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Growth-related issues specific to young dancers

This is an excerpt from Dance Anatomy 2nd Edition by Jacqui Greene Haas.

Young dancers experience challenging physical changes during adolescence, typically between the ages of 11 and 14 for girls and between ages 13 and 16 for boys. Growth spurts can cause changes in balance and flexibility that affect technique. In such cases, it can be hard at first to understand why technique seems to be getting worse despite more and more practice. It is normal, however, to see a decline in technical performance during rapid growth. Adolescence is a tough time, during which a young person may feel awkward and weak. These challenges may be the reason that 55 percent of dancers quit during adolescence. When hormones are added to the mix, this transition period can really challenge a person's self-esteem.

Changes related to rapid growth may include the following:

  • Bones growing faster than soft tissue
  • Leg and arm bones growing faster than the trunk
  • Weight changing
  • Muscles and ligaments tightening
  • Balance and coordination being compromised
  • Thoracic spine growing faster than lumbar spine

The body is particularly vulnerable in the growth plates, which are areas of cartilage located at the ends of long bones. Because growth plates are soft, they are weak and vulnerable, especially during periods of rapid growth; the pull exerted on growth plates increases as muscles tighten. Injury in these areas can occur either acutely or through overuse, and growth plate injury can affect how bones grow. Depending on the severity of injury, growth plates may close prematurely, thus cutting off blood flow and causing the injured side to be shorter than the unaffected side. Higher-level stress fractures can occur in the lower spine, tibia, femur, and fifth metatarsal. Without proper evaluation and sufficient healing time, such injuries may result in bone deformity.

Thus, if you are a young dancer, it is vital to avoid these injuries now in order to be free of complications as you age. Once you stop growing, your growth plates will harden and turn to bone. Try to remember that you will grow out of this stage! It may take a year or two, but don't let that discourage you. Instead, be patient; this is a natural process of growing up.

Here are some actions you can take to reduce your risk of injury as you grow:

  • Perform daily static stretching, which involves taking your muscles to a stretched position and holding it. Focus on feeling a good stretch and holding it for about 30 seconds; repeat at least three times per leg twice a day. Include stretches for your calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, and hip flexors, which can experience tightness during adolescence.
  • Limit jumping movements in order to reduce the impact on your joints. Use that time in class to stretch instead.
  • Perform abdominal work for spine stabilization. Chapter 6 presents several choices for abdominal exercise, including the trunk curl, oblique lift, and side lift.
  • Incorporate balance training to maintain your balance skills as you grow. Fundamental training exercises for proprioception and balance are included in the book's last chapter.
  • Communicate with your teachers. Reach out to your instructors and explain to them your frustrations with growth-related discomfort. Let them know that you are trying to maintain your strength and balance but are struggling with pain and tightness. Talk to them about the need to do fewer jumping combinations and add more stretches to your classes and rehearsals.

Learn more about Dance Anatomy, Second Edition.

More Excerpts From Dance Anatomy 2nd Edition