Dancing with Pain

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Many of us decide to take up dancing to improve our physical health–and why not? Dance is a fun, dynamic, social form of exercise that gets us up and moving, burning calories, and boosting endorphins.

Recently, I shared some videos with my high school students in which individuals with health struggles were highlighted; dance has helped to alleviate their symptoms and vastly improve their quality of life. One man has been able to slow the progress of his Parkinson’s symptoms by taking up ballroom dancing, a young man combats his ADHD through refining his art, and a young lady with a brain condition has shattered stereotypes regarding what it means to be a ballerina. These videos are just some of many uplifting and powerful examples of how dancing can help us to heal.

While these viral videos inspire us to persevere, I know several dancers in my Latin dance community with injured ankles, shoulders, or knees who experience a great deal of pain every time they step onto the floor. Another dancer I know had to take a break while recovering after surgery (she is doing quite well now, thank goodness). I myself struggle with an autoimmune disease and lately, the pain has been so intense that I cannot dance as often as I would like to. Some days, I just want to dance so badly that I push through the pain (I’ll be okay!) but I almost always end up paying for it afterwards (I’m actually not okay).  In these cases, we may want dance to be able to make everything better again but the fact is, it can’t always do that for us. Notice how I didn’t title this article “Dancing the Pain Away…”

A little snow won’t slow us down…but pain might.
Photo credit: Alix Apperley Photography

Don’t get me wrong–dance can help us deal with many of our struggles. It has certainly made my life a lot more active, exciting, and fun. I have no doubt that it has improved my mental health by reducing stress and building my confidence due to the friendships I’ve made and skills I’ve learned. In many ways, salsa dancing has boosted my physical health too. After all, I tend to go out dancing several times throughout the week, even during the cold winters when it can be tempting to stay at home and binge watch Santa Clarita Diet. The problem is, we can be quick to assume that because dancing is healthy, it’s always good for us. Sometimes, we do need a break from it. Whether it’s due to burnout from taking on too many activities, the stress of performing, or physical ailments that need time to heal, it’s okay to give yourself permission to take a guilt-free break from dance.

If you’re stubborn like I am and a long break is not likely, my advice is to be kind to your body. Don’t push yourself to the point that you will make things worse and be sure your dance partners are aware of your condition (for example: “I’m having back pain, so please don’t dip me”). Communication is key to your safety and overall enjoyment of the dance.

Another tip I would suggest is to pick and choose the events you want to go to very carefully (see my New Year’s post for more on this topic). You don’t need to go to everything and risk making your pain worse just to save face. Attend the events you are truly looking forward to and balance your dancing with lots of rest and recovery time.

If you don’t suffer from any illness or injury, lucky you! Just be aware that we’re out there on the floor along with you and often, our pain is invisible. You won’t always see us limping, wincing, or taking a time out in a way that is easily recognizable as suffering. If you ask us to dance and we say “not right now,” please don’t take it personally–it probably has nothing to do with you. If we ask you to avoid certain movements, please respect that it is for our safety and so we can enjoy dancing with you. Lastly (this one’s important!), if we don’t come to your event, please don’t assume it’s because we don’t want to.


Do you struggle with a chronic illness or injury that affects your dance life? Share your story in the comments below.


  • Zillah says:

    Hey there! Thank you for writing this post :), I have recently had surgery in my abdomen, which means that you have to literally ‘sit still’ for at least a month, and after that, recovery and building up muscle strength in this core is going o so slowly… It is sometimes hard to remember that I actually trusted my body to be able to do whatever I wanted to do (not just dancing), and to pick up the courage to ‘go again’ :). So indeed, when I’m not there, it is not necessarily because I did not want to be there, but because I can’t always do it, or have done ‘too much’ the day(s) before.

    Lots of hugs for everyone who feels or is inhibited in dancing (not just physically, but the mental stuff that comes with it is just as real).

  • Katherine says:

    Thank you so much for this article! I am a dancer who loves salsa, cha cha, merengue and batacha. I have rhuematoid arthritis which can cause awful foot and hand pain and osteoporosis from which I have broken my back and hip. But I still dance! Keep up your inspirational and encouraging articles.

  • David Sander says:

    There are a number of conditions that can be managed with improved nutrition. Most medical personnel don’t have a knowledge of the conditions of dancing or how the body replaces those stresses. Some of these are obvious. If you have an over stressed and painful muscle, try finding a way of static loading it to get it to strengthen up. As an older dancer I started having back pain the day after running or dancing. This exercise induced condition was reversed when I started taking 10,000 IU of retinol vitamin A with 5000 IU of vitamin D3 for a few months. The Retinol is important for best protein metabolism and many older people don’t get enough of it or vitamin D. Many people also don’t get enough protein for an active life, most need 60 grams per 100 pounds of body weight or 1.2 grams/kg/day.

    You can listen to Jorge Fletchas who talks about taking boron in 18 mg to 30 mg doses. In locations where boron intake is high, people have only a 2% rate of arthritis. I’ve also observed boron helps my rate of recover from marathon training and it has several other benefits. Having a high blood level of vitamin D3 in the 50 ng/ml range or higher improves autoimmune function if you read the recent scientific research. In addition, taking plain niacin, turmeric, and ginger all reduce inflammation and can improve arthritis.

    Some of the better nutrition references will tell you that you can get into trouble in other ways. Vitamin C is critical to connective tissue formation so low levels can allow dancers to get injured more easily or recover more slowly. Copper and zinc need to be balanced in a one to eight ratio and I had a very annoying hamstring pull after years of taking a supplement combination that left me low in copper. Copper is needed to form connective tissue too and getting too much zinc prevents it from working in the body.
    So the word to the wise is to eat wisely and avoid junk food and empty calories. Many of the traditional RDAs are too low and do not reflect the current state of science research in nutrition.

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