Dancing Through Pain

20 Oct

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Hanna Nordqvist

How much pain is involved in a dancer’s profession where the body is the instrument and means of expression, where you have to be totally present and control every little part of your body in order to bring every expression and movement to its limit, where you must always be in top shape, and able to adapt and quickly learn new choreographies?

A body falls headlong, and crashes into the ground with a dull thud. Crawls along the floor and turns up slowly around its own axis – floating and weightless. Then all power is gone – in one blow the body is pushed violently against the ground, as if by a giant hand.

To watch dance affects us in many different ways. We may be fascinated by the agility, strength and precision of the dancers – bodies in complete control that seem to go beyond what we as spectators thought was physiologically possible, bodies which at times seem to be floating. As spectators we can also experience movement in a performance physically –feel as though we ourselves were constantly in movement. Dance many times also communicates on an emotional level – movements seem to speak about sadness, happiness, trials, closeness and distance.

But what do the dancers themselves experience? What is required of a dancer to reach a level of accomplishment that will deliver the powerful expressions and intensity that moves us as spectators, and that we have come to expect?


What pain teaches

We were a bit up in the air, so I fell from a height and landed on my tailbone. I was as if paralysed – I couldn’t move at all. In some way I got home. Nothing was broken or damaged, but the pain was insufferable every time I moved the slightest, so I could only lie still. But at the same time I had to prepare a choreography for something else. So I was lying there without being able to move, but with the music for the choreography that I wanted to do. The only thing I could do was to go through it in my head – what I wanted to do with the music and with the body. I think I was lying like that for maybe an hour and a half – without moving, just concentrating on it. But when I suddenly wanted to move slightly, to change position, I discovered that it didn’t hurt anymore. I could sit up and I could stand up. I think that directly when you imagine something the body takes it in. Just by thinking the movements something moved softly in my body – maybe it was the blood that flowed quicker. I think that if I had moved in order to heal myself I would probably have done rougher movements, but since I didn’t try to move it was just inside the body – soft movements without moving.”

The person speaking is dancer and choreographer Yaara Dolev. She has run her own dance company – DeDe, but also danced for the famous Israeli company Batsheva, among others. Presently based in Berlin, she teaches contemporary dance, release technique and improvisation at Danceworks, a dance studio offering classes to amateurs as well as a professional dance education.

During our long interview the topic is dance in relation to pain, but Yaara Dolev ends up talking less about negative aspects, and more about how important, periods of pain and injuries have been for her – how they have taught her more about how her body functions, about what pain is and how we can use it to strengthen our awareness and respect for our bodies. Dolev talks about serious injuries she has sustained during her dance career, about periods of pain and anxiety when she was not able to dance at all and not sure that she would ever stand on the stage again. Yet, she still says that the injuries often were like gifts:

”Even before the injuries I was attentive to my body, but at the same time I think I was a bit wild. Working with the injury I learnt to produce the same movements, but with greater attention. I suddenly experienced a kind of calmness. I could listen to my body and learn to move in different ways.”

This aspect of dancing is something that comes up in several of my discussions, with dancers and former dancers, in relation to pain and injuries; how we, through dance, can learn to better understand our bodies – by exploring the variations and nuances of the movements and thus gain access to, or at least get a sense of, the body’s hidden potentials. They talk about potentials for force and mobility, about self-healing mechanisms, about the possibility to confront pain with attention and motion.


Unrealistic demands?

However, the conversations give rise to other topics related to the reality behind that which we see on stage – aspects of dance and pain that are more problematic. In the celebrated movie Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays a young, promising ballet dancer who gets selected to dance her dream role – the swan queen in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The movie is fictional, and in many ways extreme, but nevertheless gives a sense of the enormous demands placed on professional dancers: unrealistic body ideals – being thin, flexible and light as a feather, but still having to perform as an elite athlete, and constantly feeling scrutinized and compared to others. The competition is fierce and you always have to be in perfect shape.

The situation differs between different genres and disciplines and a lot has changed in the dance world in recent years; there is greater awareness of the problems and of the consequences. Preventive training to avoid injuries is integrated and new methods developed. But the symptoms, burnout, repetitive strain injuries, stress fractures, chronic pain, eating disorders, joints that crack and lock, and dislocated shoulders and kneecaps, are still far from unusual.

”The demands put on dancers are enormously complex, since the repertoire of movements are constantly changing depending on which choreography you are working with at a particular time. You constantly have to be unbelievably adaptable, and that naturally means extreme strain on the body”, says medical doctor and former dancer, Anja Hauschild. In her experience, it is not uncommon for professional dancers to be dependent on high doses of painkillers. Waking up with such strong pain that it is difficult to get out of bed, and to still continue to dance and do pirouettes and high jumps – this is a reality that many dancers live with. When the body has warmed up and the adrenalin kicks in, the pain may disappear or reduce for a while, but it comes back after the performance, often in full measures. Yet, pain becomes normal, something that you accept, and get used to.

As long as their body functions and goes on dancing, many dancers choose not to see a doctor. Because they don’t want, or can’t afford, spending the money and time required for the treatment, or they may be convinced it will go away without medical attention. In some cases it does. Florencia Lamarca, who, like Dolev has danced for Batsheva Dance Company and in several productions of the famous German choreographer Sascha Waltz, describes how, after years of hard training she sustained a knee injury. The only advise given, by the doctor she turned to, was to quit dancing. At the start of her second year at a dance company, which she had dreamt of dancing for, quitting was not an option. Instead Lamarca tried all the alternative methods she could think of – hot compresses, ice, and cabbage leaves to extract fluid. But above all she found new ways to move on stage.

”My body learnt how to deal with the injury and I learnt to use my body in a way that didn’t strain the knee the way I used to. The entire third year I wasn’t injured a single time, even though I danced fulltime. Occasionally I was tired, but I was very rarely in pain.”

Many doctors, like in Lamarca’s case, fail to grasp why someone would put their body through such trials. Sometimes they also underestimate the injuries because they don’t understand the capacity dancers often have for enduring pain.

One doctor refused to accept that I had stress fractures”, says Ingeborg Zackariassen, a classically trained dancer who has danced for among others Den Norske Opera & Ballett/ Nasjonalballetten (the Norwegian Opera Ballet) and Göteborgsoperans Danskompani (the dance company of the Gothenburg Opera, Sweden). “’It is simply not possible. A football player with stress fractures is not able to WALK on his legs. And you are dancing!’ I was in so much pain that I had to insist on a scintigraphy, after having undergone painful massage treatments and working full time on the injury for six months without any improvement. And just as I suspected, there were stress fractures on several places in both my calves.”


Dance medicine

In Germany there is a special organisation just for dance medicine; care and treatment directed specifically at dancers. It is called tamed (“Tanzmedizin Deutschland”), and Liane Simmel, medical doctor, osteopath, and former dancer, is one of the founders.

“I wanted to offer treatment specifically adapted to the situation and the needs of the dancers”, she says, and continues: “As a dancer I had personal experiences of not really being picked up by the regular medical service, of how easy it was to feel misunderstood.”

With these experiences in mind she wrote the book Tanzmedizin in der Praxis (“Dance medicine in the practice”) in order to share her experiences and offer advice on the most common symptoms and problems that dancers encounter, possible causes and connections, and how to prevent and rehabilitate injuries.

Like Lamarca’s experience shows, it is possible to find a way to handle an injury without medical treatment, but for many dancers that solution is just a way to mask the pain – to ignore it and endure beyond every limit, until really serious problems arise.


Functional signals

”Pain in fact has an important function”, says Emily Poel. With a background in classical and modern dance, she has for several years worked as a practitioner and trainer within the Grinberg Method, where you commonly work with people who suffer from chronic pain. Poel describes how pain is the body’s way to force you to pay attention to something that is not all right, something that is harmful, or something in your way of treating your body that needs to change. If you start to force yourself to ignore it, endure it, or in different ways soothe it without at the same time dealing with the causes, you also stop having access to this information that the body gives you:

“As a dancer I was sure that I had a high degree of body awareness, but now, later, I realise that it was more about control – to constantly look at my own body from the outside and knowing exactly what it looked like and how it should move. I was treating my body as a machine that should always function and perform. When I quit dancing professionally it was partly because I wanted my pain signals to work normally again instead of twisting them in my mind into reasons for pushing on even more.” Is it then at all possible to avoid pain and injuries when you want to work with dance on a professional level? Some of the dancers and former dancers I’ve spoken to say that it is not. They argue that excessive training is what it takes to reach the level of flexibility and strength that is required to have dance as a profession – you simply have to push your body over the limit of what is healthy. They are also convinced that many of the movements and positions that are required, especially within classical dance, go against the physiognomy of the body: Someone who is not naturally flexible in the joints will have to go through years of painful training to force the positions. But also for someone with particularly good prerequisites the training can be damaging – you end up reinforcing a hypermobility that is actually not good for the body. For both body types this will at some point lead to injuries or chronic pain. They conclude that it is still possible to love dance and to dance professionally, but it is important to make a conscious choice – to know that you break down your body, and that you will have to live with injuries and chronic pain if you want to be a dancer.


Good pain, bad pain awareness

Other dancers choose to make a distinction between different types of pain: the “good” pain, that has to do with development and learning (for example normal muscle pain after training), and the “bad” pain, when something has crossed a limit and is harmful. The first type of pain would also include the emotional pain it can involve to investigate an important subject that you would like to express through the dance. This pain can, according to them, not be avoided, since this is the value of dance – probing and exploring is what gives the dance its depth and allows the dancer to develop. However, they believe that the second type of pain should be possible to avoid or at least reduce. In fact, everyone I interviewed is in agreement that it at least should be possible to reduce the occurrence of serious injuries and chronic pain among dancers, if a few basic changes were made.

Information about dance medicine should be more widely spread. Knowledge and research about pain and injuries, about new methods and ideas around preventive treatments and rehabilitation should be easily accessible and there should be forums for discussing questions and sharing experiences.

“We could cooperate so much more in Sweden”, says Evelina Laasonen, who has a background as a dancer in hiphop and show-dance, and who now works as a physiotherapist in Stockholm. “There are good physiotherapists, good naprapaths, good personal trainers who are interested in dancers and dance injuries so we could work a lot more together than we do today. The problem is that there is no structure for cooperation here at the moment.” Internationally there is IADMS (International Association for Dance Medicine and Science), but Evelina Laasonen would also like to see a Swedish or Nordic network for dance medicine, similar to the one that exists in Germany, and in several other countries.

Measures to be taken are more resources for every individual dancer, already during their education – having the support to develop their individual dance language based on their own bodily condition, qualities and prerequisites, and to practically explore how their instrument, the body, functions. Many also believe that it would be necessary to shake up the old fashioned, hierarchical structures that still exist, and generally let go of set conceptions and expectations of what it should be like and look like to be a dancer. In addition, the economic and social conditions for the dancers would have to improve in many cases, and for this to happen there needs to be awareness about the problems, not only within the dance world but also in the general public. Incidentally, this might be of benefit not just for the dancers, but also in a larger context.

Jannine Rivel is a dancer and choreographer as well as a certified teacher of the Klein Technique – a movement discipline that was developed by a dancer, Susan Klein, to teach people body-awareness and the ability to relate to the body and injuries in a different way. Rivel says that injuries and physical pain is often perceived as something that strikes us from outside, that we don’t have any part in ourselves. The problem is this attitude itself, not only of the dancers, but also of society at large:

“The idea that I have a headache, then I take a couple of painkillers and keep on working, is a quick-fix-mentality which is simply unhealthy and unsustainable in the long run. So there is a lot to do also on a larger scale with achieving a more humane and less machine-like relationship to the lives and experiences of people.” The discussion about pain within dance says a lot about pain in general – how we relate to it and how we could handle it in a different way. As in the case of the dancers, it concerns the possibility of working with something that is important to us and that we are passionate about, without letting the pressures to perform take over. To be able to keep the curiosity and the joy as a motor, and to explore into depth, but at the same time be attentive to our limits.

Dance is a language without words that communicates from body to body. It is a powerful tool to speak about the body, about being human, about fear, pain, wishes and dreams. We all have a body, all our experiences happen with and through this body, and the body itself contains an inconceivably number of possibilities and nuances. This is something we are reminded of when we experience dance, both as spectators and when we ourselves are dancing.

Otello – Seržs Derošs, Dezdemona – Ieva Rācene. Foto: Andris Tone, LNO publicitātes foto

Photo: Serge Deroche and Ieva Rācene in ballet “Othello” by Alla Sigalova, Latvian National Ballet. Photo: Andris Tone

The article was developed through the ke∂ja Writing Movement project with the support of the Culture Programme of the European Union, and Nordic Culture Point. 

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