How do you become a great dancer? Dance, dance and more dance. At least, that was the prevailing wisdom when I was young. My fellow dancers were routinely pressured to quit playing other sports, and I even got a note excusing me from running in P.E. class. But during that time, I also discovered that my chronic injuries (which started around age 11) began to improve quickly and dramatically when I started cross-training more effectively. This has often made me wonder: Could I have avoided years of pain, and perhaps been an even better dancer, if I had diversified my training earlier?
A growing body of research suggests that the answer to that question is yes. I interviewed two experts in the field—Neeru Jayanthi, MD, director of Emory Sports Medicine Research and Education and co-director of the Emory Youth Sports Medicine Program, and Julia Iafrate, DO, a dance and sports medicine specialist and assistant professor in the department of orthopedic surgery at NYU Langone Health. They suggest that it’s high time we rethink much of the conventional wisdom about dance training; in particular, two major issues: First, the overall amount of time that dancers spend training per week, and second, hyperspecialization, or the fact that dancers are usually encouraged to pursue only dance, and maybe even just one type of dance, from a very young age.
“There’s not a lot of research specifically geared toward performers or athletes that are forced into very early specialization, like gymnasts, figure skaters and dancers,” says Iafrate. “However, the evidence from research in other sports—which should be extrapolated to dance—is strong enough that dance teachers should take heed.”
Encourage Athletic Training, Especially Among Female Dancers
It’s time to reconsider the idea that young dancers need to give up all other athletic pursuits. “We know that for highly specialized young athletes, especially young female athletes, the risk of injury is clearly higher,” says Jayanthi.
Iafrate states that young athletes who hyperspecialize actually have deficits in neuromuscular control. “Dancers are developing certain functions at the complete loss of others,” she says. “It’s possible that dancers may in fact need to specialize at a younger age than athletes in some other sports,” says Jayanthi. “But I’m pretty sure that age is not 6, 8 or 10. That may be the norm in dance, but if we don’t look outside that norm, we’re not going to find out if other pathways might be successful too.”
The idea of encouraging young dancers, especially those with professional aspirations, to train outside of dance may be shocking to some teachers. But dancing more doesn’t automatically mean dancing better. “Research has found that early diversification doesn’t actually hinder elite sport participation. Peak performance is usually reached after maturity anyways,” Iafrate says. In other words, participating in a variety of physical activities at a young age won’t set a dancer back. It could actually give them a leg up. “This is why a lot of male dancers don’t start until later but still get to an elite level. They play other sports and then they come to dance stronger and better prepared. That’s why we should get female dancers learning other skills, too. It’s only going to make them stronger,” adds Iafrate.
Abide by the 16-Hour Dance Training Rule
How many hours per week are your students training? “From the literature, dance teachers and parents of dancers need to know that there is an increased risk of injury with any training volume that exceeds 16 hours of total sport participation in a week,” says Iafrate. “More than that is simply too much in a young, developing body.”
Younger dancers should be training even less than that. Jayanthi adds that “based on the data, it’s pretty clear that if you train for more hours per week than your age [e.g., 12 hours for a 12-year- old], you’re more likely to have overuse injury.”
While Iafrate knows that many dance teachers will balk at the idea of having their pre-professional students train less, she advises that the 16-hour rule, at a minimum, must be followed. She also points out that there are plenty of ways to cut down on active dancing time while keeping dancers engaged with their discipline. “I think a lot of dance classes could be shorter,” she says, adding that dedicating class time to techniques that will help dancers improve cognitive and motor control—like visualization, marking or even talking through a dance—could be more beneficial than pushing them to exhaustion. “Some of the best athletes and dancers spend a lot of their time on mental preparation,” she adds. “Once you’ve learned a skill, you’ve learned the skill. There’s a limit to how much repeating it will help you improve.”
Give Your Students “Off” Months
“You should encourage at least two months off from dance per year,” Jayanthi advises. “I’d prefer three. And those months don’t have to be consecutive.” During these off months, dancers can keep up with dance class one to two times per week, but should focus instead on activities that are fun and recreational. “The point is to take you away from that intense environment,” he says. Since dance is so demanding on the lower extremities, Jayanthi also recommends sports like volleyball, tennis or swimming, to develop different and complementary skills.
“It doesn’t even necessarily have to be a different sport,” adds Iafrate, suggesting strength training as another great way for dancers to diversify. She also recommends that dance teachers aim to incorporate at least an hour per week of injury prevention work with their students that is focused on strength and neuromuscular training. Even encouraging students to pursue multiple forms of dance, rather than hyper-focusing on one, may help.
Rethink the Summer Intensive Model
If there could be any built-in “off-season” for young dancers, it would be the summer. But that’s when dancers are typically encouraged to push harder. “The number of patients I see who come in after a summer intensive is exorbitantly higher than what I see the rest of the year,” says Iafrate. “We’re taking dancers who may already have mild overuse injuries and saying, ‘Here, push that a little farther. Make it a little worse.’” Both Iafrate and Jayanthi are aware that this would represent a major cultural shift in dance education—one they believe is long overdue.
“You have to be bold and brave to make this change. It’s not just about injury. You want to help young people develop a long-term relationship with dance. Think about the students who’ve had a really negative experience and dropped out due to burnout,” says Jayanthi. “I see too many dancers whose bodies feel like they’re 80 years old when they’re only 36 or 40,” Iafrate adds. “It’s time to rethink hyperspecialization for our young dancers. We really have to start taking a public health approach.”