Dance Medicine – Head to Toe : A Dancer’s Guide to Health

Dance Medicine – Head to Toe : A Dancer’s Guide to Health

ballet book coverDance Medicine – Head to Toe : A Dancer’s Guide to Health by Judith R Peterson MD is 184 pages including 74 illustrations by Kathleen Rowland, 14 halftones and 3 radiographic images. Peterson was the attending physician to the Pennsylvania Ballet for 10 years, receiving her undergraduate degree from Harvard University and her medical degree from Weill Cornell School of Medicine.

If you want to dance forever, this book is marketed as helping you reach that goal.  But does it ?

Dance Medicine – Head to Toe : A Dancer’s Guide to Health is intended as a reference guide and not as a replacement for direct, personal advice from a qualified physician or other medical practitioner. Chapters range from the dancer’s mental health, the cervical, thoracic & lumbar spine, the lung and heart as they relate to dance, the importance of diet, the hip, the knee, the ankle, the foot and the toes, and finally how to optimise your performance.

The book is well laid out and very easy to read.  It’s written in a conversational style and not as an impenetrable medical reference manual.

For the first time that I’m aware of, there are recommendations at the back of the book for Apps, along with the more usual but exceptionally extensive references at the end of each chapter, and the aim of the book is to create a more self-aware dancer; someone who is aware of how dance affects their body and how to look after it for the long-term benefits. The author readily admits that that is a lifetime’s work, but the book is provided as a step in the right direction. More than half of all dancers will sustain an injury, so acquiring the knowledge to look after yourself is wise and worthwhile.

We being with how to treat yourself in class – how to learn to be kind to yourself as you and others go through the self-criticism that comes with looking at yourself in the mirror most days for extended periods of time.  It’s not vanity; it’s a necessary part of the learning process – to learn to dance you have to dance. It’s about strengthening your mind as well as your muscles.

Here is where we first encounter dance and body image. The author categorically states that eating disorders and psychological distress are not an inevitable part of being a dancer.  A study (Bacher-Melman et al. 2006) compared the psychological distress of aesthetic and non-aesthetic athletes and found that generally speaking both groups had matched psychological profiles but that a greater number of women with eating disorders were found in the aesthetic athletes (ie dancers, gymnasts, synchronized swimmers), and it’s thought that the environmental pressures of dance lead to the exaggerated emphasis on thinness compared to the control group.

Meditation is a way to calm yourself and avoid the stress of tense muscles which can lead to poor performance, concentration and risk injury. Do you have trouble sleeping ? There are clues to help you decide, and simple steps to help you sleep better.

Do you know how much your head weighs ? About 8-12 pounds.  That’s the weight of a new-born baby and your spine supports that weight through your entire life. Think about how much you move your  head while dancing – more so than in everyday life.

Ever thought of your spine as a slinky toy ? This book will introduce you to the curves of your spine and why, even in an erect dancer, they are so important. Dancers are often taught to lengthen their spine, but in trying to do so you are weakening the spine by reducing the natural curvature which is vital to shock absorption etc,.

“No pain, no gain” is not the intelligent way to train in dance.

Interestingly, although dancers look strong, a study (Maffulli et al. 2001) found that a ballet dancer has only 77% of the strength expected in people of a similar age. Improving muscle strength is very important and here the book details the classic arm positions of ballet and how to achieve them. There are also five great neck exercises as it’s not uncommon for dancers to suffer chronic neck pain, leading to headaches and tension.

Did you know that if your menstrual cycle is delayed or if you never get a normal menstrual period, you increase your risk of developing scoliosis (a thoracic curve to the side) ?

When it comes to your heart, dance class is not very effective as a cardiac exercise because of all the stopping and starting. Ideally, you’d take on swimming, cycling or running several times a week to really exercise your heart; dance will give you long, lean muscles but it’s surprisingly ineffective and giving you a full body workout.

Diet, and disordered eating, comes next. Dancers have a much lower percentage of body fat than all but the ultra-elite athletes and many experts believe that the level of control and discipline needed to achieve this can have a negative impact. The author explains clearly what each of the eating disorders actually are, the risk factors and what you should do. Dietary supplements are discussed in some detail and there is a small section for vegetarian dancers.

Do you have hips that click ? A full breakdown of the injuries to the hip are covered, including hip arthritis in older dancers. Flat feet and highly arched feet are also here, as are bunions.

“Going up on pointe … does not necessarily cause bunions.”

I’d recommend this book if you want to get a clear idea of how your body works in relation to dance, and then make use of the vast references and delve more deeply into those issues that interest/affect you.

Dance Medicine Head to Toe: A Dancer’s Guide to Health (Paperback)

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