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Going When The Going is Rough: Contemporary Dancers Share Insight Into Performance and Injury

Written by Whitney Tucker, Edited by Emma Judkins Underlying my practice of teaching one-on-one Pilates and personal training sessions is a desire to assist individuals in attaining physical balance, increasing proprioceptive abilities, and integrating their idiosyncratic movement patterns, all in order to meet their stated goals. I work with approximately 20 clients either once or twice a week and they vary in every manner imaginable. Each client maintains goals that range from gaining muscle tone, losing weight, reducing stress to event-related goals such as regaining strength after having three babies in four years or preparing for an important happening such as their wedding, a marathon, an endurance bike ride. Often times, we begin after a friend or physician advises them that Pilates may help them attain a specific physical goal. As a professional, I find it encouraging when I become a ritualistic part of a person's life after a few sessions and when we both recognize positive “movement” towards their personal goals.

As my overall practice continues to evolve, I continue to work with contemporary dancers, which are a unique population. I find their physical tendencies and movement patterns to be some of the most unpredictable, textbook-defying, and complex of any athlete. I first recognize the complexity of treating this variety of a dancer when, through dealing with my own periodic injury, found it challenging to access physical therapy that deeply understood what I demanded of my body. This arose when I realized my desire to not only dance better but also longer, specifically for my work with David Dorfman Dance. Dorfman’s physical repertory is simultaneously nuanced, risky, athletic and anatomically complicated; if you are interested in learning more about the David Dorfman Dance movement quality, you can view the company's work at

To heal my past injuries, I have periodically visited a number of physical therapists, Rolfers, acupuncturists, massage therapists, Pilates instructors, Orthopedic specialists, Osteopaths, Dance Medicine specialists, etc. and felt a unilateral lack of understanding of the demands many contemporary dancers place on their bodies. I found that, at best, most of these professionals had only worked previously with Broadway dancers or ballerinas. This left a gap in our communication, as they seemed to be more concerned with the degree of my turnout and less with the fact that I was lifting people much larger than myself and doing numerous turns off the vertical axis, etc.

In general, I believe that more traditional forms of dance and entertainment have more inherent financial clout and often offer the support of a trade union, regular company classes or compensated training and, in many cases, a set of medical benefits. In contrast, contemporary modern dance often asks its professionals to negotiate unpredictable pickup schedules, less overall financial compensation, as well as physical demands of hard-to-describe circa-linear movement patterns. In my experience, the Dance Medicine that meets a contemporary dancer lacks the ability to address his or her specific issues relating to injury as well as access to the care itself.

During three arduous weeks of performing at Lincoln Center, Bates Dance Festival, and Jacob’s Pillow, I wondered, “How do contemporary dancers manage injuries or physical imbalances that are detrimental to their ability to perform?” During a subsequent three-week performance tour, I posed a few questions regarding injury to fellow members of David Dorfman Dance. I mainly wondered if they accessed resources to cope with injuries as well as which preventative measures they took on a regular or as-needed basis.

When asked, “Have you ever been injured while dancing?” all but Raja Kelly answered “yes”. Their injuries ranged from torn ankle ligaments to lower back trauma. However, it seemed as though each person related their injuries to a specific instance in which they were fatigued or did an action repeatedly to the point of overuse. This made me wonder if any change in their dancing could be attributed to the injury, both in a mental and a physical sense.

When the dancers were asked, “What is your emotional response to performing while injured”, their answers varied greatly. Luke Gutsgell said that while dancing and injured, he feels a pull between “how persistent (he) can be/how well (he) can make [sic] choices and how much (he) can relish in this peak experience”. Meghan Bowden said she vacillates between “empowerment and helplessness.” She said this dichotomy results from “injury often being a way into knowledge about a physical system that I had never considered or understood. But, alongside that empowerment and understanding is the frustration in only being able to do so much.” Kendra Portier said her emotional response was to be “terrified with the general thought of ‘What if things never work again?” She said she had a fear of letting people down. Not all the dancers considered emotion in their answer to the question. Kyle Abraham said, “I've taped broken toes together, and just kept dancing”.

When asked what measures they took towards healing after an injury, they cited a variety of activities including strength-training, classic R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) techniques, yoga asana, meditation, breathing techniques, and Qi Gong. They also consulted online advice or would consult a medical specialist or physical therapists. Alternatively, Raja said that he takes no steps (he also stated that he’s never been injured while dancing), as he assumes he “will get better with rest and time”.

I then asked, “how do you keep your body uninjured?” I noticed that a renewed dedication to a mind-body connection seemed to take precedence over physical modifications or physical correctives for most of the dancers. Luke answered that many of his injuries arose when he “was channeling anger through movement in a way that was uncontrolled.” Meghan responded that she is “beginning to wonder if (she is) ever actually uninjured? Is injury just another function of the body? Perhaps (injury) is more like massive recovery for massive output like trauma or overuse.” This question led Kendra to respond that, due to injury, she had to admit to herself, “there are particular actions that my body cannot do safely and I need to dance smartly.” For her, this means “creating alternate versions (to a pattern) and adhering to more "accurate" techniques in terms of alignment”. Raja Kelly seems to activate his will and answered that he feels as if he “is not allowed to be injured.” He did express certain effects dance has had on his body. “I [sic] have developed in imbalance to my right and left sides. My right knee has pain, I feel an unstable right foot, I have left hip soreness, and right shoulder bursitis." Kyle said it has been imperative to know when his “body needs a rest”. Their answers made me wonder if our way “through” an injury is simply adopting a new perspective or mental approach to moving?

When asked about their physical dance preparation, they offered specific exercises that they do to avoid injury. Luke cited classic dance and fitness exercises such as plies, lunges, back extensions, and an occasional push-up. Similarly, Meghan said that planks make her “feel the strongest” and squats make her “feel tough.” Kendra mentioned vinyasa yoga and Pilates for joint-stabilization. Kyle said that abdominal work has helped maintain his core-strength, which has consequently made a “big impact” in his quest to stay injury-free.

Lastly, I wondered how being a member of David Dorfman Dance changed the bodies of the dancers. Luke answered that “dancing David's work has been good for the most part because there is a lot of bounce in the vocabulary and my body avoids the trauma that comes with high-impact movement. Has my body changed? I think I have found a way of dancing with more of a released and free flowing quality.” Meghan has noticed a physical relationship “between strength and release and knowing when to activate and when to let go. My face is much more enlivened. I'm aware of my pelvic floor and internal abdominals.” Kendra responded, “Power thighs. The range of movement (in David’s work) is really extreme yet there is so much support required. I am not sure yet. This is demanding work, that's for sure. In general, I feel that my range of motion has become curious. My normal range in the hips has lessened, unless it is tilted and turned-in. My fast-twitch muscles have become more readily accessible”. Raja said that he has “become much more muscular and expansive. I feel my body respond to impact with ease.”

In general, what was universal in their answers was a tendency to pay more attention to their mind when their body was injured. It seems as if injury offered them the opportunity to look closely at the cells and tissue that comprise their bodies. It seems as if the mind-body connection, if the two were considered separate at all before, we less so in the healing of an injury. Whether is was meditation, will, or seeking advice or training to chance a movement pattern, it was apparent that a mental focus and clarity arose in the healing process of an the injury. I now am wondering what sort of physical models or ideals do we hold onto mentally but therefore manifest physically and perhaps are the source of injury? Do these models inevitably inform our physical tendencies and form limitations we have for ourselves? More on this in another blog!

To see David Dorfman Dance in action, don't miss the upcoming season at The Joyce Theater January 24th-29th!