A Growing Dancer

October 10, 2017

 There’s something that all dancers have to deal with during their dance journeys, and that’s changes in their bodies. However, the common growth spurt that young dancers inevitably face isn’t always openly discussed—it’s often a private conversation between dancers, their instructors, and medical practitioners. So let's talk about it.

 

I began dancing when I was four-years-old.  I grew maybe an inch each year; but between the ages of eight and ten, I had two major growth spurts, sprouting up three inches one year, four inches another. During that time, I had Achilles tendon tension that caused a lot of pain even in my day-to-day activities. It hurt to even walk some days, let alone dance. Unfortunately, I wasn’t at Ballet Society yet so my dance instructor, at the time, didn’t explain what I was going through or advise me to see a physical therapist. I went to my primary doctor who advised me to rest and use a Thera-Band to strengthen and stretch my tight Achilles. Eventually, it did work itself out, but I wish I had the appropriate resources, dance professionals, and physical therapists that could have made that transition in my life easier.

 

So, what exactly happens to dancers’ growing bodies?

  • There is a sudden increase in height and decreases in muscle strength

  • Arms and legs grow faster than the torso

    • These bones do not grow symmetrically—which means legs (or arms) can be temporarily different lengths.

  • In the spine, the rib cage area grows at a faster rate than the lower back or neck

  • Ligaments and muscles often do not grow at the same pace as bones and as a result can become short and tight—which means a dancer will temporarily lose their flexibility

  • Growth plates (where the bone is new) become fragile and vulnerable to injury

 

During the growth spurt, the dancer may experience the following:

  • Fluctuations in their coordination and balance

  • Decrease in technical skill and control

  • Decrease in strength and flexibility which generally means lower extensions

  • The increased length of the legs, in respect to the spine, tests the dancer’s ability to maintain their proper alignment in regards to the pelvis and torso.

  • Loss of endurance and stamina—combinations, classes, and rehearsals can cause dancers to feel more fatigued than before

  • Loss of motor control--which is why dancers become clumsy, especially in their day-to-day lives—tripping over themselves and running into inanimate objects.

  • Decreased self-awareness of their body

  • Dancers may experience a loss of confidence in their dancing ability and a decrease in self-esteem due to being unable to perform at a level that was previously taken for granted.

 

As technical control decreases, the risk of injury increases. Some of the more common injuries that can occur are:

  • Strained muscles, such as hamstrings, due to the muscles becoming short and tight

  • Achilles tendon problems

  • Knee pain

  • Problems in the hips

  • Shin splints or tibia stress fractures

 

What can parents and dancers do to help make this a smoother change?

  • Dancers should be reassured that this is a temporary state and that their previous ability will return once their body has begun to catch up with the growth rate.

  • Dancers also must understand the time frame of a growth spurt is different for everyone. It comes at different ages and the process can last a year or more, but everyone goes through it.

  • This can be a time for technical understanding, artistry enhancement, or working on individual needs.

  • Encourage dancers to focus on developing their core strength in order to increase their stability and control.

  • Stretching will counteract tightness felt in the hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, gluteal muscles, and hip flexors.

  • Dancers can visit their physical therapists who can design preventative and personal exercise programs to help prevent injury and allow the dancer to be proactive during their growth spurt.

 

Ballet Society not only has a physical therapist, Joe McCaleb, who comes in once a month, but they have classes such as Conditioning, Stretch, and Progressing Ballet Technique that will help dancers cross-train, lessen their risk for injury, and become strong, well-rounded artists. The instructors, physical therapist, and director work collaboratively with one another to establish a team approach for each student.  I wish I had had these resources while I went through my initial adolescent growth spurt. All I can say is take advantage of this amazing studio and talk openly with your instructors if you feel aches or pains, experience a lack of control, or are just finding dance harder than it once had been. It also never hurts to talk with the older dancers that you admire—they’ve gone through it too and would be happy to share their experiences with you.

 

You are not alone in this journey!

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