How to Avoid Injury as You Head Back to the Studio

October 8, 2020

If you’re one of the many dancers heading back into the studio soon, “excited” doesn’t even begin to cover it. You’ve missed dancing alongside your friends, you’ve felt the lack of IRL corrections, and you’re desperate to really jump and turn for the first time in months. (And if you’re not back yet, you’re probably counting down the days.)

Not to be a total buzzkill, but now is the time to exercise caution—not just so you don’t get COVID-19, but also so you don’t get injured. “If you hurt yourself on the second day of in-person class, you won’t be able to participate at the level you want to going forward,” says Tom Welsh, professor of dance at Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL. Here’s the inside track on how you can come back to the barre *literally* stronger than ever.

Why is injury more of a risk right now?

There are two main reasons, and you’re probably already aware of the first. Months of dancing (or, for some, not dancing all that much) at home have robbed you of the strength and stamina you had way back in early March. “Muscle fatigue is one of the most important things to watch out for in injury prevention,” says Dr. Steven Karageanes, medical director of sports medicine at St. Mary Mercy Hospital in Livonia, MI. If your muscles are tiring out faster, they’ll have a harder time supporting your joints. According to Karageanes, “That’s when we see ACL tears and back injuries.”

The other reason is a phenomenon you may have experienced before in summer intensives or workshops. “I see this all the time,” says Welsh. “Dancers push themselves way beyond what their normal practice has been because they’re in a new environment where they want to impress everybody.” Try to resist the temptation to leave it all on the floor your very first day back on the marley, Welsh advises. Instead, think of showing what you can do as a gradual process.

What should I do physically?

Speaking of gradual, the best way to prevent injury is by “ramping up”—the technical term for increasing your activity level bit by bit over time, instead of suddenly jumping back into your pre-quarantine dance routine. Tanya Trombly, a professional ballerina and personal trainer, hasn’t been able to jump at all in her NYC apartment. Her plan for heading back into the studio in the future includes listening to her body and paying attention to when she feels fatigue. She plans to try petit and grand allégro, but won’t push to extremes—she’s trying to build her body back slowly until she can do what she’s capable of safely and with full control. In the meantime, she’s doing lots of relevés, core work, TheraBand exercises and full-body strength training to maintain her muscle strength as much as is reasonable.

Granted, many dancers have no control over how many classes they’re taking in a day or a week. If that’s you, making proper recovery a priority will reduce your risk of stressing deconditioned muscles to the point of injury. Welsh advises stretching after every class, icing strategically for five minutes or so at the end of the day, and laying off the cross-training for now. “Dancers need to make sure that they’re considering all the stress their bodies are under,” he says. “If you want to progress in dance right now, that deserves your full focus. You can always come back to supplementary strength training later.”

What can I do mentally?

Maybe the most effective way to prevent injury as you head back to the studio is all in your head. “Try to cut out all the chatter in your mind of what you think you should be doing, or what the dancer next to you is doing,” advises Trombly. “Instead, ask yourself what you need today from this class.” It’s unrealistic and counterproductive to force your dancing to look exactly like it did when the world shut down. “Hone in on the sensations of each movement, make sure you breathe, and focus on what your body is doing,” says Karageanes. “Injuries happen when dancers push too far while ignoring how they feel.”