Injury recovery secrets from Joffrey Ballet

April 23, 2013 (CHICAGO)

But how they keep their bodies going isn't magic. It's an approach more of us might consider.

Behind the scenes at Chicago's Joffrey Ballet Company, how do dancers manage injuries? And what, if any, secrets they can pass on to the rest of us?

Part artist, part athlete. They're graceful, yet fiercely muscular and so finely tuned that even the smallest of physical problems can go bad fast.

Dance is usually about extremes. Bones, joints and muscles are pushed to the max. No surprise that the risk of injury is immense: from sprains, fractures, to torn ligaments and more.

"When i was younger, i sprained both my ankles," said Joanna Wozniak, dancer at the Joffrey Ballet.

"I just had an issue with my back for several months," said Joffrey dancer Rory Hohenstein.

Two elite dancers talking about their injuries - a sure sign of the industry's changing attitude, whereas in the past, dancers hid their pain and pushed on.

That, along with better dance equipment and advanced medicine, is partly credited with keeping dancers performing longer.

"A lot of times, dancers now are more vocal about 'I don't want to push myself into the ground,'" said Hohenstein.

Also, dancers at all stages are learning to recognize the warning signs of injury earlier.

"I have a three day rule - if it hurts in the same place for three days, tell someone," said Dr. Craig Westin, orthopedic surgeon at Weiss Memorial Hospital.

Don't ignore what's hurting. Dr. Westin says that is a rule for everyone to embrace - not just dancers. Something else: variety. Don't do the same exercise day after day.

"Our dancers don't do the same move over, and over, and over again; they mix it up," said Dr. Westin. "If you have a variety of an activity you are less likely to have overuse problems."

Strength training is also a first defense against injuries. Everyone's muscles can do more as they age, but you have to work harder to keep them strong and pliant.

"You're perfecting your art, but at the same time, you're like, oh yeah, now I'm really starting to feel that pain, now I'm starting to understand how much harder it gets," said dancer Joanna Wozniak.

In a physical therapy room at the Joffrey tower, specially trained therapists help dancers recover from injuries as well as prevent them.

Chances are you won't find some of the specialized equipment in your neighborhood gym, but you have probably tried or heard of pilates, and dancers say that is the perfect secret exercise weapon.

"It's a lot of strength training, but with lengthening your muscles at the same time, obviously our ballet dancers love that, so those that want the long lean figures that could definitely help out," said Jennifer Janowski, physical therapist at Athletico.

Joffrey's special ongoing medical care is provided by the Vanguard Chicago Center for Orthopedics and Athletico.

The dance company opens its newest production of Othello starting Wednesday at the Auditorium Theatre.

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