Pittsburgh Ballet thrives from 30-year affiliation with sports therapy
Dancers' bodies essentially are their instruments, says ballerina Julia Erickson.
The eight hours daily of rehearsing, performing and cross training subject their bodies to stresses comparable to those experienced by professional athletes, which in a sense they are.
Coping with pain and injuries is a part of the dancing life.
“As dancers we deal with injury on a daily basis,” says Erickson. “Your body is never 100 percent perfect.
“It's the nature of the human body to have imperfections,” she says.
“We always have a little pain here and there, without talking about blisters,” says Christine Schwaner, who, like Erickson, is a Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancer.
Thirty years ago, dancer health acquired a new champion when Dr. Freddie Fu and UPMC Sports Medicine became affiliated with the Pittsburgh Ballet. Fu, physical therapists and certified athletic trainers began making regular visits to the ballet to treat injuries and develop effective ways to avoid them.
Now, the program is a daily presence at the ballet, at every performance and when it goes on tour. Exercise equipment has been installed at the ballet's headquarters and the scope of counseling has expanded to nutrition and other health-conscious concerns.
When the ballet's artistic director, Terrence Orr, was a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre 30 years ago, he says, “We didn't have a physical therapist and didn't get taken care of. UPMC is just phenomenal. What they do for us is unprecedented across the country for a company of our size.”
Orr knows he was exceptional in being rarely injured while a dancer, which, he speculates, may have been because he was one of the few dancers back then to practice yoga.
“I've been here for a little over half of Dr. Freddie Fu's tenure,” Orr says. “When I arrived, I saw an impressive facility, but it was nothing compared to what we have today. We have a doctor here at least once a week, and we can go to the incredible Sport Medicine complex across the river and get help, whatever help we need.
“All this is due to Dr. Fu,” he says.
“In 1985, we held one of the very first dance-health symposiums in the country,” Fu says. “We actually talked about dancer injuries and had floor experts in to talk about how to decide on a floor for dancing. I learned a lot.”
Thirty years' experience with dancers is also a learning experience.
“I think, generally, they are very self-conscious about their bodies and movement,” Fu says. “I think in a general sense they are very good athletes and may be more conscientious about diet and health than, say, football players.”
Senior physical therapist Erica Coffey has been coming to the ballet at least twice a week since 2001.
“We have a sign-up sheet, and I never know what I'll be facing until I get there. Sometimes, every single slot is filled, and people write their names in the margin,” Coffey says. “Other times, there are no names written down.”
She deals with ankle sprains, tendonitis and Achilles tendonitis, more often foot and ankle issues than knees, hips, neck or spine problems. One condition she sees at the ballet, but rarely in non-ballet dancers, is flexor hallucis tendonitis, inflammation of the tendon that goes to the last bone in the big toe. It's related to going on pointe, though occasionally Coffey sees it on men as well.
Coffey says her workload is related to what the ballet is working on at the time.
“Usually, we have more injuries when we get introduced to brand-new steps,” says Schwaner. “For ‘Cinderella,' there was a lot of lifting for the guys in the pas de deux. And for the girls, you had to watch your back so the guys could get a good grip. When we started, I got pain in my back because the lift was different from lifts in ‘The Nutcracker.' A new ballet triggers muscles, and they scream a bit.”
Dancers, like other athletes, work out to lessen chance of injury, and to improve and maintain performance levels.
Erickson uses the work-out equipment at the ballet every day, and usually comes in on Saturdays, too. She uses the Pilates equipment twice a week, which has an advantage over mat Pilates because of the spring-loaded machines' variable resistance.
Even so, Erickson had a bout with tendonitis a decade ago. In the 2006-07 season, her knees started to bother her again. When she began to feel the condition was hindering her, Erickson went for MRIs, which showed she had “some messy cartilage degeneration.”
Fu told her he could go in and clear out the frayed tissue, creating smooth surfaces under the knee cap.
“I had just been dancing with the pain for a while and didn't like the idea of always having that pain throughout the rest of my career,” Erickson says. “I tried it on the not-great knee. It took a long time to heal, but it worked.”
She decided the other knee wasn't bad enough to require surgery. She learned to treat it in other ways, mainly with joint supplements and strengthening exercises.
“Every dancer is a different body type,” says soloist dancer Luca Sbrizzi. “Some body types are more resistant to injury. On the other side are dancers who are continuously injured, maybe not full-on to where you have to stop dancing. I definitely fit into this category, which is very unfortunate, I assure you. Every morning it's ‘what's hurting today?' ”
Although Sbrizzi had ankle surgery in 2006, prior to joining Pittsburgh Ballet, his main problem now is in his middle back, where the cartilage on several spinal vertebrae have worn down to the bone.
“Not that I can't dance through it,” he says. “I get warmed up, and my blood circulates, and it gets to be OK, but most days, it's pretty painful. The whole UPMC system has been following me constantly, which is why I think I can still dance. Erica (Coffey) is awesome. She often adjusts my vertebrae — sometimes to get a little rotated, sometimes she cracks my spine.”
Coffey, generally, lets the dancers take the lead, providing massage when requested. But when a problem persists, it requires a closer look.
“Pain, if you've had it for a day or two, insidious, gradual onset, is one thing,” she says. “If there is a sign of trauma, that's different. But when it doesn't go away in a week or so for non-dancers or a few days for dancers, that's when it warrants a further look.”
Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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