Take it easily: a safe return to the studio
It takes time and care to regain full fitness after a long break. In this article, five dance medical experts provide detailed advice on how to return to class safely.
Dancers, companies and teachers have shown tremendous resilience, ingenuity and adaptability throughout the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns. It will continue to be a challenge as we all adapt to the new normal. These notes are some general considerations as we return to dance – from time off due to COVID lockdown, injury or other reasons – considering a dancer’s wellbeing in physical, mental and social domains.
We acknowledge that, for illustrative purposes, many examples are based on ballet, however the same principles around safe loading, recovery, mental and social health and wellbeing are broadly applicable. Please take what is useful to your situation with your unique expertise and situation.
One of the challenges in returning to activity after a period off is managing enthusiasm and excitement at returning to dance. Some dancers may not have danced at all, and even if dancers were doing some exercises at home, it’s unlikely that they were able to put the same loads through their body as in a class situation. The body is pretty efficient and will only maintain its capacity for work as long as it needs to – we know that people lose strength within about two weeks, and it will take about the same amount of time dancing at a lesser load, to get back to pre-break condition.
One of the biggest risks for injury is returning too rapidly to activity, so remember to take it slow, listen to your body. It’s a balancing act – enough to challenge (and enjoy!), but not so much that you hurt yourself, and enough time to adapt to that challenge. If you feel niggles or soreness that aren't resolving, then get it checked out by a health professional, preferably one experienced with dancers and athletes.
Be kind to yourselves, your friends and your students – expectations may need to be lowered as we all learn and adapt together. Avoid putting pressure on extrinsic goals at least for a couple of months such as high stakes performances or assessments. Rather, try to focus on the process of returning to an activity you love doing. If you are having a performance, perhaps consider it a celebration of coming together and returning to dance, rather than as the pinnacle of the year’s training. Have an awareness of how different everyone’s experience of the pandemic and lockdowns have been. While we were all in the same storm, we were all in different boats and people may have had widely varying experiences so kindness is crucial as we all come together again.
Class return to dance progression
Across the country different states have endured different amounts of time in lockdown and altered states of training. The time the dancer has had out of the studio will determine how long they need to take to get back to a full load: 8 weeks in lockdown = 8-10 weeks getting back to a full class with jumps and big moves. This is to protect the bones and the tendons of the dancers, as these structures need gradual reloading to allow adequate adaptation to changing forces and loads. Even if a dancer has been jumping whilst training at home, when they return to the studio they will be jumping on a different surface. This is an important consideration as the forces will be different and the body (bones and tendons) needs the time to adapt to the change.
For example, in a ballet class, with students having had variable times in lockdown, or having completed different regimes and amounts of loading whilst in lockdown, you could think about trying any of the options below:
Option 1: Creating different classes to begin with for each different group until they are all up to barre, centre and some allegro, then getting them all back in their original classes
Option 2: You could consider bringing all the dancers back to a simple barre and build them all back together (this could lead to some dancers becoming bored)
Option 3: Make sure each dancer is aware of how much they should be doing and they need to know to stop at their limit for that week/class. For those that haven’t been jumping they could start simple things while the rest of the class is doing allegro, like jogging on the spot, simple plyometric (jumping and rebounding) work at the back of the studio.
When trying to plan the dancers’ return, think about how you return to dance after a holiday and stick to similar ideas. Starting with a flat barre, add in two leg rises and then finally single leg rises, over the first two weeks. Before recommencing allegro and pointe work make sure all the dancers can do at least 20-30 rises on each leg with good form and technique For younger dancers 10-13yrs: 15-20x each leg, For older dancers- 14+yrs : 25-30x each leg.
When adding in allegro/jumps, start with a warm-up jump, then add more allegro exercises without progressing in consecutive classes. Keep the same load for one to two classes before progressing. Leave single leg repetitive work until the dancers are back doing a whole class -- from barre to jumps. Try not to add two new things in one class, eg: don't start big jumps AND pointe work on the same day/ or in the same class, don't start higher load acro moves AND more complicated beats or wings in tap on the same day.
Diet and Sleep
When you are training, it is important to give your body the raw materials and time it needs to adapt to the higher levels of load. This is achieved through eating a balanced, healthy diet with enough energy and nutrients for you to repair, adapt and grow.
The only time you can consolidate your training – both mentally and physically – is with sleep. Aim for at least eight hours of good quality sleep, with regular bed and wake times. This is particularly important and challenging through your adolescence as it is such a busy time with school, exams, probably increasing training in dance, increasing expectations, social life, relationships etc. If you have any concerns or questions, please consult with a trusted healthcare professional.
What is recovery? Recovery is a complex (e.g, physiological, psychological) restorative process relative to time and is one of the most important parts of any dance training or exercise program. Recovery allows for:
Time for the body to heal itself in preparation for your next dance class,
Improved dance performance, and
Most importantly decrease the risk of potential traumatic/overuse injury and illness.
Professional dance careers require years of intensive training. Stress experienced during training must be balanced with adequate recovery to prevent over-training and burnout. Therefore, dancers need to be able to monitor and manage their own recovery. However, little is known about how dancers achieve a balance between recovery and stress.
There are different types of recovery – active and passive.
Active recovery: Also known as “active rest”. This recovery method involves low intensity exercise that is performed shortly after higher intensity exercise to improve recovery and performance (Ezequiel et al., 2018).
Passive Recovery: Requires minimal movement by giving the body optimal opportunity to rest. Simply doing “almost nothing” (Ezequiel et al., 2018).
Which is better?
There is mixed evidence that suggests one is better than the other. It will depend on factors such as the exercise intensity of recent sessions and how your body feels. If your body feels completely beat up, your sleep was erratic, and/or your resting heart rate is higher than normal, then use the passive recovery (Blevins et al., 2021). On the other hand, if you are just a bit sore and can't go all out in your workout, keep your body moving with active recovery instead.
Examples of active recovery are activities such as Tai chi, yoga, water-based activities, walking and Pilates. Examples of passive recovery are foam rolling, cold water immersion (such as an ice bath), massage, sleep/naps and stretching.
How should I try and incorporate recovery?
Once a week take a break from extracurricular activities (e.g., Pilates, gym sessions)
Start off the week with heavier strength/endurance sessions and then taper down at the end of the weekAdd in a creative week every four to five weeks. For example, this might be a week focusing on artistic expression, mental, emotional or spiritual aspects of your dance practice.
Complete active recovery after every session (substitutes for an effective cool down)
Passive recovery (or a total rest day) no more than once a week.
Next week: Social, emotional, cultural and psychologicial considerations.
Gabby Davidson, B.Phty (Hons) Physiotherapist at The Australian Ballet School
Dr Danielle Einstein, BSc (Psychol) (Hons), MPsychol (Clin), PhD, MAPS MACPA Adjunct Fellow Macquarie University and Clinical Psychologist at Distinct Psychology
Dr Annie Jeffries, PhD, M ClinExPhysio, BExSci (Hons1), Bsci, AES, AEP, ESSAM, Exercise Physiologist,
Dr Elena Lambrinos, PhD, MA (Cultural Studies), Director of Education at Leap 'N Learn, Dance Studio Owner, Dance education researcher at Disrupt Dance
Dr Jason Lam, BMBS, DCH, MSportsMed, FRACGP Crichton Dance Medicine Fellow, The Australian Ballet
This is an extract from an article in the Jan/Feb/March 2022 issue of 'Dance Australia'. Buy from your favourite dance retail outlet or go here and never miss an issue!