Adolescence is a time of significant physical and psychological development for the dance student, and is typically coupled with a huge jump in training frequency and intensity. All of these factors combined make the adolescent dancer uniquely susceptible to dance injuries. In fact, injury incidence nearly doubles in 14 to 16-year-old dancers compared to dancers 9 to 13 years old.
At the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, we treat dancers of all ages from amateurs to professionals. Whether your child is dancing in an after-school group or a Broadway show, it’s crucial to remember the top risk factors for injuries in adolescent dancers, and the best ways to prevent dance injuries from occurring.
Risk: Growth spurt
The growth spurt is the most rapid and significant period of physiological development of any person’s life outside of when they’re babies. Adolescents generally experience growth spurts between ages 9–13 for girls and 11–15 for boys. Dance students, both male and female, are typically about two years behind their non-dancer counterparts in the onset of adolescent growth changes. Adolescents can experience growth slowly over a period of one to two years, or they can grow very rapidly over a period of a few months. The rate of this growth can dictate how significantly an adolescent dancer will be affected, both in their dance technique and injury risk.
During any growth spurt, the bones of the body grow first, followed by the surrounding soft tissue, including the muscles and tendons. This can create an internal imbalance in a dancer’s body that can lead to temporary decreases in flexibility, strength, coordination, and balance. These are temporary changes, but they can result in impaired technique and early muscle fatigue, which in turn increases the likelihood of injuries like tendinitis or stress fractures. These changes can also lead to psychological distress in young dancers – they don’t understand that their technique is suffering because of growth changes and can lose confidence in their ability to dance.
Safety tip: Simple activity modifications in class and rehearsal, such as reducing number of jumps, relevés, and other similar moves, can mitigate these issues and allow students to safely participate in dance throughout their growth spurts. Also, explaining to the adolescent dancer that these changes are temporary and due to a growth spurt can help boost their confidence in class.
Risk: Poor nutrition
Proper nutrition is critical in fueling the growing dancer’s body. Research into adolescent dance students has shown tendencies toward insufficient calorie intake and poor nutrition overall. Dance students can burn between 2,500–3,500 calories in a day, but the typical dance student only eats between 1,400–1,800 calories per day. The drive for thinness in dance often overrides common sense in young dancers. Because these adolescents are connected deeply with their identity as dancers, they will sacrifice proper nutrition for the sake of staying thin. This is an unhealthy attitude for all dancers to have, but can be especially damaging for an adolescent dancer whose body has increased nutritional needs for proper growth and development.
Female dancers are especially prone to injuries like stress fractures due to the connection between caloric intake, menstruation, and bone density development.
Safety tip: Adequate calcium intake (1,000–1,500mg/day) as well as getting enough calories (at least 2,500 calories per day) can reduce the likelihood for these types of injuries in female adolescent dancers.
Dance training is rooted in the artistic culture of dance, which means that it does not follow the typical sports model of “in” and “off” season. Dance students often train at high intensity throughout the year and do not have an off season to let their bodies rest and recover from the demands of dance training. Dancers who train at a high intensity for too long are more likely to develop overuse injuries like tendinitis and stress fractures.
Safety tip: Periods of rest and recovery with a focus on cross-training activities instead of dancing are necessary to allow the dancer’s body to recover from the stress of dance training. Yoga and pilates are great activities for building and maintaining muscle strength, plus they are complimentary to dance training. Cardiovascular training—such as bike riding and swimming— is an excellent way to boost endurance while a dancer is on break.
If you have questions about keeping your child safe when dancing, speak to a trained professional.
Alison Deleget, MS, ATC is a certified athletic trainer with over 12 years’ professional experience; 10 years in the performing arts setting at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases. She has presented on adolescent dancer injury risks at national and international dance medicine conferences, and has worked extensively with professional dance companies and Broadway shows providing onsite rehabilitation services. She regularly lectures at dance schools on topics such as injury prevention and injury management.