Things I’ve learned about dancing and having a bad back

The most scared I’ve probably ever been was when I woke up one day about seven years ago and couldn’t walk. Alone in the house, I lay in bed, imagining something terrible had happened and I had somehow become paralyzed. After awhile, I realized I was able to sort-of-shuffle around, very carefully walk down stairs, and pick up the phone, provided I lifted with the knees.

A few days later, able walk in a slow, stiff egg-shell walk, I had gone to the North Atlanta Spine Center (which it turned out was just an overenthusiastic chiropractor) and to the Emory Spine Center (which was a bored but probably brilliant doctor), both of which told me the same thing: I had a degenerated disc on my L5 and something I had done had spasmed the muscles of my lower back. The chiropractor told me I should drink lots of water and see him three times a week, the doctor simply gave me a xerox of some stretches and told me I should be able to do whatever I wanted again soon. They both mentioned that degenerated discs don’t really fully heal because gravity always keeps the disc compressed.

For the next few days, I got around using my grandfather’s cane, which was perfect for my height and scared the shit out of me; he is the grandfather everyone in my family says I take after physically, and he messed up his back so much he couldn’t walk without a cane. (I later asked my granny what he did to throw out his back. “Probably something stupid,” she said (in a very, kind, laughing granny-like way). She also added that it involved farming, which he had done all his life.)

The first incident happened a few days after I had been at an aerial practice with some friends and had been the base for the “horse” and “camel” three-person aerials while the other dancers learned it. I probably had people jumping onto the small of my back at least twenty times that night. (I have since realized, more importantly, I didn’t know how to properly engage my back doing these aerials, either.) I have thrown out my back three more times since then, all because of swing dancing, but more importantly, all because I’m an idiot.

Things I’ve Learned about Dancing and Having a Bad Back.

The #1 killer is victimization. A friend of mine has a bad back, and he sure seems to bring it up a lot, especially when you ask him to help carry something. Thinking you can’t do something is a very large first step for proving yourself right. Something very important for me to learn was that many professional athletes have the same back problem I do, many with worse. Even gymnasts, who are involved with similar work as a professional swing dancer in terms of muscular strength, flying through the air, and wear and tear on the body.

The #2 killer is, ironically, not being a victim. The other extreme of victimization is thinking that a bad back doesn’t mean anything. People with bad backs should really consider any major physical activity they’re about to do with their back in mind; it should dictate how they proceed. For instance; in my workouts, when something targets the back, I make sure I feel confident doing the exercises correctly and safely with very low weights. Then, once I feel comfortable, I try to keep pushing my weights more and more, making the exercise one of the ones I work hardest at, knowing that the stronger my back muscles are, the more support my spine will have.

No one ever seems to mention the terrible things we do to our backs. As soon as I found out I had a bad back, a lot of things started to make sense. For most of my life, I’ve been taller than my friends, and like many tall lanky men, I have slumped and had bad posture (often this is done to subconsciously put one at more normal height, or at least keep one from having to look down all the time.) Throughout highschool, I usually despised walking to my locker from classes sprinkled around the school, and pretty much carried every book I had in my book bag. What I imagined at the time was a good work out was actually just putting tons of weight on my bad posture and at strange angles on my spine. I did this pretty much five days a week for five years of my life, the five crucial years of adolescence when my body was deciding how it was going to grow (it chose: like a giraffe). And no one ever mentioned that it might be a bad idea. Or maybe they did—I daydreamed a lot then.

But basically, not one P.E. teacher ever mentioned how important good posture and body mechanics were towards one’s lifting-boxes and throwing-people goals. If it was mentioned, it was mentioned in Health class, a one-time class we took in middle school—a time when all our mental energy was spent being awkward around members of the opposite sex. No coach ever said “Squat like that and you’ll blow out your knees.” My relatives never offered “You shouldn’t slump, it’ll grow hair on your palms,” and no friend ever took me aside and said “Bobby, not only are you tearing up your spine by walking around with all your books in your backpack, but Marilyn Phillips would never date a guy who does that.”

No one, for instance, ever mentioned that wearing a belt too tight is a sure-fire way to throw out your back. This is where me being an idiot comes into play. After the last time I threw out my back, I realized that all my previous times throwing out my back had one thing in common: I’d tighten my belt.

When I was about to do an aerial, for instance, slightly loose pants that fell around my non-existent hips made me feel like leg movement would be restricted. So, I’d lift my pants and tighten my belt a little to get my pants higher on my waist. I’m an idiot because in trying not to restrict my legs, I didn’t realize I had restricted my spine, which couldn’t bend the way it wanted to because a belt was in the way. I now practice aerials in hideous elastic shorts and try to perform aerials as much as possible in pants with elastic suspenders instead of a belt. These choices have, so far, worked great.

[UPDATE 2/15/12: Dear Readers, I recently threw my back out again, and there were the common factors, including tightening my belt. However, I’d like to put forth a new theory on why this threw out my back which I’m currently contesting: I tilt my pelvis inward almost all the time, and this, according to the Gokhale Method is why I have a decompressed disc in the first place. I will write more about it soon in a post on posture, however, until then, I have noticed that by correcting my pelvic tilt, high-wasted pants no longer put the strain on my back they have for years before…so far…more coming soon. I have the feeling this is a big step towards helping my back problems immensely.]

You have to learn how to listen to your body to be a fit person. I’ve read a lot about how water in almost every way is helpful to the body, and that we need to drink a ton of it to be really healthy. But, our body’s way of telling us this is so subtle that thirst for water is often confused with hunger.

Our bodies tell us a lot, but we can be really, really bad at knowing what it’s saying, which reminds me of our cat, who will stare at us creepily and meow 317 times in a row. I’ll check his food, water, paws, core temperature, favorite sleeping places, make sure the vacuum cleaner is hidden from his view, and still don’t have a clue what the problem is. Likewise, I’m still learning how to listen to my back. It will twinge in different ways, and sometimes I feel the equivalent of one of those guys who sit on front porches and say “Oop, my corn’s hurtin’, must be a rain about to fall.”

There’s a different soreness for when I work out too hard, versus when I work out in the wrong way. There’s a different twinge I get when shovel snow for a half-hour, and one I might get two days later from the same activity. When any of these twinges happen, I try to pinpoint the probable causes—basically, try to think about the thing I did in the last several days that would have required a lot from my back. Such information is usually only preventative for the future; the only thing I can do when my back starts twinging is cancel any near-future plans for aerials and bust out the ugly shorts.

Exercise helps a lot. This one’s probably an obvious one, but it’s so important I wouldn’t feel right not mentioning it. Aside from making you stronger and more durable, exercising with a good trainer (who actually knows the proper postures and mechanics of training) is actually practicing in a controlled environment the things you do in real life that can hurt you. Because of working with trainers and having sports doctors look at my exercise and dancing form, I have a much better understanding of how to safely engage my back whenever I do anything, from picking up a stick to throwing women.

I’ve also realized how exercising is great for when my back starts to twinge. If I feel a possible spasm coming on, I’ll still try to keep to my workout schedule, though perhaps take it a little easy on the back exercises. I often find the exercises leave me feeling better, and so far, never worse. I imagine this has something to do with the exercises stretching out the back, heating up the muscles, and getting the muscles working together again. The down side of this is that I don’t have an excuse for not doing my incredibly long yoga DVD. In fact, the yoga’s one of the best for when my back feels off.

Good posture helps a lot. The more I think about and work on good posture, the more I see its benefits. Good posture puts the back in its strongest alignment, and ties all the skeleton together in terms of how well it can work. It also puts all your organs in comfortable positions, allows you to breathe correctly (stuff mentioned often in Alexander technique), and even makes you more emotionally confident by it’s subconscious and social implications. Another thing I learned is that it takes a lot of hard, vigilant work to fix your posture. I’m still working on it.

To get a better back, do everything good to every other part of your body. To make sure my back is in shape, I do a lot of extra stretches to my legs, butt, neck, and shoulders. Basically, all parts of your body affect the spine, whether directly or indirectly. For instance, the head is like a bowling ball attached to the top of your spine–it’s weight and position have an enormous affect on the thin string of vertebrae below it.

Engage your core. Yet another way I was an idiot when I threw out my back is that I didn’t understand how to engage my back muscles when doing things that required back strength. I sort of just hurled things or picked things up willy-nilly. This is the well-worn workout phrase “engage your core.” There are several aspects involved, but basically, if you only had on underwear and a tank top, the fabric would cover your core, and all of these muscles, when engaged (tightened), stabalize the spine, provide balance, and basically make everything you do more powerful and safe. Some simple advice on how to engage the core is to have good posture and imagine driving your belly button towards your spine. But if you need more than that, there’s plenty of advice on the internet, including this rough guide on specifically how to engage your core.

I should note that in no way am I a doctor, and the things I’ve “learned” to help me deal with my bad back, for all I know, may be harmful or deadly to you. I’m still learning everyday myself.

11 responses to “Things I’ve learned about dancing and having a bad back”

  1. Nicely said, Bobby. There are other perspectives on alignment/posture/exercise that are different from Alexander. I am a certified Aston-patterner, for example. But the goals are the same. The right balance of tone and flexibility, good alignment, knowing what you can and can’t do- all these will help protect an injured or not yet injured back.

  2. Number one for me is to regularly visit an osteopath (along with keeping generally healthy and fit of course).

  3. Thanks for posting that. I’ve had a foot injury (not dance-related) that’s kept me off the dance floor for more than 6 months. I know other people who’ve injured themselves dancing. I didn’t think I could get an injury from playing a musical instrument, but I gave myself tendonitis learning to play the guitar. Same thing can happen in dancing. It’s an athletic activity, so I always warm up and cool down. It helps prevent muscle tears and other problems.

  4. Some really good points Bobby. I think Pilates is great for all dancers as well and it incorporates a lot of what you said. It concentrates on the core, stability with flexibility. Joseph Pilates worked with the NYC Ballet when he first came to the US and I use it with my dancer, gymnast, and other patients on a daily basis. Belly button to spine is one of the cues they use a lot to activate the core which really includes the abdominals, buttocks, low back stabilizers and the scapular muscles. This topic is something all dancers should think about on a constant basis, thanks for bringing it up.

  5. I have to point out the graphic you have showing how to squat correctly is misleading as you cannot see how wide the stance is or if feet are turned out – it’s only showing part of the needed information. The bottom right version with raised heels is the probably least wrong as doing deep squats with heels down as shown in ‘correct’ graphic, will in likelihood trash your knees. Though if raising heels your thighs will be actually be more parallel to the floor at full squat than is shown in diagram.

    You should not extend knee more forward than ball of your foot if feet are flat on floor. Lifting your heels not only saves your knees but allows you to safely pick up heavy objects with risking your back as it is bio-mechanically way more efficient. Try walking up steep stairs with heels down [if you even can] and then with heels raised.
    I had an issue with my knee recently caused by this very action – though it was from years of going down my very steep and twisted stairs, which effectively made me do the action labelled as correct in your diagram. I realised the problem’s cause when pain started and retrained myself to not allow heel to meet step [avoiding the one legged badly done squat] and problem went away immediately.

    I used to teach ‘aerials’ with partners who were not only unwilling but often much heavier than yourself, so a tad trickier than they are in Lindy Hop where you have a willing and usually much lighter partner. It was a full contact martial art where throwing bigger opponents through air was the norm. And something I always drilled into my students was raising heels whilst squatting to save back and knees and which also also let you throw people further and more easily. :-) And I never had any back issues despite chucking people up to 180% of my weight around for 15 years.

    Weightlifters may squat with heels flat, but can do so as they have a very wide stance and this reduces the issue of knees over the foot. They still blow up their knees though!
    But if squatting to pick up heavy objects safely where you normally have feet closer together, straight back and heels raised is the best option for strength and safety.

  6. Bobby, this is so important and I’m glad you covered this topic so thoroughly and concisely. I also have a bad back, except I should have known better; I study exercise (and dance) physiology and I’ve worked as a physical therapy aid for several years. I wish I had known then what I know now, especially about listening to my body.

    I thought I’d contribute a what I’ve learned about a bad back follow’s perspective. Heels may hurt your feet, but they can also hurt your back. Your legs are a closed chain, so any weakness or misalignment in your legs can transfer pain up to your spine or down to your feet. I tend to collapse my arches and have weak hips, creating my knock knees and causing my sway-back alignment. Heels and shoes with poor arch support emphasize that alignment and put extra stress on those poor joints. Not to mention, dips poorly done (personally, I threw my upper back into a super extended position and didn’t engage my core)can act as a catalyst for pain since it stresses that area intensely.

    One other tidbit I’ve picked up from my classes and the clinic is that back pain can stem from flexion or extension based misalignment. Bobby, it sounds like you hunched your upper back because of your height while I tend to extend my lower back. Doing the opposite motion can relieve pain.

    Overall,I think prevention and awareness is key. I wish there would be more classes available to dancers (especially at workshop weekends) to help learn about our bodies and how to best protect them.

  7. Jusrt curious is you’ve looked into the Sarno TMS model for helping back problems? It’s helped me somewhat. There’s a good youtube video just put in 20/20 tms sarno. Thanks for the blog.

  8. I’ve had much luck with a Muscle Activation Technique (MAT) specialist, she was able to restore my bum leg. The thought behind MAT is that when our bodies are chronically injured or declining, the bodies’ way of protecting itself is to tighten around the weak/injured area causing imbalance, pain, and everything you were describing. Therapy, whether physical therapy, sports massage, or chiropractic care, is about trying to release tension and increase range of motion. MAT is different. The method behind MAT is that instead of getting the muscles to relax, it’s actually getting the muscles to tighten and contract properly. The idea is that in doing so, these muscles provide stability to the whole which widens your range of motion and relieves pain. It works to remind your brain that the muscles are there, even though we might not have used them in awhile becuase our bodies were compensating. It sounds like woo woo science, but the results have been amazing really.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: