A sudden onset of pain is a scary moment for any dancer. Pain is part of the game in many respects but as dancers, we have to learn to identify the difference between ‘normal-pain’ and ‘needs-medical-attention-pain’. I think our bodies are very good at naturally and instinctively identifying these differences, however, dancers have a tendency to ignore the warning signs.
I can definitely relate and I have experienced and observed it as being a very common and aggravating predicament, which surfaces a number of times during a dancer’s career. I have also learnt my lessons the hard way but it’s still an ongoing process to learn to be more conscious of what our bodies are telling us. Most importantly, to prioritize one’s body and health over anything else – especially when we are feeling pressure from others – is one of the most valuable forms of intelligence as a dancer.
It is very easy to fall into the trap and to become fogged by the fear of the unknown or missing out. Pain or injuries never come about at a ‘good moment’ and they often get in the way of exciting opportunities and challenges. The dance world has thus cultivated an underlying belief that pushing through pain is a sign of bravery and a destructive ‘machine-like’ culture.
I believe the opposite.
Bravery is putting yourself and your health above all. It is admitting that you are not invincible and that your body needs a time out. Bravery is a greater form of confidence and it is therefore required to believe in yourself, your talent and potential despite a set-back. It is the belief to know that opportunities will continue to come your way.
It takes a fair amount of experience and consciousness to get to know your body and to know when it is pain that you can work through and self-manage and when it is something that translates into your body’s way of saying ‘Stop’. We can grow and improve by pushing ourselves past/through discomfort, however pain can cause the contrary and in some cases, can even prolong and hinder the process to full recovery.
I am sure athletes are also very reluctant to take time off for injury recovery, however it is evident that the sports industry is much better equipped in treating and approaching the injury topic alongside a much healthier psychology.
We can learn a lot from the science that sports have researched and applied and we could also look at other art forms to note how they approach their work during setbacks. It’s needless to mention that an Opera singer would never push their voice whilst suffering from a throat infection. A pianist wouldn’t be able to perform with a sprained wrist without the quality of sound being compromised. Art is extremely transparent and that is unmistakable when we consider visual Art and composition. The state of an artist’s physical and mental wellbeing is rarely ever deceivable (as much as we like to think that we are good actors).
As artists and simultaneously athletes, we have to carefully look at the risks and consequences we could be left with if we ‘push-through’ and compare them to what we could/would gain from this decision. There is no clear and simple instruction manual to help us make these decisions and I myself know how difficult and pressurizing these situations can be.
As I am currently in the process of getting my drivers license, I thought I would add a little car analogy. If something in the car is not functioning properly, often a yellow colored warning signal flashes. It’s an indication that something needs attention and that it should be looked at at the next convenient opportunity. However, when any of these symbols flash red, you should refrain from driving any further.
Our bodies send signals to us similar to that of a car system, and it’s up to us to identify when it’s a yellow light and when it’s red. This sounds simple enough; until our thoughts and surrounding voices start to interfere.
The way in which injuries and time off are talked about amongst dancers from a very young age, is already a destructive start and an unstable foundation. As I was training at school, there was never a positive association with an injury. Firstly, it was very intimidating to report to teachers for various reasons: their concerning or unsympathetic responses or an accusation in regards to the cause of the injury. Being injured and having to sit all day watching classes can have some benefits but too much could also be counterproductive and trigger psychological obstacles. ‘Being off’, simultaneously meant ‘missing-out’. Dancers should also not feel like they have done something ‘wrong’ and that an injury is a subsequent consequence or punishment.
The fear of the unknown is only amplified due to the lack of conversation and information: what do I do with my time, my body, my mind when I can’t be in the ballet studio everyday.
The fact of this matter is that an injury (depending on the nature of the diagnosis), can often mean ‘redirecting attention’. “Don’t think about what you can’t do, but rather focus on what you can do.”
In a safe and controlled environment with a medical team, dancers can achieve so much during their recovery period and therefore drastically reduce the time and effort during the transition back into the studio.
To refer back to the way in which dancers talk about injuries; I believe this could be the catalyst for a positive change. In an ideal world, we would like to change the way our Directors/coaches/teachers etc. talk about and deal with injuries and I do believe that we are seeing a drastic change. (I can speak from personal experience). However, there are still many more young dancers and active professionals than there are teachers (strength in numbers). If each of us can become more conscious about the way we speak about injuries and to be brave and take responsibility for the way we deal with our own situations, I believe that collectively we can change the tonality and approach to injuries.
The biggest challenge is to practically apply this healthier mindset when it comes to dealing with injuries but it’s something that we should also strive for for the future generations of dancers.
Be brave and choose you. Xx