Doctoring the dancers

  • Medill News Service
  • May 10, 2006 @ 12:03 PM
Deep in the bowels of the Auditorium Theatre, in a little, windowless room brightened by yellow paint, Julie O'Connell, a Chicago physical therapist, held the leg of a Joffrey Ballet dancer lying on her side on a table.

"Exhale, release, inhale," she said as she moved the leg down and then up.

On Saturday afternoon, an hour before practice, O'Connell tended to the dancers' aches and injuries -- as she or her colleagues do before every practice. During the company's run of "Cool Vibrations," which ended Saturday night, they also waited in the room the same way they wait on the sidelines of a game.

"Backstage we don't have [replacement] dancers in costumes ready and waiting in case an injury occurs, the way you do in athletics," O'Connell said.

O'Connell works for AthletiCo, a local provider of outpatient orthopedic rehabilitation, which contracts with the Joffrey and other professional dance companies. The AthletiCo dance therapists have other patients, including professional athletes.

Increasingly professional dance companies are contracting with physical therapists and athletic trainers. The field of dance physical therapy is relatively new, but professionals are stepping up to meet the needs of dancers -- an athlete/artist hybrid. Like in a game, injuries can, and do, happen during a performance.

Donna Williams, another AthletiCo physical therapist, tells the story about a dancer at a River North performance who broke his foot. Williams said despite the injury he finished the piece. She thinks it didn't even occur to him to do anything else.

"He didn't really think it was anything special that he finished it," she said.

"It's kind of ridiculous," Williams said. "It doesn't even enter their mind."

The Joffrey's "Cool Vibrations" show, combining ballet and modern dance to pop music, took a pounding on the dancers. This was apparent on Thursday in the airier space of Joffrey's 17 N. State St. studio.

"This week you guys have been so beat up," Jennifer Janowski, an AthletiCo physical therapist, said to the dancers while attending to one's back.

Dancers flowed in and out of the therapy room. Some tended to their own pains, taping ankles and stretching; others just chit-chatted.

Another dancer took the therapy table.

"It could be the adrenaline was getting me through the weekend," Matthew Adamczyk said to Janowski as he explained his injury. Janowski, who has danced all her life, said adrenaline often pushes dancers to drive themselves to their physical limits. The therapists are there to deal with, and prevent, these injuries.

"We work with them closely," Janowski said later. "We know everybody's body pretty well."

Dance physical therapy is a relatively new concept. Sean Gallagher, a New York City physical therapist who works with Hubbard Street on tour, was once a dancer. He said when he was injured he discovered that medical practitioners didn't understand the issues performers face.

"They didn't know what they were talking about 25 years ago," Gallagher said. "Nobody did."

Since 1988, Gallagher and his Performing Arts Physical Therapy center have worked with more than 75 Broadway productions. Both AthletiCo and Gallagher started working with Chicago dance companies around 1995.

Although dance physical therapists and athletic trainers are emerging, most learn how to work with dancers on the job, not while in school.

One exception is Ricky Morant, an assistant athletic trainer for the Ohio State Sports Medicine Center, which has connections to the OSU dance department and the BalletMet Columbus. Last year, he received his Masters in Dance Science at Laban, a London, England, dance school. The program is one of a few in the world specializing in dance injuries.

"It's just becoming realized there's a market for dance injuries," Morant said.

He said dancers are a special kind of athlete.

"The dancer has to do the 100-meter dash fast, and make it look good," Morant said.

Morant, who studied dance, said he likes to work with dancers.

"It lets me stay in the dance world," Morant said.

Gallagher has worked with Northwestern University physical therapy students at his clinic, but only accepts former dancers. Gallagher said these students can empathize with injured dancers who can't perform.

"Everything they [the patients] do and think is about being a dancer," Gallagher said. "If you've been dancer you understand that."

Although former dancers make good dance therapists, so do dancers' mothers. Williams is not only a physical therapist for Hubbard Street, but the mother of company dancer Robyn Mineko Williams.

"It makes me nervous to watch," Williams said. She isn't only nervous for her daughter, but the other performers as well. "I have mom things going on with all the dancers," Williams said. "It's hard for me to watch the performance." Williams said she knows what moves hurt the dancers.

Most dancers' injuries are in the ankle, hip, foot and back. Many dancers don't have health insurance. The insurance they do have often doesn't cover their needs to get back to performance level. Some get worker's comp, but not all.

Despite injuries, dancers are often driven to get back to work.

"They don't like to rest, for many different reasons," Williams said.

For some, it's the drive to keep a key role.

"There's always the fear that the replacement dancer has been able to secure the lead role," O'Connell said.

For others it's about doing what they love. Gallagher said dancers are used to the endorphins. A rest can be as painful as the injury itself.

"Psychologically, it's traumatizing. They go into withdrawal," Gallagher said.

All of this can mean that dancers aren't always completely healed when they take stage.

"We try to get them through what they need to get through," Morant said.

Back in the Joffrey studio, dancer Jennifer Goodman dealt with a painful back injury that kept her out of practice for days.

"I'll be able to dance, but I'll be in pain," Jennifer Goodman said to Janowski. None of her pain was apparent on Friday when she took the stage. In her "Motown Suite" number, she sassily flicked across stage.

"If the audience can't tell, we've done our job right," O'Connell said.