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Ouch! Tap Dance Injuries

Put a group of professional dancers in a room, and a guaranteed question is “So… how are you feeling?”


It’s no secret that dancers are regularly battling injuries. But sometimes when you’re injured, or feeling out of sorts, you start looking for validation that you’re not the only one who can possibly be experiencing this. And sure enough, you’re not. This blog post features a Q&A session with one of my students and sports injury therapist, Dr. Daria Oller.

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To date, my previous injuries starting with most recent include: broken toe, swollen rotator cuff, dropped bone in the arch of my foot, IT Band Syndrome and a herniated disc. Knock on wood that this list continues to stay short…


My first major injury (herniated disc) brought me to a NYC sports injury facility which features one-stop shopping for Chiropractic, Massage Therapy, Physical Therapy and Acupuncture. For 4 consecutive years I would habitually get injured every July, and every time, they would work out a rehabilitation schedule that fit the needs of the injury and the needs of my career. Depending on the injury, I would typically see them 3-4 days a week for 3-5 weeks as they worked with me to heal, strengthen, release, etc.  At my wits end with these injuries, my Chiropractor told me ‘for every hour you dance, is another hour you need to sit, rest and do nothing’. I was baffled and I’m pretty sure I laughed in his face (after I wanted to slap my PT across the face when they bladed out my IT band… the pain was staggering). As dancers, we’ve been raised to think ‘for every hour you’re not practicing, someone else is, and they’re getting better than you.’ And this man was telling me to Netflix and Chill.


There’s definitely something to his theory though. It’s wild to say that I had to practice the art of relaxation, but it’s true. Like any new habit, it took time to develop and become part of my life’s routine. Now I’m more about preventative care. Of course, accidents happen but for the most part, my preventative approach has been helpful and I successfully broke the spell of my annual July injury (and not another bone).


Changes I’ve made over the years? I only dance on sprung wood floors. I do my best to stretch during and after rehearsals/classes/shows. I receive routine chiropractic adjustments. I get regular sports massages. I wear sneakers majority of the time. I have a healthy diet. I shed my technique to keep strong. I cross train with Muay Thai. And more importantly, I’ve learned to listen to my body and give it what it needs. 


So here we have it… a conversation on tap dance injuries with a doctor who is also a tap dancer. 


HM: What do you think are the most common injuries amongst tap dancers?


Dr. Oller: The ankles are vulnerable to lateral sprains, which is an injury to the ligaments on the outside of the ankle. This is because tap dance requires loose and relaxed ankles, as well as the range of motion to supinate, or turn in, from the ankles to do steps like wings. Because tap dancers are often on the balls of their feet, including when landing jumps like pullbacks, tendinitis can happen to the ankle or knee if a dancer doesn’t have his or her weight in the correct position. If a dancer is not wearing a supportive tap shoe, plantar fasciitis, which is inflammation to connective tissue on the bottom of the foot, can happen from too much stress. And of course, blisters can result from too much friction between the skin and the shoes.


HM: What lifestyle habits do you think potentially lead tap dancers to these injuries? 


Dr. Oller: Many dancers fail to take care of their bodies outside of the studio. Dancers place so much focus on their tap shoes, such as selecting the brand and colors, but they neglect their daily shoe wear. Wearing unsupportive shoes, such as flip-flops, can put extra stress on the feet, ankles, and legs and make them more susceptible to injuries. For dancers who are still growing, they must make sure that their shoes fit well. Wearing shoes that have become too small can prevent you from performing steps correctly. Also, our bodies require sleep to recover from our day, including our dance training. Without enough sleep, it is very difficult for our bodies to get stronger and meet the demands we place on it. A proper diet provides us with the nutrients and energy we need. Not eating well or enough is similar to trying to drive a car without gas.


HM: What lifestyle habits do you feel prevent injury?


Dr. Oller: It’s important to be in tune with your body. Seeing a physician or other health care professional when you are in pain, getting enough sleep at night, and eating a well-balanced diet are the foundation of prevention. Allowing your body to recovery and heal from an injury is crucial for preventing re-injury and new injuries. For example, if you have an ankle sprain which is making it difficult to jump, you may land incorrectly, fall, and as a result injury a different body part. As dancers, we know our bodies well, but we also tend to push our limits. We need rest, both physical and mental, so our bodies and minds are ready for class, rehearsal, and performance. I encourage dancers to do things outside of dance. Spend time with your friends and family, have a hobby, participate in clubs at school or in your community.



HM: What's the worst dance injury you've seen?


Dr. Oller: I recently finished working with a 17-year-old competitive dancer who had knee surgery for an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) rupture when dancing. This injury can be devastating because the recovery time from surgery is so long. A dancer typically is not permitted to begin light jumping exercises in physical therapy until approximately 4 months after surgery. Being able to start taking a full class can take 6 months or longer. I’ve come to appreciate the long-term cumulative effects of injuries over a dancer’s career. There are many older dancers who undergo hip replacement surgery or have chronic back pain. While they may not have had one specific serious injury, the smaller aches and pains that they danced through caught up to them.



HM: Is it possible to truly stay injury free?

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Dr. Oller: Even under the best circumstances of training safely and taking care of your body, injuries can happen. You can take a wrong step, bump into someone, or fall. Injuries are a risk with almost all types of physical actives. However, there is a misconception that injuries, including serious ones, are an unavoidable part of dance. There is also a misconception that injuries indicate that you are training ‘hard’. These ideologies are certainly not sure. There’s a different between training hard and training smart. Training safely significantly decreases that likelihood of an injury. Research indicates that being sleep deprived or not eating well also increase the likelihood for injury. Dancers can be proactive in making good lifestyle choices to decrease their injury risk.


HM: What is an appropriate warm up and cool down routine for a tap dancer?


Dr. Oller: It is very easy for tap dancers to forget the importance of a warm up, since we typically do not move through the large ranges of motion that other dancers do. Movements such as ankle circles, forced arches, and releves help to articulate the feet and warm up all of the joints in the feet and ankles before putting on tap shoes. It is particularly important to activate the muscle at the front of your shin, the tibialis anterior, which is responsible for flexing your foot. Toe drops, toe taps, or flexing your foot against a resistance band are also great. Your warm-up is meant to prepare you for what you will be doing, and should include working through basic isolated movements, such as toe taps, digs, and heels drops, and progressing to more complex steps. Before dancing, dynamic stretching is best, as it is not safe to hold a stretch position when cold. A cool down is as important as a warm-up. You do not want to go from dancing full out to walking out of the studio. At this time, static stretching can be done, since the muscles are warm. Be sure to stretch both muscles in your calf, as either one being tight can cause problems. Calf stretches should be performed with the knees straight for your gastrocnemius muscle and with the knees bent for your soleus muscle. Again, work through foot articulations without your shoes. Foam rolling your leg muscles can be done for a warm-up and a cool down.



HM: What tools can a tap dancer keep in their dance bag and at home to keep them in good shape? 


Dr. Oller: Bandages, second skin, athletic tape, and antibiotic ointment are very important for managing blisters. An instant cold pack can be applied as soon as an injury occurs to control pain and swelling. A foam roller is helpful for addressing muscle tightness and soreness. A lacrosse ball can be used to target and roll out a specific area that is tight. A physioball can be used to strengthen your core muscles and improve your balance at the same time. Resistance bands can be used before class to activate important muscle groups, as well as at home to address areas of weakness. It’s also a good idea to keep healthy snacks with you, to assure you have enough energy to dance. And of course, a water bottle. It’s important to stay hydrated throughout the day.



HM: What are your thoughts on cross training? What would be an appropriate form of cross training for a tap dancer?


Dr. Oller: Everyone can benefit from cross training. Without it, it is easy to develop imbalances with strength and flexibility, which can lead to injury. I encourage tap dancers to take other styles of dance, such as ballet or modern, so they can focus on overall body awareness and placement as well as the quality of their movement. Cardiovascular endurance should be addressed, to allow dancers to take class and perform without becoming overly fatigued. This can be done on a bicycle, an elliptical machine, or taking an aerobics-based fitness class. Because tap dancers place so much impact and force on their legs and feet, low-impact or no-impact cross training, such as yoga, pilates, or swimming, are excellent options. Cross training allows your body to become more efficient and safer when you dance. Though not specifically cross training, dancers should be open to working with a physical therapist or an athletic trainer. They can help to identify areas that are imbalanced or at risk for injury, and teach you how to correct them.


HM: Do you think dance culture has a healthy balance of training and relaxation?


Dr. Oller: As a whole, relaxation is difficult. Some dancers feel as though they must always be doing something dance-related in order to improve. There is a fear of missing out, that not being in class everyday may mean missing an opportunity to further your career. Your body actually needs rest and relaxation to recover to allow you to become a better dancer. Training should have peaks and valleys, meaning sometimes training is very intense and sometimes it’s not. However, at a young age, dancers learn that their peers are their competition. On social media, we often see dancers working hard and performing at their best. These things foster the notion that you must train as hard as you can every single day. At the same time, there are many teachers, choreographers, and directors who appreciate that more training is not necessarily better. They encourage their dancers to train as necessary, but not to over-train. There is a difference between quality and quantity – higher quality training supersedes MORE training. 


HM: Do you think dancers have an appropriate understanding of the needs of their body? 


Dr. Oller: Dancers have a tendency to neglect the needs of their bodies. They know when something doesn’t feel right, but try to “be strong” and push through it. There are set timelines in dance, with upcoming auditions, shows and competitions, so dancers must often adapt the needs of their bodies to that schedule. There is also the desire to keep up with their peers. They can feel pressure to try something that their body isn’t ready to do. I see this often with toe stand tricks in tap dance. There is a saying that “You can’t rush biology.” This means that dancers need to be patient with their bodies, including when growing and developing; making strength, balance and flexibility gains; or healing from an injury. At a young age, dancers may not fully appreciate that, as artists, their bodies are their instruments. They need to take care of their instrument now to promote having a long and healthy career. Unlike a paint brush that may become worn or a guitar string that may snap, we cannot get a new instrument when ours hurts or becomes injured.​​​​​​​


Final thoughts... Tap dance is such a physically demanding art form. We stand for hours on end, beat the hell out of our bodies, get on airplanes, sit hunched over at the computer, etc. Our body is our instrument, and considering we only get one, the best thing we can do is take care of it to our greatest ability.


So ask yourself… are you currently maintaining your instrument to the best of your ability? Please share! Have you ever had an injury? What did your recovery entail? What have you been doing to stay healthy?


About Dr. Daria Oller


Daria Oller, DPT, PT, ATC is a physical therapist and athletic trainer. She works at a private practice outpatient clinic at Foundations Physical Therapy, a private practice outpatient clinic in Bergen County, New Jersey.


Daria Oller earned her Bachelors of Science Degree in Athletic Training at James Madison University in 2006. She earned her Doctorate in Physical Therapy at Seton Hall University in 2010. While in physical therapy school, she worked as an athletic trainer at New York University with the varsity and club sports programs. She then attended Penn State University, in the Ph.D. program in Kinesiology in the Athletic Training/Sport Medicine area of study. Her research area of focus is youth sports injury and illness epidemiology, and her work has been presented at numerous sports medicine conferences and published in several research journals. At Penn State, she served as a preceptor for the undergraduate athletic training students, and assisted with teaching various kinesiology courses. At that time she also taught tap dance classes at the Central Pennsylvania Dance Workshop. She now resides in northern New Jersey. She works at Foundations Physical Therapy, a private practice outpatient clinic in Washington Township, Bergen County, NJ, where she specializes in treating dancers and athletes. She is a member of the #Taplife Company, a tap dance company in New York City, and an apprentice in Lady Grey’s Lovelies, vintage dance company in central Pennsylvania.