- Jennifer Milner
A Dancer's Pit Crew
I don’t follow racing much, but pit crews have always fascinated me: the idea of an entire team of people waiting breathlessly, with every possible need anticipated, every spare tire or tank of gas or spark plug on hand and ready to go, while the racecar driver simply took care of driving as well and as fast as he could, has always pleased me. And then I learned that not only does the pit crew watch the car race and stand ready for when the driver needs something, but they actually sometimes see problems before the driver and will signal him to pull in without him knowing why.
Can you picture that? You’re driving along at 200 MPH and your crew flags you down and tells you to pull off. All your competition goes zipping by while you slow down, fuming, and stop. Which is where you learn one of your crew spotted that a tire’s about to blow and changes it in 20 seconds flat, giving you a faster ride and sparing you a career-ending crash.
You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?
Dancers need their own pit crew - a team of people who cover a variety of dance- and health-related areas that will keep a dancer performing optimally for his or her entire career. Once thought to be only for big stars, a rolodex of professionals standing by to help you out is now recognized as good business by professional dancers and companies alike.
So who should be in your pit crew? Let’s look at a few options:
Orthopedist or other sports medicine doctor, with vast experience with dancers. This one’s a no-brainer, right? Someone to call after that bad fall, or when the achilles ache won’t go away and is getting worse. We’ve talked about when you should listen to them before (short answer: always) but even if you’re going to ignore their advice, at least find out what’s going on. Stress fractures are handled way differently than muscle strains or tendinopathies, and no matter how much your best friend says it sounds like exactly-what-she-had-and-so-here’s-how-to-deal-with-it, get a diagnosis.
Physical therapist. A physical therapist you can trust, with experience rehabbing dancers, is as important to me as a good doctor. A surgeon might fix your os trigonum beautifully, but if you don’t have excellent physical therapy helping you deal with all that scar tissue your return to dance could be painful and a long time in coming. Some states allow open access to physical therapists, meaning you don’t need a note from your doctor to see one, and others require a doctor’s note for you to go. If you have direct access, a good physical therapist will know when to send you to a doctor to get that diagnosis anyway. And if your gut is telling you the company-provided PT isn’t good, then quietly do your own research and find someone you trust; most companies hire excellent PTs but I’ve seen a few cases that weren’t so great. Don’t make a big stink, but get the help you need - it’s your career and health on the line.
Massage therapist. Who doesn’t want to be told they NEED a massage?? It always sounds decadent, but for a working dancer, a massage is often required maintenance. When I was dancing I had a massage monthly; it kept me from building up tension in weird places and turning those quirks into habits. Fascial Stretch Therapy is a relative newcomer to the “body work” genre, and is also a good way to release the fascial tension in your body, allowing muscles to work correctly and unrestrictedly. Some dancers need regular FST more than a massage. Find a good body worker and keep that number close at hand!
Chiropractor. I know there’s lots of opinions on chiropractic care and its necessity out there, and I’m not here to stir that pot. I’ll simply say that my experience with good chiropractic care has been very positive. Chiropractors can vary wildly in skill, just like any other profession, and especially these days they may offer a variety of other modalities as well, such as scraping, dry needling, cryotherapy, and more. I’d suggest finding someone who treats what she sees rather than puts you on a “come twice a week for the rest of your life” plan, and keep them close to you. I loved my local chiropractor and when I went out on tour she wrote up Cliffs Notes for me to hand to whatever chiropractor I’d find in each city, to help them figure out my “quirky pelvis” faster and get me back pain-free more quickly. Chiropractic care can be a great part of your overall maintenance.
Cross-trainer. Pilates, Gyrotonics, High Intensity Interval training, Kettle Bell workouts - so many options to choose from! Look for a trainer with a background in dance and experience training dancers. Figure out what cross-training your body responds best to, and seek out the best in that field you can find. Preferably you’ll find someone with multiple techniques to draw from: I’m Pilates certified, physioball certified, Progressing Ballet Technique certified, and trained on smaller apparatus such as Tye4, Parasetter, foam rollers, and more; I can do a stretchy, release-type session or one that keeps your heartrate up, depending on what you need. The more weapons in a trainer’ arsenal, the better.
Coach. This sounds like a no-brainer, but I have to include it. No matter what stage you’re at, it’s helpful to find a ballet coach for private work. You want someone who understands the style you dance - Balanchine, Vaganova, Horton, whatever - and knows repertoire and biomechanics and how to teach, not just throw combinations at you. Oftentimes good coaches are not affiliated with one studio but work in several places, which means their advice will sometimes be more objective. A good coach can help you work through career options, next steps to take, competition entries, variations to pick, find the perfect pointe shoes, and more.
How do I know whether I should get dry needling, or cryotherapy, or cupping, or something else? How do I decide which to pursue? Short answer again - YOU don’t. You go to your “guy” and HE decides. PT, doc, whatever - your go-to person will know what your body needs for each issue.
How do I start building my pit crew? Who do I get first? All it takes is ONE good recommendation. Find a doctor/trainer/PT/whatever that you love and trust absolutely, then go wherever they tell you to go. Half of my value to my clients is having a cyber rolodex and knowing when to put it at their disposal. Ask friends and fellow dancers and studio owners and company managers and find someone aMAZing, and build your pit crew around that.
Once you have a crew, you’ll start to trust their advice and they’ll get to you know your body and its quirks, and eventually you’ll go from limping into the pit stop for a quick tape up to seeing your PT flag you in, where she says, “I watched company class and notice you’re cheating your releve consistently on your right foot. Let’s take a look at that achilles.” They’ll go from REactive to PROactive, and you’ll have a happier and healthier career because of it.
After rehearsing all day, your hamstring’s acting cranky so you stop in to see the on-site physical therapist. The next morning, you wake up stiff and sore and book an appointment with your favorite massage therapist for later that day. Over lunch, the new cast list is posted and you see you’ve been given your first lead in one of the “puffer” ballets: you call your trainer and tell him you’re going to need to up your cardio training.
Guess what? You’ve got your pit crew. Fancy matching coveralls are optional, of course.