Life at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy
Ballet training is hard on a dancer’s body; injury is common place. I’ve learned a lot on how to deal with my injuries, from small niggles to some more serious, particularly over the last two years when my training has become more intensive.
I wrote in one of my blog posts, here, that one of the 13 lessons I’d learned as a ballet dancer in training was to listen to my body and respond to injuries accordingly. I still go by this.
As you become older, you get more understanding of your body and how it responds. Funnily enough, the more injuries I’ve had and the more I’ve learned about my body, the better dancer I’ve become as a result. I’ve become stronger and more mobile than before, learning how to work with my body and use it properly. I’ve outlined the key points I’ve learned below:
1. Firstly, keep your body in good shape when you are in full health. Build stretching into your training routine. I stretch out my muscles for an hour first thing and last thing each day which builds and maintains my strength and flexibility – see my post here showing many of the exercises I incorporate into this routine. I also try to incorporate a regular sports massage into my training schedule – it helps to ease the aches and pains and break down those overworked muscles.
2. Ensure you have regular access to a good physio and health professionals who understand the stresses and strains a dancer puts their body through. My physio here in Moscow also uses acupuncture and I can confirm that it really does work. Also ensure you have good health insurance with international coverage if you are training overseas and/ or intend to audition overseas – you never know when you will need it.
3. Next, understand your injury – work out where it hurts and what you are and aren’t able to do. Sometimes you can pinpoint the exact event that caused your injury, such as going over on your ankle – sometimes it comes on after a particularly intense training session or builds over time, such as a hip or back injury. Once you understand where it hurts, you can work out how best to acquire the treatment you need.
4. When an injury occurs or you feel one coming on, seek advice and consider your range of treatment. Understand whether it’s something you can work through or whether you need to rest; physios and health professionals are key to advising on this. Often, because of the specialised nature and intensity of classical dance, it’s of benefit to try and source a dance physio or health professional. This isn’t always possible and if you have a good relationship with a non-dance specialist then you may not need to. Look to alternative therapy and medicine as well for solutions.
5. The big issue for dancers is how much rest can I afford to take? Often resting is not the preferred option when you are in full-time vocational training or working in a ballet company. The psychological strain of the questions you will inevitably ask yourself can be quite debilitating when you have worked so hard for so long: “can I really afford not to be part of exams/ auditions/ performances?”, “will I ever dance again?”, “will I lose my technique, strength and flexibility while I’m resting?”, “how long will it take me to get back in shape?” It’s important to address these issues alongside your physical injury and make sure you talk through your options with family, peers and health professionals.
6. Understand the basics so that you can help to repair yourself – RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. This is important in the initial stages to help reduce the problem. Avoid heat in the first 48 hours of injury. However, heat can be used to stimulate blood flow once the “heat” has come out of your injury which can hasten your healing rate. Heat will also help your muscles relax and ease your pain.
7. Try not to be downhearted if you do pick up an injury that keeps you out of training – the best thing you can do is to keep learning by watching class and performances. There are lots of stories of top dancers who have seemingly career ending injuries but are now back performing. Lauren Cuthbertson of the Royal Ballet is one such principal dancer, recently discussing her injury in a short film which you can see here. Maria Alexandrova, star of the Bolshoi, injured her Achilles tendon in 2013 during a performance of La Bayadere in London. It’s an injury that requires a six month rehabilitation period, and full recovery takes about a year – but Alexandrova is back to her best now, performing the toughest roles in the Bolshoi’s repertoire. Steven McRae’s account of his return to the Royal Ballet following injury is here.
8. Also remember that there are always ways to continue exercising in some way, be it floor barre, skipping, or other forms of stretching/strengthening depending on your injury type, which will help keep you focused and motivated. And look after your body in other ways too while you’re focusing on alternative ways to keep fit – eat healthily, for example, and focus on foods that will help to repair your body and mind!
In terms of my injury history, I’ve had lots of niggles but a few that I’ve had to think about more carefully too. The biggest issue really is the impact it has on you psychologically. Training to be a dancer is all-encompassing; a lifestyle choice, and when you don’t have dance in your life, it can be quite hard to work out what to do. You have to be positive and keep your mind focused. Everything in life is a learning process and it’s important to treat injury as such too!