Taking Care of Your Body for Lindy Hoppers

Lindy hop is a very athletic dance. We dance our best and have long nights of social dancing when our bodies are at their peak performance levels. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of standards and guidelines that teach us how to best take care of ourselves. It’s the nature of our dance, a creation from the street with more emphasis on the social aspects. By taking better care of our muscles, joints, and diet, we can become stronger individuals and better partner dancers.

This blog post is an accumulation of what I have discovered while managing my ankle injury for the last 8 months. The content of this post is largely based on the treatments I’ve received from the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries and an acupuncturist. I want to pass along this knowledge so that we can take better care of ourselves.

Since the injury, I’ve figured out that when my body is tired, my alignment is the first thing compromised. One and a half hours of aerials practice is enough for me; when I pushed to 2 hours, I landed badly and instantly injured my right ankle. I should have seen a doctor right away. It’s easy to feel invincible when we dance every day. I thought that I could take care of myself and that it was simply a sprain. Since visiting multiple doctors, I’ve been diagnosed with a bone bruise, swelling in my ankle joint, and tendonitis. I probably picked up the tendonitis from continuing to dance on my injury, thinking it was getting better before I would push too hard and feel pain again. After my diagnosis in December, I began 3 months of extensive physical therapy. It’s really important to find a physical therapist that works with dancers or athletes. My first experience with a PT was alright, but not very specific to what I needed. In January, I sought out more specific help and found Harkness. They are amazing. I’ve become stronger, more flexible, and more aware…but I still have pain. After seeing Dr. Rose, the orthopedic specialist at Harkness, I’ve finally been diagnosed with anterior ankle impingement, which is a build up of scar tissue from multiple trauma wounds. On March 27th, I had minor arthroscopic surgery to remove the scar tissue and finally ease my body of the pinching pain I feel when I bend my ankle. During surgery, Dr. Rose found a bone spur on my talus bone that needed to be shaved down. Recovery is pretty quick for arthroscopic procedures but I still was unable to leave my apartment for six days. Now, I have 6-12 more weeks of PT at Harkness, rebuilding my range of motion, strength, and stability.

I’m continually trying to remind myself of the things I’ve learned and all the investment I’ve put into my own body. I intend to continue most of these exercises and practices so that I can prevent any future injuries from occurring. I encourage you to use this as a guide to learn more about your own body mechanics, enabling yourself to be a better and healthier dancer.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or nutritionist. Any suggestions below you engage in at your own risk. I strongly recommends that you consult with a specialist before beginning any program. See a podiatrist or a PT that specialized in dancers for preventative care. With any exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury.

The importance of alignment

If you have any pain or aches in your ankles, knees, or lower back, it’s probably related to your alignment. Our bodies are built to move a specific way. When we have muscle imbalances, injuries, or tightness, our bodies compensate in all of our daily movements, promoting soreness, stiffness, and bad alignment. We become prone to acute and long-term injury when our bones do not line up properly (ESPECIALLY doing aerials and high impact dancing during an event). First, we need to build awareness of how our bodies are currently moving, then promote good alignment and retrain our neural pathways to move with good technique through specific exercises.

Stand up straight in front of a mirror with your feet in parallel, about 6-8 inches apart. Bend your knees and notice if your knees fall directly in front of your ankles or if they bend inward or outward. They should be bending directly over and the muscles in front of the ankles should be relaxed. Next, turn your body sideways (perpendicular to the mirror). Notice the alignment of your shoulders, hips, knees, and heels. If you have good posture, these should be in one line.

We can train our bodies to have good alignment. A great exercise is to practice standing on one leg and bending your knee over you ankle (plié), while keeping your hips and back straight. This video is similar to what I would do. Do this in front of a mirror to avoid looking down. I do this with my legs in parallel to promote my knees bending directly over my ankles (building the muscles in my thighs and buttocks). When I do this exercise, I do not move into a toe-press (or relevé).

To prevent your hips from tilting (which is very bad for your posture and back), do the above exercise with a large rubber ball (about the size of a cantaloupe or basketball) pressed between your hips and a wall. Lift the leg closest to the wall and do the parallel plies on the leg furthest from the wall.

Another way to train good posture and promote better landing techniques is to prance. Prancing involves practicing the smooth movement of your foot striking the floor from the ball, through the heel, through the knee and then pushing off with the reverse movement. Do this in front of a mirror to check for good alignment.

We can also practice our jump landings with more added power. The video below demonstrates good body posture for safe landings. I urge you to practice this in front of a mirror, but perhaps make your jumps smaller until you have built up your muscles to enable good alignment.

More interesting reading here and here.

Proprioception and better balance

Proprioception is such a fancy word. I had never heard of it until my PT said that I have very bad proprioception. Proprioception is our body’s sense of self in space. This useful word and it’s definition can have a large impact on our ability to move with agility and ease. It helps our partner dancing free arm “look nice” without having to actively think about its place in space. Our body can more easily stop and change directions without becoming wobbly and off-center. When we increase our proprioception, we build our skills for balance and stability. For more in depth reading, click here and here.

How do we gain proprioception? There are a few simple exercises that do not require wobble board equipment or other fancy tools. While barefoot, try balancing on one leg for 30 seconds, crossing your arms over your chest. Easy, right? Now do this with you eyes closed. It’s deceptively difficult. Do this 5 times on each leg, every day. When you can do this with your eyes closed for 30 seconds, do the same exercise while standing on a pillow. The unstable surface will be more difficult to find your sense of self.

I’ve personally used the above proprioception exercises every day for the last month and a half. I feel much more stable and I’ve built up the muscles in my legs. Since improving my sense of my body’s location in space, I feel that I have the ability to take more ownership of my balance when dancing with a partner.

Pronation and supination

I used to think it was normal that my legs were always sore and achey after walking a lot. I never realized how much work my body was doing to complete a simple task such as walking. It’s NOT normal to feel soreness from normal activities. I never knew that until I was told I pronate my ankles.

Over pronation is the tendency of the foot to roll inward while walking, collapsing the arch and placing strain on the ankle joint. Over supination is the opposite; the foot rolls too far outward, placing most of the force on the outside edge of the foot. Over pronation is much more common than over supination. About 70 percent of the population live with one of these conditions. Many are left untreated and undiagnosed. Sometimes these conditions are hereditary and other times they are caused by injuries. Both conditions put a lot of stress on the muscles and tendons of the ankle joints, leaving us prone to tight muscles and injury. Read some more about diagnosis, treatment, and possible injuries here, here, and here.

Now, I have a special insole that puts a wedge under my first metatarsal and phalange (big toe), properly lining up my bones (a huge thank you to Debbie Moran for diagnosing me and fitting the insoles). I’ve never felt so at ease in daily tasks and balanced while dancing. Since December, my life really has improved due to wearing these insoles.

(Side note: I now have reason to believe that my original injury was in part caused by undiagnosed and untreated over pronation. This also helps explain why I have always struggled with my balance and proprioception.)

Strengthen your feet

Most dancers with classical training backgrounds know the importance of their feet. As lindy hoppers, we usually dance in very supportive shoes, which leads to a neglect of how we treat our feet. When we wear shoes, we encourage the smaller muscles in our feet to atrophy, causing our larger muscles to over compensate. This creates imbalances in our muscle groups and we develop tension and fascial knots. Having strong foot muscles helps prevent injury, knee and lower back pain, and promotes better posture and balance. I’m going to share a few exercises that are all done barefoot. These are all specifically for dancers and the muscles we need to promote natural movement.

Toe curls with a towels help build the muscles in the bottom of your foot. While sitting in a chair, place your feet flat on the floor on the edge of a towel. Crunch the towel between your toes to gather it together.

Once this is easy, place weights on the towel in 1 pound increments. More detailed explanation here.

Build up your arch muscles by practicing doming, which is a controlled and isolated engagement of the arch of the foot.

For more information and exercise ideas, visit here and here.

Here’s another great video with some more challenging exercises:

It takes time to build up and rebalance your muscles. Be patient with yourself if everything is difficult at first. Over time, these will all become easier.

Incorporate self-massage

There are a few ways that we can take care of ourselves through self-massage. When we dance, we create tightness and trigger points (also known as knots) in our muscles. Pre- or post-dancing, it’s great to incorporate muscle release into our weekly routines. Releasing our trigger points helps to correct imbalances, increase our range of motion, promote blood circulation, and breaks up scar tissue.

Foam rolling is one type of self-myofascial release (SMR) technique. You’ll need to buy or borrow a foam roller (there are many different types easily found online or at a sporting goods store). This can be a bit uncomfortable or painful at first, since we are applying pressure on our muscles. More on foam rolling here.

Some beginner level foam rolling exercises on this website.

I like the great infographics featured on this website.

A tennis ball (or other similar type of ball) is another great tool for releasing trigger points and tight muscles. It’s a great self-treatment for your calves, buttocks, lower back, chest muscles, and hips. Some more interesting reading here.

A golf ball can do wonders for releasing the muscles in your feet. Start at the ball of your foot and roll to your heel, paying special attention to your arches. A frozen golf ball feels great for your aching feet (hello balboa weekends).

This website has a great overview of all the forms of SMR. I really like all the photos showing the techniques. You can do these exercises with other equipment as well (tennis ball, 2 tennis balls taped together, golf ball, other type of foam roller).

Anti-inflammatory diet and supplements

I did some work with an acupuncturist and they recommended that I try an anti-inflammatory diet. I’ve been tying this out for the last two months and it really does work. I’ve learned that my big triggers for inflammation are refined sugar, dairy, fried foods, and processed foods. I was very strict with my diet for a month and then I took a cheat weekend. That whole weekend, my ankle was extremely sore, the same feeling I had before I limited my diet.

What is the anti-inflammatory diet and why is is helpful? Inflammation is usually our body’s response to stress; chronic stress and inflammation can lead to a host of health problems including heart disease and cancer. Certain foods cause our bodies to react in a pro-inflammatory way. Other foods promote our body’s natural anti-inflammatory responses. This diet is not promoted for weight loss; rather, it’s a great way to give your body the nutrition it needs to maintain optimum health. There are many interpretations of this diet, but the guidelines below are what I follow.

Pro-inflammatory foods to avoid

  • Cow dairy (butter, cheese, milk, etc)
  • Refined and added sugar (sugar takes a lot of form, most of them are processed and very bad for our bodies)
  • Nightshade family (eggplant, tomato, peppers, white potato)
  • Extremely oily or fried foods
  • Processed foods
  • White or refined flour
  • Gluten (for some people, I personally can eat gluten)
  • Caffeine (I still drink coffee, but I’ve been limiting my my daily intake…)
  • Alcohol (Again, I still drink this, but in much smaller quantities and much less often)
  • High fat meals
  • Saturated fats (vegetable oil, canola oil, any hydrogenated oil)

Anti-inflammatory foods

  • Lots of fruits and vegetables
  • Fiber rich complex carbohydrates (such as sprouted breads, brown rice, and quinoa)
  • Raw nuts
  • Sweeteners in limited amounts (maple syrup, raw honey, agave, stevia)
  • Lean protein (chicken, turkey, organic tofu, wild fish, limited amounts of red meat)
  • Beans
  • Spices (ginger, turmeric, cinnamon)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil

Turmeric is a great anti-inflammatory spice. An easy and tasty way to eat more turmeric is make a simple turmeric tea. My favorite recipe for this is on 101 Cookbooks.

No sugar added, 100% pure tart cherry juice also has amazing anti-inflammatory properties. I drink one small cup of this a day.

When I’m at home, I drink warm lemon water each morning. When I wake up, the first thing I do is fresh squeeze a lemon into a glass and add about 8 ounces of warm water. It perks me up (which helps me drink less coffee) and the boost of extra vitamin C pumps up my immune system. Lemon water can also help decrease inflammation by reducing the amount of uric acid in our joints. It also has the added benefit of acting as a mini cleanse by helping the liver increase enzymes.

In addition to a better diet, a few basic supplements can really help our bodies build muscle, burn fat, and feel good. We want to make sure that we are eating as much cleanly sourced and organic foods at possible. Better sources will have vitamins and nutrients that are more readily available for absorption into the body. You really are what you eat!

Our body craves omega 3s. These have been linked to lower risk of heart disease, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and benefit our brain function and joint movement. Unless you eat a lot of oily fish (such as salmon), flax seeds, and walnuts, it’s a good idea to take a fish oil supplement, which is chock full of wonderful omega 3s. Make sure that you get one from a wild and cold pressed source for maximum nutritional value.

Coconut oil is a really great fat that is beneficial in your daily diet. It contains a large amount of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which is a good-for-you fatty acid. It’s easily absorbed in the digestive tract and provides a quick and clean energy source. Coconut oil also has a healthy amount of lauric acid; studies have shown this helps protect our guts by killing pathogenic bacteria. The calories it burn cleanly in your body and are non insulin spiking. It can be used for cooking or added to any other food. I eat this by the spoonful, stir it in oatmeal, spread it on bread, and add it to my meals. The best coconut oil is whole kernel, unrefined, virgin, organic, and non-hydrogenated.

Get a good multivitamin from an organic and naturally derived source. It’s amazing how many essential nutrients we don’t get if our diets are not perfectly balanced. I also take calcium citrate with vitamin D. The vitamin D help your body absorb calcium, burn fat, and promotes good mental health.

Protein is really important for our body to build muscle and repair itself. Make sure to eat a lot of lean protein from organic, free-range, wild caught (for seafood) sources. Protein powder or shakes can be a great supplement, but be careful that you choose one that is not laced full of sugar. My favorite sugar free, gluten free, vegan protein shake is the Sun Warrior brand.

I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist. Please use these tips at your discretion. These are some tools and guidelines to begin your journey of feeling like the best version of yourself. I urge everyone to get more in touch with their own body not only to prevent injuries but to also unlock the potential we all hold inside of ourselves.

Do you have anything that has been particularly helpful for you? Leave a comment below.

25 Comments
  • Cressida
    Reply

    Dear Lainey,

    I had no idea you had been suffering so much during the last year -or I would have said something when we met in the elevator at YSBD the other evening. You always look so wonderful and dance so beautifully and with such enthusiasm and energy. I am so sorry to hear about your troubles and imminent surgery. ( I don’t look at FB very often and only saw your post this evening by chance.)

    I just wanted to say, first, the article you and Dan have written is a huge gift to the Lindy Hop community and I have no doubt that it will be enormously appreciated. Thank you so much for bringing all that invaluable information together. Second, having been treated several times at the Harkness Dance Injuries Center (sesamoid fracture, arthritis etc), I am one their biggest fans (of both of their physical therapists and Dr. Rose) as many of my dancer friends will tell you. I discovered them accidentally when I came across the advertisement online for their dance injuries prevention session, and have recommended them to dancers numerous times. Finally, I wanted to wish you the very best of luck with the surgery. I do hope it is not too traumatic, either physically or psychologically. If you are at Harkness, you could not be in better hands and I’m sure you will get through it all with flying colors.
    With all good wishes
    Fondly, Cressida

    March 25, 2015 at 11:14 pm
  • Daniel Newsome
    Reply

    Thanks for the comments. Just to be clear, this article was 100% authored by Lainey.

    March 26, 2015 at 12:29 am
  • ginahelfrich
    Reply

    This is such great information, Lainey! Thank you for sharing it with the community. I wrote a post a while ago talking about what a massive improvement I experienced in my dancing once I decided to start building my muscle strength through weight lifting. I think building muscle is an important complementary aspect to injury prevention along with the ideas you list here.

    http://dancewithgina.com/2013/06/01/how-i-fixed-my-knee-problems-and-accidentally-got-in-the-best-shape-of-my-adult-life/

    March 26, 2015 at 3:22 pm
  • Duncan Stuart
    Reply

    Fantastic article!

    There’s a Facebook group where Lindy Hoppers discuss and share ideas about preventing and dealing with injuries – it would be great if you wanted to be involved with that: https://www.facebook.com/groups/387194701353549/

    March 27, 2015 at 8:39 am
  • Duncan Stuart
    Reply

    Hi – Fantastic article.

    There’s a Facebook group where Lindy Hoppers share things like this around preventing and dealing with injuries – it would be great if you wanted to be involved. I tried to add a link to the group, but I think it got marked as spam. It’s called “I don’t want dancing to f**k my knees/back/ankles”

    All the best

    March 27, 2015 at 8:53 am
  • alex
    Reply

    thank you for giving us such a concise, well written article Lainey! I have really enjoyed it! As a registered nurse who spends 12 hours a day walking on concrete and THEN goes dancing, there is a lot here for me!

    have you considered summarizing this material into a small published book – “the lindy hoppers foot care bible”? It would be nice to have in hard copy!

    hope the healing goes well, love your dancing!

    alex

    March 27, 2015 at 11:55 am
  • Cara B
    Reply

    Thank you, in particular for the useful links and raising awareness. I studied exercise for a while and this is a great guide, but I do think you should warn people to not undertake specific ‘physiotherapy’ exercises without seeing a physio. As you noted, alignment and protection is all about balance and about getting the small muscles firing and strong and not letting the big muscles overcompensate. Self-diagnosis can backfire. A student thinks “The hip muscles help keep the knee in alignment and this exercise helps build the hip muscles” and they start doing loads of hip exercises which emphasise the parts of the hip that are already strong and ignore the ones that aren’t or start working the hip without working other important muscles (ie VMO). I highly recommend all dancers (aka ATHLETES) see a physio for 1 or 2 sessions TO PREVENT INJURY before it happens. A physio can look at their alignment – especially the knees – and identify areas of weakness and exercises that will help them specifically strengthen thse areas and avoid injury. An out-of-pocket physio should cost between $50-100, but most insurance plans cover physio with a co-pay. Just say you have knee pain. You would pay $100 for a day of lessons, so pay a bit to learn about your body, protect it, and keep on dancing.

    March 27, 2015 at 4:47 pm
  • Rebecca
    Reply

    This is wonderful. I’ve learned from my own injuries that bodily alignments are key, and misalignment was probably responsible for most of the months/years of pain I have endured while dancing and just attempting to live every day. So I really appreciate your emphasis on the root causes of injuries – alignments, poor body mechanics, etc.

    March 28, 2015 at 2:41 pm
  • Graham Henning
    Reply

    Good luck with your op, keep believing it is only a step towards achieving your goals. I ruptured my achilles doing a lindy rock step. The subsequent operation and healing process has really taught me to dance light and controlled and have so much consideration for my partner and other dancers. The time you will be watching others dance from the sidelines will make you more determined to never be injured again. Best wishes from Hull, UK

    April 1, 2015 at 2:05 am
  • Nancy
    Reply

    Hi Lainey, thank you so, SO much for this super helpful article! I’m writing from Beijing, China and several of our dancers have knee problems but still want to keep dancing. None of us are professionals and are at a loss on how to help our friends besides telling them to stretch and wear the right shoes. Your article will be amazingly helpful. Could we translate this article into Chinese and send it to all the Chinese swing dancers?

    I’m so glad I found your article!
    Nancy

    April 1, 2015 at 2:08 am
  • rik
    Reply

    Really great and comprehensive post! Thanks for preparing this.

    FYI, I just posted a set of health tips for lindy hoppers from four fitness professionals. Check it out here: http://yehoodi.com/comment/176750/health-and-lindy-tips-from-4-f/ . We also linked back to this post.

    April 1, 2015 at 2:38 pm
  • Jessica
    Reply

    This is a really great article and resource, Lainey – thank you. It is spot on! I also over pronate my right foot/ankle and have for the majority of my life, and it has led to slight functional misalignment of my hips/sacrum (and back pain). This in turn has contributed to my IT band pulling my kneecap out of alignment on the LEFT side. Who’d have thought?? I’m glad I didn’t try to self diagnose but instead found an amazing physical therapist to help me figure it out. Strength, balance/alignment, and flexibility exercises are so incredibly important for dancers to maintain our bodies so that we can continue dancing and don’t become disabled. In addition to my PT, I also hired a personal trainer (who is also a yoga teacher and professional dancer). Our strength-training sessions have made my knees more stable and greatly reduced my back pain. Thanks for putting this together – it is great reminder!

    April 2, 2015 at 4:09 pm
  • Julia Sheehy
    Reply

    This is truly a gift! THANK YOU for the considerable and careful effort you put into this. I am very grateful for this information and will be sharing your site with many other Swing Dancers.

    April 4, 2015 at 5:35 pm
  • Nina
    Reply

    Thus a great post! Thanks for sharing what you’ve learned about proper body care – I’m definitely going to add some of these exercises to my daily stretch/self-management regimen! I’m a registered dietitian nutritionist, so I wanted to add my 2-cents on a couple things you said about your diet.

    1) Gluten is not bad for you (I know you specified that you do eat it). Gluten-intolerance is mostly self-diagnosed from symptoms that can come from many different problem foods. Example: a lot of people say they feel less tired when they don’t eat gluten. What else has changed in the diet with the removal of gluten? No gluten probably means less grain foods, which often means adding more fruits and veggies instead, and those have vitamins and minerals. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies also make you pretty sleepy as you need these nutrients to use the energy you get from carbs, fats, and proteins.

    2) Canola oil doesn’t have a lot of saturated fats in it. Coconut oil does. With the exception of the specifically named “vegetable oil,” the general rule of thumb is solid (at room temp) fats = saturated, liquid (at room temp) fats = unsaturated. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever use coconut oil, because it does have some great nutritional benefits. Just to use with moderation due to saturated fat content.

    3) THANK YOU for stressing the avoidance of processed foods! Eat whole foods! Fruits and veggies! Make a rainbow with your plate! Your body will thank you! Oh and drink water, peeps. Lots of water.

    April 6, 2015 at 3:14 pm

Post a Comment
Cancel Reply