Two Pros Talk About Recovering From Injury

October 26, 2008

Injury is an unfortunate part of a dancer’s life and, if you haven’t already, you’ll likely have to cope with one during the course of your career. A serious injury that keeps you out of the studio for weeks or even months doesn’t have to mean retirement. Here, two pros talk about how they came back strong from injury by keeping their bodies in shape, staying positive and allowing themselves time to heal.

Justin Leaf

Company: James Sewell Ballet

Symptomatic accessory navicular, with disrupted ligaments between two bones in the foot


During a rehearsal last October, Justin Leaf injured his foot: “We were improvising,” he recalls. “I made a simple movement of sliding my left foot out to the side, and I felt intense cramping on the inside of the foot.” He was able to finish the six months remaining in the season, but his foot didn’t heal.

To Leaf’s surprise, an x-ray revealed that he had an extra bone in his foot, making his kind of injury more likely. The ligaments that were connecting the extra bone to the navicular bone had been torn. The doctor recommended surgery to remove the extra bone; second and third opinions confirmed that it would be necessary if Leaf wanted to continue dancing. After the operation last May, he spent six weeks in a cast and on crutches.

Leaf’s physical therapist designed a six-day-a-week Pilates regimen that didn’t involve putting weight on his foot. At home, he performed a series of mat exercises that maintained the strength in his abdominal muscles. “Pilates views the core as the ‘powerhouse’ and source of strength for limbs,” Leaf says. “Working on the core in that way, I maintained the entire body.” At his physical therapist’s office, he worked on the Pilates Reformer to keep his quadriceps and hamstrings in shape.

After following the routine for the three months it took for him to completely heal, he gained an awareness of his body that he didn’t have pre-injury. For instance, he learned how to use his lower abdominal muscles instead of engaging his hip flexors.

Jon Drake

Oregon Ballet Theatre

Herniated disk

Thera-Band, massage, water barre

Two years ago, Jon Drake was executing a double rivoltade when he took a spill. “My first sensation wasn’t particularly painful,” Drake remembers. “But after the show, when my muscles had the chance to cool down, I was almost paralyzed. I had very little feeling in my leg, and I needed help getting up off the floor.”

After an MRI and x-rays, Drake was told he had a herniated disk that was putting pressure on a nerve and causing numbness in his left leg. The road to recovery was rough: He was in traction for three months and spent another three months out of dance class—but he was determined to stay in the best shape possible during his recovery.

A team of specialists, including a doctor, a physical therapist and a massage therapist, devised ways for him to exercise. His first doctor prescribed painkillers and muscle relaxants, but another later took him off the meds, because it could hinder the healing process by allowing him to move more freely than he should.

Drake’s physical therapist emphasized the importance of keeping his muscles warm and limber. “I could relax, and she’d stretch me through the proper positions [of her exercises],” says Drake. She used an inversion table that relieves pressure on the vertebrae by placing the body in an almost upside-down position. “[After using it,] my mobility started to come back and my back didn’t hurt every day,” he says, adding that he now has a table of his own.

Since the injury prevented him from lifting weights, Drake’s massage therapist showed him how to strengthen his upper body by contracting and releasing muscles. Though he felt ridiculous at first, Drake knew the exercises were effective, because after several repetitions, his muscles were fatigued. To keep his feet in shape, he did resistance exercises with a Thera-Band, pointing and flexing his feet.

Some of the best advice came from his former gymnastics coach, who recommended working out in a pool. After only two months, when Drake was still forced to remain prostrate most of the time, he was able to stretch and do small combinations in water. “Taking [an actual] barre was too strenuous, but in a pool or a hot tub, I could get through the positions and stretch [more deeply],” he says. At first, just executing a plié was a challenge, but after a few weeks, he could perform an entire barre.

Dancers may feel like an injury is the end of their career, but it usually isn’t. Even serious injuries can be overcome with the right combination of medical advice, physical therapy and personal determination. Following a six-month rehab, Drake is now healed and dancing in Portland with Oregon Ballet Theatre. If you get injured, keep a positive attitude, be patient, and work within your new limitations: Sometimes healing takes as much time and effort as getting your dream job.

Making the most of the recovery period.

1. Cross train.
Many injuries that keep you out of dance class may not keep you from other exercise disciplines, such as Pilates, weight training, Gyrokinesis, Yamuna Body Rolling, yoga or swimming. For dancers who must stay off their feet, swimming is an especially good option. It not only builds cardiovascular health, but also puts little pressure on joints. Partner with your doctor and physical therapist to create a regimen that works for you.

2. Use a Thera-Band.
There are numerous resistance and stretching exercises that can be done with a Thera-Band. For instance, roll your ankles in the shape of the letters of the alphabet (upper and lowercase), using the Thera-Band for added resistance. Or, sitting with legs extended in front of you, flex feet and wrap the band around the balls of feet. Take one end of the band in your right hand and the other end in your left hand. (Keep ends parallel to each other.) With feet flexed, turn out legs as far as possible, then return to parallel. Work up to three sets of 10 repetitions.

3. Work your mind.
A great way to stay motivated and inspired is to spend your downtime learning about dance as an artform. Rent DVDs of performances by artists you admire, and study what it is that makes them special. Read biographies of dance icons, and record your thoughts and ideas about these figures in a journal.

4. Take responsibility.
Learn as much as you can about how your body works. You don’t need a medical degree to be informed about how you can protect yourself from subsequent injuries—research online, ask your physical therapist to recommend easy-to-read dance injury prevention books, and keep track of the professional advice you receive in a blog or journal.

5. Be positive.
Just because your body is down doesn’t mean your attitude has to be. Use your time out of class to gain strength and flexibility you never had before and to correct muscle imbalances.