We joke that we are “getting old” or we’re “out of shape” when our muscles get cramped or tired from dancing, but the fact is even the youngest, fittest dancers suffer from various forms of muscular fatigue when working hard at their craft. Here are a few tips for prevention and simple treatment of sore muscles that might help you get through your next festival workshop marathon with a little less pain.
1) Know your limits
Some consider it a mark of honor to have “made it all the way through that three hour workshop”, and if that is your goal, then go for it! For me, it’s more important to get all the information I can absorb while I am there, and walk out of there feeling good about what I accomplished. Sometimes that means sitting out on more rigorous drills, or only drilling part of a certain combination and saving the rest to work on at home.
This time is not wasted! Since I always have my handy-dandy dancer’s notebook with me at every class or workshop, I use that time for valuable note-taking. There are notes from workshops 10 years ago I still have and reference today that are real treasures to me. Not to mention that while being in the move and trying it on your body is important, so is being able to use your other senses to observe the technical aspects of the dance, such as body line, use of floor space, etc. As a teacher, I can also use this time to observe the way the instructor explains and breaks down the move, and the way she applies corrections, so that if I incorporate these ideas into my own choreographical work I have a better foundation to start from.
2) If it hurts, change it or stop it
Pain is your body’s way of saying something isn’t quite right–respect your body’s message! Yes, there is some natural soreness that comes from breaking down and rebuilding muscle fiber as we gain muscle flexibility and strength. However, if you are dancing and something starts to cramp up, stop. Don’t try to “dance through the pain”. Instead give it a little attention–stretch it gently and simultaneously squeeze or knead the center of the muscle. Don’t jump right back in to dancing, sit out for a minute if you can to allow the blood to flow again and soften and heal the muscle further. if you have a cool water bottle on hand, pressing it against the area for a couple minutes can be a little bit of a help in reducing the ache and trauma to the muscle. And icing this area again when you get home will further help.
If the pain is sharp, STOP! You should not experience sharp pain when dancing. If you understand the move well enough to make a modification to accommodate your body’s needs, do so. If not, ask the instructor. Instructors want to know if you need further help or modifications, so avail yourself of their expertise while you have them there.
3) Start warm, end cool
Warming up for dancing can start at your clothes closet. If it is cold out, bundle up in a warm jacket to get to class. Wear layers to begin class–leg warmers, hoodies, shrugs, and the like are great layering pieces that can be pulled off if necessary once you feel your muscles are warmed and prepared. I myself prefer to keep some of these layers on throughout class to keep my muscles warm and flexible throughout the class, even if it may feel a bit warmer overall than I might prefer.
Make sure you arrive early to class (really, 10-15 minutes early is “on time” in the dance and theater world), so you can take your time getting prepared to dance without rushing, and so you are fully present for the entire warm-up. This pre-class time is a great time to give a little extra attention to any areas of personal soreness or stiffness before the full class warm-up begins.
Remember: warm-up stretches are not about pushing the limits of your flexibility. Stretches are meant to engage the muscles, encouraging increased bloodflow to these areas, and bringing our personal attention inward to the bones, muscles, and tendons that are part of our magnificent physical machine. Unlike the jazzercise-like bouncing stretches of the 80’s so many people associate with the word warm-up, science has proven that simple movement and gentle, static stretching is the best way to help muscles prepare for more intense activity. Take it easy, sink into the warm-up as a meditative ritual which transitions you from your everyday mind and body into your dancer’s mind and body.
After an intensive class or workshop, if the session did not include a cooldown, give yourself a moment to walk out or stretch out before you get in the car. Hydrate. Once home, if you are experiencing areas of soreness, take a cool shower or bath. And remember: R.I.C.E.
4) R.I.C.E. – Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation
RICE is a mnemonic memory aid for the various steps one can take to minimize discomfort and shorten recovery time for strained muscles. Rest prevents further strain to your muscles, and prevents the occurrence of chronic inflammation. Ice helps reduce inflammation and relieves pain. 15 minutes on, 15 minutes off is one recommended rotation. Compression may be helpful for reducing swelling–wrapping with an Ace bandage for instance. But don’t wrap too tight! Blood should still flow easily to the area. And finally, elevation, which is believed to help also reduce inflammation, in addition to aid in waste product removal from the affected area.
5) Reach for a Remedy
Ibuprofen is recognized as one of the best anti-inflammatory pain relievers on the market today. Popping a couple ibuprofens before you start an intensive workshop or practice session can be an excellent preventative measure, followed by a tall glass of water and a couple at the end of your session or day to deal with soreness or swelling from your efforts. In face, some doctors refer to the R.I.C.E. method in the previous step as “H.I.R.I.C.E.”–adding “Hydrate” and “Ibuprofen” to the regimen. If you’re not opposed to over-the-counter drugs, this is an effectinve combination for post-dance treatment.
If pharmaceutical remedies are not your cup of tea, keep your eyes peeled for my upcoming blog post “5 Natural Remedies for Sore Dancers’ Muscles”.