For most dancers, an injury can almost seem like a death sentence. Though many of us have come to the point where we can identify the difference between major injuries and those that we deem we can work through, we still stress out about the very thought that we are injured. For us, being sidelined is a black hole of frustration. The sheer helplessness and physical inability that comes along with a serious or accute injury (and the accompanying pain) goes against every bit of the dance training we’ve ever had!
There is of course, the valid fear of losing income by being unable to perform or teach- and because most of us are self-employed independent contractors, there’s no way of getting Workman’s Comp. Also- shudder the thought- there is the very real possibility that once you have recovered, your body will never be the same as it was before you were injured, which on its own is a horrible idea but made even more so by the fact that it can potentially reduce our earning power.
Pain provokes a veritable grocery list of emotions in everyone who experiences it. With pain from a recent injury, but especially chronic pain, the individual suffering is likely to experience stress, frustration, irritability (which often manifests as anger directed towards those around you) anxiety and depression. Anyone in pain is not a happy camper...especially if they're a dancer.
Something many doctors neglect discuss with their patients is that pain can potentially create a vicious circle that involves the emotions and psyche. When you are in pain, your discomfort level is often so high that it often prevents sleep, or at least quality sleep. Without sufficient restorative REM sleep, our bodies simply cannot repair themselves, which in turn creates more pain…and more anxiety, which leads to even less sleep, exacerbating the initial problem! This can lead to chronic pain, which is usually diagnosed as any pain that lingers after the point of projected recovery, or any pain that lasts longer then three to six months. This includes the low-grade, constant pain of an RSI or Repetitive Stress Injury- something that many dancers suffer from, caused by our repeated actions in rehearsals, classes and shows. Way too many of us are over-achievers who try to work through RSIs without giving our bodies a sufficient recovery period. But even if you try to soldier through your agony and act like everything’s normal (which it totally isn’t) your pain is always in the forefront of your mind, affecting everything you do- or can’t do.
All of this is magnified for dancers, because in addition to experiencing the pain itself and the accompanying psychological response to it, there are extremely legitimate reasons to feel stress and anxiety. For non-dancers, or anyone who doesn’t lead an athletic lifestyle, although the paint in fact hurts, it’s typically a temporary inconvenience. For dancers, it seems like The End. Period.
I myself didn’t realize any of this until 2009, when I sustained a serious car accident that resulted in a sideways whiplash and seven herniated discs- and intense chronic pain that lasted almost four years. After the initial period of rest, I went through three separate courses of physical therapy, and still didn’t feel any better. A few “concerned parties” suggested that maybe it was time I gave up dancing… I wouldn’t hear of it! Since I wasn’t healing up in the projected time frame for my injuries, I cautiously (and with my doctor’s permission) went back to work teaching and performing, gritting my teeth when I hurt- who was pretty much all the time. One day, while writing in my journal, I looked at a sentence that I’d just completed and it really shocked me cause it was just so…wrong.
“I’m really sad that I’m so stressed out all the time!”
A light bulb went off in my head, and I googled “pain and depression”, and fell down a rabbit hole of reading about the emotional and mental ramifications of pain. Once I realized that what I was experiencing was a legitimate chemical reaction to my own pain and I wasn’t going crazy, I stopped seeing my clueless “mainstream” physician, who not only never made the connection between pain, sleeplessness and anxiety, but who literally threw opiates at me while wondering out loud how I could be so physically flexible while claiming I was so sore.
I went proactive immediately, booking standing twice a week appointments with my chiropractor -who did discuss the emotional and mental side effects of pain- I got regular massages and acupuncture, bought a new bed (and my own TENs machine) did Pilates and completely changed my diet. And though I never used anti-depressants, I took comfort in knowing that if I needed them, they would be available to help me get through this. It was a long road to recovery, but by sheer will- and everything I mentioned above- I made it. Though once in a while I’ll experience pain where my injuries occurred and it’s doubtful I’ll ever be able to do a backbend again, my life has pretty much returned to normal.
The tips for the physical, mental and emotional recovery I’m about to give you definitely helped me get through that very rough period in my life, and I hope they can help you.
Consult Your Doctor
Duh…this is obvious; if you’re seriously hurt, of course you are seeing your doctor pretty regularly! However, if you are experiencing disrupted sleep because of your pain, or are starting to feel depressed, it’s definitely time to talk to your doctor again.
Like I said, I didn’t take anti-depressants, but I knew I could if I needed to. What really helped me immensely was prescription sleep medication. I’m not advocating sleeping pills for everyone, and there is quite a real danger of them becoming habit forming. I took Ambien four nights in a row- and finally after months of dreamless, restless slumber, getting a few nights of actual restorative sleep- I felt like a new person. Once that initial sleeping “re-set” happened, I found I only needed to take the pills maybe once a week, if that. Seriously, it was like a miracle. It not only made my body feel better, it helped my mood and calmed my pain-related anxiety.
If you are wary of taking prescription meds, try an over the counter medication for a couple of nights. If f you are anti-drug, try some herbal supplements, such as valerian or melatonin. Chamomile is also great; chamomile tea tastes nice and it has a soothing effect. You can also try a number of proven “sleep hacks” that don’t involve drugs at all, such as not watching television or staying on any device (cellular phones, tablets or computers) for at least an hour before bedtime. Using a white-noise machine or listening to a recording of something like ocean waves might help too, as does removing any sources of light from your bedroom. Taking a long bath is always good to induce drowsiness, or even having some warm mikl might do the trick, too. As I said before, massage and acupuncture can help with your pain, which in turn will aid you in sleeping better, too.
Strengthen Your Body
Once you’ve been passed the acute phase of your injury, with your doctor’s ok, you need to start strengthening and rehabilitating your injury. If you’ve been prescribed a course of physical therapy, attend the sessions, and follow your homework exercise regimen to the letter. You can also try yoga or Pilates, which was actually designed as a strengthening program to help dancers rehabilitate from injury. Yoga will help you stay limber and toned, Pilates will strengthen the areas around your injuries as well as make you stronger in general.
In either discipline, look for an instructor in either of these practices who is certified, and make sure they know that you are injured. Start out simple, and basic; if you have pain from any movements, don’t do them yet… and no matter what, don’t push yourself too hard, at least at first, because you certainly don't want to aggravate your injury. Walking is a terrific and low- impact aerobic way of keeping fit, and often a brisk walk (or as brisk as you can take it while recovering) will lower your physical feelings of discomfort.
Stay Connected With Dancing In Non-Physical Ways
There are many things you can do to keep learning and to help you feel as though you are progressing, even if you can’t actually dance yet. Ask your instructor(s) if you can audit their dance classes- often you can gain insight and learn technique just by watching and taking notes. Same goes for viewing dance videos; analyze the styles or technique you are seeing, and observe more subtle things like stage presence, emotional connection to the music, and the costuming the performing is wearing.
Of course, you can also use your down time for dance-related things, like costume repair, learning and analyzing music you’d like to use in the future, writing choreographies and planning up-coming dance projects. Once when I was sidelined for n injury, which occurred years before the one I mentioned before, I wrote the entire script for my Belly Dance And Balance: The Art Of Sword And Shamadan DVD. The silver lining to that injury was that if I’d been performing and teaching during that particular period, I probably wouldn’t have had the time to devote to planning that DVD at all, let alone getting the material all written out.
Get Back In The Game Slowly
Once you’ve been green-lighted to return to dancing, start off gradually. Even just being out for a few days can make a difference in your stamina level or muscular condition and control. Take it easy, and do not push yourself. Work up your strength gradually, warm up thoroughly and baby yourself a little. Remember, you’ve been sitting around for a while dying to get back to classes and shows, and while your enthusiasm is terrific, you don't want to re-inure yourself by “making up for lost time”. Your body is different now. Your injury has changed your physical being… even if it’s just temporary. As you test the waters, take things gradually and see what you are capable of. Your strength and command will probably take a bit of time to build up again.
Make Adjustments As Necessary
If your injury has changed your body permanently, but you still have the ability to dance, you will need to make necessary adjustments to your dancing. In my own case, after that major car accident, my back was so damaged that it will never, ever be the same. I actually had to sign a legal document at the time of my settlement, which stated exactly that; my spine was changed irrevocably. My neck alone was so messed up that I doubted I’d ever be able to do sword balancing again, and it had been a specialty of mine for years. I also haven’t done a backbend since the accident… used to be able to get my hands down to the floor from a standing position. Am I bummed about the lack of backbends? At first I was- but then I started looking upon them as a nice part of my past, kind of like an old boyfriend. I loved doing them at the time, bit I was leading a different life then… they just didn’t fit in anymore. As for the sword balancing, I was determined. It took over three years – and a lot of work- to get up to speed again, but by golly, I worked up to it, and can now do everything I was able to do with a sword that I used to.
I’ve also helped many other dancers re-think they’re dancing to disguise their injuries and limitations. One woman I worked with had been burned badly in a fire- the fingers on her left hand were completely fused together. Together, we devised hand and arm movements that would make her hands look uniform with each other as well as not distracting to the audience. When she dances onstage nobody notices that her left hand isn’t flexible. Another dancer I worked with had a metal plate in her spine, and couldn’t raise her arms above shoulder level. We worked on a series of movements and gestures that would make her arms appear to be changing levels “normally”. We used arm pathways, lines and angles and even facial gestures and head movements to create the illusion of varied arm positions. To She worked her butt off practicing, and again, not a single person in the audience notices her limited range of motion.
Sounds trite and clichéd, but your emotions really can have an affect on your healing. Remaining optimistic and having the will to recover will really help with your physical recovery! Stay away from naysayers and negative people. During the recovery from my car accident, I can’t tell you how many trolls had the nerve to blithely say the dreaded words ‘Maybe It’s time for you to retire…’ Color me crazy or chalk it up to my punk rock past, but my reaction to this “helpful advice” was mostly composed of four letter words! Some idiots actually delight in the misery of others, and someone who is injured is a prime target for that sort of negativity. Haters always want to hate…so turn a deaf ear to their malicious glee, or just outright cut them from your life- at least temporarily. You have enough on your plate right now physically; you don’t need any more mental or emotional feelings than you’re already dealing with. Don’t let anyone bring you down!
Dancing is a gift, one that many of us almost take for granted because we do it so often…until we are injured. Being injured is horrible, but as far as life lessons go, it makes us realize just how precious dancing truly is. Be grateful for your dancing, be respectful of your gift, have faith in your recovery process, and use your time on the sidelines to find out just how strong you truly are.
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