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Preventing Dance Injuries: Part 3: Avoiding Injury to the Foot and Ankle

Preventing Dance Injuries: Part 3: Avoiding Injury to the Foot and Ankle

Dancer's Legs Author: Paul F. Clifford

Most of the moves you will perform in Latin Street Dances such as Salsa, Mambo, Cha-Cha and Ceroc are fairly tame and won't put extreme pressure on the body. However, there are some common moves, which put you at risk of a dance injury. Most typically, spins and pivots.

Generally, it is the female that performs the most spins and pivots, although there are a range of moves that require the man to spin also. However, it is the girl that is most often at risk from sustaining an ankle or knee injury. The male partner can reduce her risk of injury by ensuring that the moves he picks to lead, give the girl adequate rest and variation of body movements. Spinning and spinning the girl might make you feel good but it will tire her muscles and put pressure on her ligaments. If she loses balance, she could pull on your lead arm, pulling you off balance and causing reactive injury to your shoulder, back, knee or ankle. So by safeguarding your partner, you are safeguarding yourself!.

In general, medical practitioners report that foot and ankle problems are the most frequently encountered musculoskeletal disorders among dancers. Ankle sprains, fractures and dislocations occur as a result of the ankle being forcefully turned in or out. This can happen if you lose balance during a spin or even in basic movements if you are putting too much pressure on the ankle to compensating for poor technique or your body is stressing the ankle as it tries to compensate for stress on some other part of the leg. You can also stress the ankle from poor posture.

Although there are many causes of ankle problems, perhaps the most common causes are inadequate rest from a previous injury, dancer fatigue and poor dance technique. At the end of a long day when fatigue is a factor, learning new, unfamiliar and advanced steps can be a very real threat. If you are tired and the new moves you are learning just seem too hard, or you are feeling aches and pains, then it is best to rest. Sit down and watch, sometimes you can learn more from watching than actually doing something for the first time!.

Another threat to injury of the foot or ankles are a range of disorders that can predispose you to ankle sprains. These are usually pre-existing disorders, so if you have some existing problem, consult your doctor before starting classes.

Another factor in foot and ankle injury can be uneven ground surfaces - hard surfaces or restrictive surfaces such as carpet or sticky floors. Especially if your body is fatigued these can present a big risk in sustaining a dance injury!

One of the basic laws of physics is the "ground reactive force" which means that when a force is applied to the ground, the ground pushes back with equal force. As a dancer comes out of a spin, to re-orientate themselves, they should step back on the foot, on which they spun. If it is a controlled spin (the girl should spin herself, the guy is there just to centre her balance) there shouldn't be any problems. However, an over enthusiastic lead from the male or dancer fatigue on the part of the female, can throw the dancer out of balance, and they may come out of a spin and land with undue force as a means to stop falling over. The resultant force is absorbed by the dancer's body and provides the potential for either acute or chronic injury. The exact amount of force upon impact depends on the floor's resiliency (the amount of force the floor can absorb). Too hard a floor increases the impact and force, whereas a floor that is too springy requires greater work from leg musculature, which in turn may lead to soft tissue injuries.

Another important factor is the traction qualities of dance floors. An excessively slippery floor will cause the dancer to tighten up his/her foot muscles (as well as other muscles) while attempting to hold onto the floor. A "sticky" floor (one with too much traction) causes added resistance to movement (especially noticeable on spins and pivots), with the potential for resulting muscle fatigue as well as greater probability of falls and injuries. Dancing, walking or even standing on a sloping surface requires many adjustments in postural alignment and movement, thus placing increased stress on joints and soft tissue. Dancing on a sloping surface increases the potential for injury. This is particularly problematic for the dancer who is fatigued or simply out of condition.

Okay! So what can we do to protect our foot and ankle from injury?

Protecting the Foot and Ankle

Partnering: Coordination of position and movement between dance partners requires not only expertise, but also trusting the partner's skill and control. Lack of trust, resulting in fear or anxiety, will produce excessive muscle tension, thus decreasing control and increasing the likelihood of injury. If you are having difficulties with your partner, stop dancing for a moment and discuss the problem with them. Smiling nicely and putting up with the difficulty won't fix the problem and while you might not get injured, their next partner might! In all probability your partner isn't aware there is a problem. So, if you consult with them nicely, they'll probably appreciate the constructive criticism. Warning, the problem could be you, so be prepared to take constructive criticism yourself!

Shoes: Properly selected dance shoes can be valuable in distributing load, absorbing impact and supporting the foot. Conversely, shoes may contribute to musculoskeletal injuries not only in the feet, but in the entire leg and spine as well. Dancing in high spiked heels throws the body weight forward, thus forcing the dancer to hyperextend the lower back (as in "swayback") in order to maintain an upright posture. A strong foot with equal toe lengths can tolerate a softer shoe whereas a weaker foot and/or unequal toe lengths requires the additional support and protection of a harder shoe to avoid injury. Too rigid a shoe does not allow opportunity for the foot to develop the necessary strength and flexibility. To get the hip movement look in Latin Street Dance all you do is roll the foot from the large pad of the foot to the smaller pad as you place the heal. However, if you are wearing shoes with too thick a sole or lack of flexibility in the upper part of the shoe you will put pressure on your ankles, knees and hips. My advice is to wear comfortable, sensible shoes that give you the greatest support while allowing the maximum foot flexibility. Doc Martins, sneakers, boots and any shoe that restricts foot movement just don't fit the bill!

Safe dance practices require you to condition your body according to the demands of your style of dance and the health requirements of your body. Prevention of injury requires some knowledge of the body system and knowledge of the individual’s personal limits and boundaries. The anatomy of your foot and ankles is discussed in Part 4 of this series. Understanding how your foot is constructed might help in understanding what you need to do to protect them from injury!

Warming up the ankles in the feet is rather important because they are constantly worked during dance and they become the shock absorbers for the body. Follow a proper warm up pattern, including gross motor movement and stretching. Warm up is important in preparing the body for all the possible stresses it may come to encounter.

Stretching; benefits the body in that it reduces muscular tension, enhances circulation, increases muscle and tendon length and increases the range of motion and suppleness. Stretching is divided into three groups:
  • Passive stretching which involves the gradual lengthening of a muscle to a stretched position and holding it in this position for 10-39 Seconds.
  • Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation involving application of resistance to a stretched muscle. This results in further lengthening of the muscle. Hold the position for 5-10 seconds.
  • The third group of stretches is commonly performed by improperly informed athletes. It is not recommended and can result in injury or damage to the muscles and ligaments. Ballistic or dynamic stretching involves stretching to a point where tension is felt, then bouncing to further lengthen the muscle. Don't do this!
Simple technique exercises and skills such as open first positioning of the feet (the start position of most Latin Street Dances, feet turned out, heels closest together) require concentration and knowledge of what to do and what should be avoided. In first position the ankle must be kept in line with the feet. The feet should be at a comfortable degree of turn out and should not cause pain in the hip, knees, ankles or feet. The proper alignment of the feet and ankles are desired to keep the strength of the ankle and foot high, and to reduce the risk of the ankle collapsing or weakening.

Correcting your posture and dance technique aids in the prevention of injury. Good technique and safe dance practices often complement one another. Incorrect technique can cause injury that may prove serious, it can involve bio-mechanically unsafe and unsound movements, which place unnecessary, stresses on muscles, bones, and joints, which can result in, overuse injuries.

Overuse injuries usually result from repetitive, stressful activities. It has been estimated that about a third of most reported injuries are associated with overuse and 80% of those injuries occur in the knee, ankle or foot. Common causes are training error due to an increased intensity program with little adjusting time, inappropriate footwear and biomechanical and malalignment factors.

It is important for dancers to feel the floor and move through it so that the feet can provide the body with the support it needs.

Warming up to a move (or dancing in general) is important, but cooling down is just as important and should consist of the reverse of a warm up. This will benefit the muscles and tendons and prepare the body for resting after the exercise. Remember that rest is just as important as technique is, it reduces the risk of overload. The male's role in Latin Street Dance is to choreograph the dance, he should pick moves that warms his partner into a complex move, and cools her down after its performance.

In freestyle dancing (as is performed in Salsa and other dances), it is important that as wide range of body movements as possible are performed, with as little concurrent repetition of the same move as possible. The male should always warm the girl up before spinning her (perform basics, into a single cross over, followed by spins) and cool her down after the spin before leading another complex move (perform basics, ending with a cross body lead, followed by basic, wrap, throw out, inward wrap and lay back). Why is this warm up, cool down cycle important? I would have thought it is obvious. However, it is something, you need to seriously think about. Injury can occur from many factors, a considerate partner should attempt to reduce the risk.

There are many types of foot and ankle injury, some major, some minor and some that can accumulate into serious injuries. If you are experiencing any continuing discomfort it is best to see your doctor for advice. A minor injury can very quickly become a major long-term problem that will prevent you from dancing.

An understanding of the anatomy of your foot may help you understand the stresses you put yourself and your partner through when you dance and might help you to develop strategies to reduce the risk of injury. Part 4 of this series discusses the Anatomy of the Foot and Ankle. Understanding how your foot is constructed might help in understanding what you need to do to protect them from injury!

Part 1 :Introduction
Part 2: Avoiding Injury To The Knee
Part 4: Anatomy of the Foot and Ankle

Copyright Paul F Clifford (2000)
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