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Physical Therapy Can Keep Dancers on Their Toes

Anna White, dancerAnna White of Easton got back on her feet by strengthening her core muscles.

Months prior to starting her freshman year as a dance major at George Mason University, Anna White faced a crossroads. The 18-year-old had danced between five and eight hours a day for years, and now her body was rebelling.

“It felt as if there was a big bruise on my back,” White says. “It hurt to jump or even to lie on it. My big toe also clicked and popped whenever I jumped.”

As the pain grew worse, White worried it would sideline her dreams of dancing. So she turned to physical therapist Gayanne Grossman with Lehigh Valley Health Network. A former dancer and dance teacher, Grossman determined that one of White’s legs was longer than the other. She helped White strengthen core muscles and showed her ways to move differently, allowing her to compensate for the leg length discrepancy without harming her body.

Within a week, White felt better. Now she’s a dance major, dancing nearly four hours a day at college.

Benefits of dance

Wildly popular among youngsters and teens, dance offers many pluses, says adolescent medicine specialist Valerie Lewis, MD, with Lehigh Valley Health Network. It builds fitness, keeps weight under control and boosts overall health. “It also can improve self-esteem and confidence, provide a sense of mastery and teach children and teens to be more responsible,” Lewis says. Yet, as with any fitness pursuit, dance can lead to overuse injuries and complications.

Although the field of dance medicine is booming, Grossman is the only local dance-specific physical therapist. As a result, dancers come to her from area colleges, the Lehigh Valley Charter School for the Performing Arts and dance schools throughout the region. Grossman makes it her goal to do much more than heal the pain. She looks for ways to help dancers perfect their technique, allowing them to improve their balance, feel more fluid, jump and lift their legs higher than before.

Valerie LewisValerie Lewis, MD
Adolescent Medicine

“Pain tells them that they need to work on something,” Grossman says. “It’s my job to figure out what that something is.”

Often that something is a compensation. Just a slight difference in body shape or size – a pelvis that flares out or a second toe bone that is slightly longer than the ideal – will make any number of movements much more difficult for a dancer and eventually may lead to injury if left unaddressed. For instance, if a dancer has a longer-than-usual second toe, it prevents her from properly getting up on relevé (a rise from a flat foot to the ball of the foot). “The dancer then compensates by rolling her foot out slightly, and as a result, can’t balance on relevé well,” Grossman says.

The answer, in this case, is a simple toe pad that Grossman inserts into the dancer’s slipper. “I’ve had some dancers cry with relief because they’ve been struggling with this problem for 10 or 15 years, and the fix is so simple,” she says. In other cases, Grossman suggests stretches or strengthening techniques to help better align the body.

Taking a stand

For Anna White, Grossman suggested an alternative way to stand that improved her dance technique and reduced the stress on her body. Grossman also taught White to pull up from her abdominals, inner thighs and deep rotating muscles in the hip as she moved.

End result: White’s pain went away, and she’s now a better dancer too.

“I would always work so hard at the bar, sweating and trying to balance and always falling over,” White says. “Now I’m more in control of my body. My alignment is there, and I can balance so much better. It has really improved my confidence.”