Professional dancers, like professional athletes, are subject to injury because of the constant stress they put on their bodies. And while these dancers and athletes have dedicated medical teams to attend to their needs, recreational athletes can learn from their experience.
“Dancers in a lot of ways are similar to everyday athletes who want to stay in shape and have fun,” says Simon Lee, MD, foot and ankle orthopedic surgeon at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush and medical director for The Joffrey Ballet.
Just like dancers, recreational athletes can experience stress fractures, sprained ankles, tendinitis and knee issues. To prevent such injuries, it’s important to start with a good warm-up.
“I don’t think people realize how much time dancers spend warming up and stretching,” Lee says. “Recreational athletes are pressed for time and want to compress their athletic activity, but that’s the way injuries occur. The older we get the more important it is to get warmed up and stretch.”
Joanna Wozniak, a full member of the Joffrey since 2003, can rattle off a list of aches, pains and injuries she has suffered because of her physically demanding profession. To prevent injuries, Wozniak, like the other Joffrey dancers, starts with a daily 90-minute class of classical ballet exercises to warm up the body.
“Every movement is important to work every different muscle system, just like every brick is important for the foundation in a house,” she says. The class is followed by six hours of rehearsal, during which dancers learn the movements of new choreography and eventually start running through the whole dance.
In addition to dancing, Wozniak is on the move in other ways. She goes for walks, rides her bike, runs to build stamina, takes Pilates classes to strengthen her core muscles and practices Bikram yoga and other forms of yoga for stretching.
“It’s good to practice different forms of exercise because they use different muscles,” Wozniak says. “It’s like rotating the tires on a car because it slows down wear and tear.”
Cross-training with other sports and strengthening core muscles is critically important for recreational athletes, Lee says. He recommends adding cycling or swimming to help maintain body balance, strength and flexibility.
“Running is probably one of the worst activities to do consistently every day,” Lee says, “because it only works certain parts of your lower body in one direction — straight — and causes a lot of issues, such as overuse in the ankles and knees that are mainly strengthened on the anterior and posterior sides.”
“So many of us are constantly getting hurt and in pain that it becomes difficult to differentiate between what is a normal ache or pain and what needs more care and attention,” Wozniak says.
Wozniak takes care of some problems on her own by stretching, staying hydrated and using hot compresses or ice. But when her arm started turning purple and swelling, it was time to consult with Rush doctors. She was quickly diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, which restricts normal blood flow to the arm. In her case, the condition was caused by overuse of her arms. She had surgery to have a rib removed in order to alleviate the problem.
Whether you’re a professional dancer or a recreational athlete, ongoing aches and pains are worth a consultation with a medical professional. “We have a knowledge of physiology and anatomy so we know what can be problematic and what can be ignored or pushed through,” Lee says.
Wozniak, who is 33 and has been dancing since age 7, is so passionate about dancing that she is motivated to do what it takes to maintain and improve the quality of her performance, but recreational athletes may not always be predisposed to work out consistently.
To improve the fun factor of staying fit, Lee suggests recreational athletes participate in a group sport such as flag football or a pick-up basketball league. “When you work out together there is the camaraderie of teammates working to achieve a goal,” he says.
Wozniak finds that camaraderie at the Joffrey. “We all care a lot about each other and support each other,” she says. “We’re like a family.”
Wozniak recently performed in a dance called “Body of Your Dreams” that spoofed the notion that quick fixes can help you effortlessly achieve the ideal physique. “I think people can get caught up in the trap of the importance of the perfect body image,” she says, “but you have to put things in perspective and find happiness and fulfillment in other ways.” And working out safely and preventing injury can help achieve that goal.