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.
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)
- 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)
- 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.