Many readers have expressed interest in knowing more about protecting their knees from injury. As a follow-up to Nichelle’s excellent interview with Dr. Craig Westin, I’ve created some pointers for dancers who are concerned about knee pain and/or injury prevention in this important, yet often fragile joint.
Lauren’s quick tips for optimal knee health:
1. Check in on your level of fatigue.
As Dr. Westin pointed out, fatigue means you are building strength, and pain means you are compromising it. In other words, fatigue is a good thing. However, pay attention to signals of fatigue especially during performances and late in the day; this is when most injuries tend to occur. If your alignment is the slightest bit off, fatigued muscles will not support the joint as well and you are more likely to sustain an injury. Be especially diligent about proper landings from jumps and not over-rotating your turnout (which places too much torque on the knee)
2. Care about your environment.
Dancers can be notoriously picky about the floor and temperature of the room. They should be! I talk to a lot of dancers who are rehearsing and/or teaching on linoleum floors or in unheated warehouses. While I’m all about adapting new spaces for dance, hard and/or cold environments take a toll on the body and heighten the risk for injury.
3. Turnout from the hip, not the knee or the foot.
The knee joint is a hinge joint that only moves in two directions: flexion and extension. Dancers tend to be hyperflexible, and unwanted torque, hyperextension, or lateral movement in this joint can lead to serious problems over time. While we often isolate the leg into three components (hip, knee, ankle/foot), where turnout is concerned the leg should move as a unit, initiated by the hip joint.
4. Listen to signals of pain.
It’s been said already that fatigue is a healthy feeling, because it is a sign of building strength. However, fatigue and pain feel different, and while you may be tempted to overlook signs of chronic injury, it’s important to not compromise your future in dance over one rehearsal, performance, or class. If you experience pain in the same area three times in a row, see a physician.
5. Walk like a man (not like a dancer).
You can often spot a dancer on the street by the way they walk… in turnout! Dancers who work in turn-out (even some of the time) have a tendency to lack strength in the hip abductors. Aside from abduction (movement away the midline), these important muscles support the side of the knee joint. Weak abductors can lead to chronic injury. You can strengthen these muscles by performing side leg extensions in parallel, or simply by walking in parallel in your daily life.
Art Intercepts next month:
“Look mom, no hands!” The science of standing up; best practices for better balance.
Lauren Warnecke is a freelance writer and editor, focused on dance and cultural criticism in Chicago and across the Midwest. Lauren is the dance critic for the Chicago Tribune, editor of See Chicago Dance, and founder/editor of Art Intercepts, with bylines in Chicago Magazine, Milwaukee Magazine, St. Louis Magazine and Dance Media publications, among others. Holding degrees in dance and kinesiology, Lauren is an instructor of dance and exercise science at Loyola University Chicago. Read Lauren’s posts.