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Our Responsibilities to Youth Dancers: Chapter 2 - Protecting their bodies

I have been quiet for far too long and I would like to start spreading the word about youth dancers and how we, as educators, need to be more accountable for their training as well as keeping them safe; both their bodies and their spirits.

This series will touch on many different aspects about youth dancers in our dance world; mostly today’s competition world. It is my hope that it opens eyes to many dance instructors everywhere as well as the parents of these youth dancers.

All dancers look to their teachers for guidance as far as education, direction and as role models for so much more than just dance. Parents of dancers also look to their teachers for these things especially if they have had no prior experience with dance, they will trust the teacher to lead them to success. Sometimes the success is only seen as immediate competition success instead of thinking of long term success with the dancer, not only as a dancer but as a happy, healthy young human being.

Youth dancers, ages 12 and under, are of special importance as we are creating their foundations as dancers and young people. Our job is to train them as dancers while also preserving their childhood. Young dancers should be allowed to be young and we, as adults in their lives, are the ones responsible for maintaining that status for them.

Protecting their Bodies

The fads of dance are consistently changing and the trends have led us to a place where we expect dancers to be more and more flexible as well as doing insane tricks that put so much pressure on their little bodies.

I have seen too many online videos of teachers that are forcing kid’s bodies into poses and pushing flexibility in an unhealthy way. I am worried that many teachers, sometimes it seems like mostly young teachers, do not have the education about anatomy and injury prevention. We need to understand their bodies and know that things that we do to their bodies now for short term success can lead to long term issues with their muscles and joints.

Injury prevention is really important to me and all the teachers at my studio and it should be important to ALL teachers everywhere. Please take the time to learn about the proper way to warm up your dancers, the proper way to stretch and knowing each individuals limits. Some bodies are never going to be able to a scorpion and some rare bodies are able to do it naturally. A lot of flexibility, especially in the joints, has to do with our skeleton and we can’t change our bones! We can only lengthen muscles and it’s a very cautious thing to do as we need to not stretch the ligaments!! Speaking of a scorpion move… ask any professional dancer how often they have to do that move. Most will say NEVER!! It’s really just a move that is mostly used in competitive dance. Is that really worth sacrificing their bodies for the future?

I don’t know about you, but I want my young dancers to fall in love with dance and to dance forever! I don’t want them to have a major injury at 12 years old because of what their body was forced to do since they were 7 years old. I want them to dance until they choose not to, not because they were forced to quit because of an injury. Let’s really think of their longevity, learn about their bodies (teach THEM about their bodies) and do the right thing for them in the long run.

The major fad right now is and we have not yet seen a generation, until now, that has obsessed this much with overstretching at such a young age!! I am honestly scared for generation that we are producing and their safety in the future. Yes, there will be some very flexible dancers at competition and some might even beat my dancers who are not doing crazy flexible things (instead they are actually dancing rather than just showing poses and doing tricks… but this topic is for another future blog LOL.) However, will the really flexible young dancers be dancing into their teen years and better yet will they be walking and moving without pain as an adult?? We, as dance educators, need to ask these questions of ourselves when we are making choices about what we are asking them to force their bodies to do.

Micro injuries are real! Young dancers seem and feel invincible! A young dancer can do a knee drop to the floor and not have any immediate pain. The lack of feeling pain does not mean that it’s an safe choice for their bodies. Little injuries occur every time we do something for our body that is not safe. Micro injuries will add up over time, become more and more noticeable and eventually turn into a major injury if we continue putting the same pressure on our bodies. So the moral is to not use your young dancer’s pain threshold as a monitor, instead use your knowledge. Knowledge is power!

The closest thing that we can compare this overstretching trend to is rhythmic gymnastics. If you take the time to look for it, research exists about what overstretching has done to their joints over time as well as the injuries it creates. I think rhythmic gymnastics is awesome but their careers are short and they do have issues with their joints as young adults. Some of the most shocking research I have seen were of actual x-rays where the femoral head was forced to carve into the hip socket and deform the joint to allow for overstretching. While this might allow for short term outcomes, the long term pain and stress to the body is actually very serious.

I’m not saying to not work on flexibility at all as a dancer does need flexibility. I’m just saying to do it in a safe way, be educated about it and to maybe ask ourselves why we need to be so extreme about their flexibility? We, as their teachers, are who they are looking to for education and protection. They are trusting us. We need to take our responsibility seriously and do all we can to do right by them.

So dance teachers, please learn more about the body before you start doing insane stretches with our dancers. Don’t follow the trends because I assure you when lots of young dancers are needing to get major joint surgery in the future, many people will start re-thinking overstretching and this ‘trend’ will die… or at least I hope! Let’s educate ourselves and protect their bodies. Thank you for reading!!

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