back in shape for me and so that I can fully show my choreography when creating and instruction when teaching, since this is what I'm focusing on. If I feel healthy enough to perform again, then so be it. But this time, I'm getting in shape for me. Not for my ego. Not for the applause of live audiences or for likes on social media. Now that I finally have access to the tools to potentially perform again, I'm pacing myself and doing things on my body's terms and in my own time.

Working on some choreography at the gym
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  1. Thanks so much for your post. I, myself, had Plantar Fasciitis a while back which gave me pain in my feet while I danced. It was hard to cope, but knowing this advice now helps me find ways to alter my normal way of dancing if I'm sore.

    1. Madelyn: I'm glad that you found this information useful. Every dancer gets injured at some point. And while we talk about who to see when that happens or what therapies are best, I don't often see lengthy discussion about what follows after the initial process. Thanks for sharing!