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Dancing in distress: the hidden toll on young bodies revealed

Injuries are seriously impacting young dancers, causing a whirlwind of psychological damage at a young age. Elise Harrington reports.

Dancers are often told or have convinced themselves that they can perform through the pain of injury. Sometimes in fear of disappointing their teachers, or being forced to abandon their sport, they will ignore the pain until it becomes excruciating. 

Brianna Thomas has been involved in dance, gymnastics, and calisthenics since she was three, and is one of the many that have experienced an extreme injury but continue to compete.

“I haven’t really had a break. I think I am too scared to stop.” 

She said the first time she experienced a big injury was on stage at 10 after being dropped from a lift. “I dislocated my left hip, and we popped it straight back in once I was backstage.”

Thomas was 15 when she had her second major injury, and the one that will impact her for the rest of her life. 

“I was at my calisthenics stage practice and literally just stretching, and kicked my leg up behind me and suddenly felt a lot of pain. I initially thought I had pulled a muscle so tried to stretch it out. Luckily Gaylene was there, she checked on me and said that not only did my back feel like rock, but I had done something very bad to my hip.”

"There was never a time when I was in perfect health with dance," says Stavroula Lontos. (Photo: Supplied)

Dr Gaylene Mckay, Thomas’ long-term physiotherapist, along with four other medical professionals, conducted a study into calisthenics injuries in Australia and New Zealand. The study found that out of 543 participants, there was a mean of 4.5 injuries per dancer. The article said that as a constantly competitive and evolving sport, “there is potential for ‘new’ or ‘challenging’ movements to be contributing to injury development.” 

“My bone caught under the cartilage in my hip and the only way to fix that is surgically,” Thomas said.

“Within two months, I was in for Osteochondroplasty surgery on my right hip. 

“The recovery was harsh and costly, and I had a lot of guilt for a long time. Learning to walk again is extremely strange. The surgeon told me that it would take me two years to feel somewhat normal, which is an excruciatingly long time for a 15-year-old. I will probably never be able to run again.” 

Thomas said that adults in her life started to comment on her muscle and weight loss during this time. 

“As a dancer I was always aware of my body, but it was never a problem until I injured my hip. I started the year with a hip injury and ended it with an eating disorder. I felt like a burden, and everything was so out of my control with my body. I felt like I was taking up too much space and time and things developed rapidly from there.” 

The DDD Centre for Recovery said that one in eight dancers experienced an eating disorder, and the number has expectedly increased since Covid19.

“I lost my connection and trust with my body and went down a shame spiral. People don’t consider the amount of food your body needs to recover from an injury like that. It took me much long than it should have for my injury to begin to heal.”

A study into the psychological impacts on injuries in athletes found that “injury is often accompanied by depression, tension, anger and low self-esteem, particularly in competitive, seriously injured athletes.” 

It is very frequent for dancers to experience a range of psychological stress, particularly with changes to their body, and expectations of the sport.

"There’s only so much your body can handle," says Ruby Cosgrave (Photo: Supplied)

Ruby Cosgrave has been dancing since she was 13 but became serious about ballet at 16. 

“I started doing multiple classes every day,” she recalls.

"It ended up being nearly 20 hours a week. So much sport at such a young age can be damaging. There’s only so much your body can handle, especially when it's developing.” 

She said that she had consistent problems with her knees and feet, very common injuries in ballet, “they completely limit my ability to perform at my best”. 

“In ballet especially, there is such a high expectation for your body to function very abnormally. The teachers really expect you to have the most flexibility and strength but to also be very small and light and make everything look easy. It really has an impact on how you perceive yourself. You’re constantly being criticised and you’re never really perfect.”

Cosgrave said she had to give up her other sports like netball to maintain and focus on ballet recovery, and careful not to further injure her knees or feet. 

“I am still dancing at a local adult ballet school but only twice a week, with people of all levels. It has been great for my mental health in comparison to competitive dance. I am not in constant competition with myself anymore and it gives me the opportunity to enjoy ballet again.”

An article by Science Direct on safety and health at work said that “professional dancers are at risk of losing contracts or roles if they are injured, and therefore, it is common to dance through their occurrence.” 

The article also revealed that musculoskeletal injuries are not only extremely common but are to be expected by dancers throughout their career. 

Stavroula Lontos had been dancing since she was two, and heavily competing from 14. “Injuries are always part of dancing. I feel like I’ve pulled every muscle possible at this stage and there was never a time when I was in perfect health with dance – I was always sore or slightly injured.”

She had her first major injury at 15, tearing her hip muscle. “I didn’t understand the extent of the injury, and no one could properly diagnose me. I continued to dance and still have hip pain.”

The injury that put Lontos out of dance was a torn ligament in her ankle. 

“The rehab for this injury was intense.” 

She spent the next 12 weeks learning how to walk and run again. “My recovery was difficult. The hardest part wasn’t the pain but acceptance that I couldn’t dance anymore, and I would never be the dancer I was and wanted to be.”

Lontos has found a new perspective during her rehabilitation. “I realised that this recovery and rehab process has taught me so much about myself physically, mentally, and emotionally. I pushed myself to such high limits and defied all odds of me ever getting back on pointe.

“Recovery isn’t linear for everyone. I believe the dance industry has a unique way of approaching injuries and pain. I was told if a muscle is sore to just stretch it– which I know now is a horrible method of rehabilitation.”

All three dancers continue to participate, compete, or teach, with a large understanding of injuries, and how to effectively prevent, and recover.  


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