Vail health: A leg up, without pain

Publication Date: August 6, 2012 in Vail Daily - View Article

Dancers' bodies benefit from sports-focused health professionals at the Vail International Dance Festival

While a painter uses a paintbrush, dancers use their bodies as the medium by which they express their art. But dancers are also athletes whose job it is to make movements appear easy and effortless, even when they aren't. Behind the scenes, dancers have to play, or dance, through the pain just as much as the next sports star. While the dancers at the Vail International Dance Festival are mainly in town to perform for the crowds, they're also getting the added bonus of working with health professionals who are used to dealing with highly active people, a lifestyle common in the Vail Valley.

One might not think skiers and dancers have much in common, but they do when it comes to injury. Chiropractor and exercise physiologist Mark Pitcher said working with dancers can be similar to treating other athletes.

“When we think about dance, we often think about the artistic side of it,” Pitcher said. “But the dancers that are here (at the festival) are very strong and very mobile.”

Pitcher is a member of Vail Integrative Medical Group, which includes chiropractors, exercise physiologists, physical therapists and massage therapists. Vail Integrative Medical Group is on call throughout the festival to treat dancers and get them not just back on their feet but back on their tiptoes and performing at their best.

“Working with (dancers) presents a little more of a challenge,” Pitcher said. “Not only do we need to get them out of pain and back doing their regular job but (also) able to do what they want to do at a high level.”

‘Teaching them how to heal themselves'
Physical therapist Miki Blanchard finds that dancers like the longer amounts of time they get to spend with her. Most physical therapy sessions last only 20 minutes, but dancers at the festival get at least 30 minutes with Blanchard.

“We sit with them as long as it takes,” Blanchard said. “Having that extra 5 to 10 minutes really helps.”

In addition to working on current issues the dancers are having, Blanchard spends time “educating (the dancers) about their bodies and teaching them how to heal themselves,” she said.

According to Blanchard, some physical therapists are afraid to work on dancers because they appear small and frail, when the reality is just the opposite.

Linda Celeste Sims is a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, performing at the festival for the third time this year. Because Vail Integrative Medical Group works with other athletes so often, Sims found the physical therapists to be well-versed in how a dancer's body works.

“It's one of the best physical-therapy (sessions) I've ever had,” Sims said. “Because they get so many injuries from all these activities that are out here, like skiing, they're used to people coming in with broken shoulders and elbows.”

‘Stronger, limber and more connected'
Having been with Alvin Ailey for 17 years, Sims has tried a variety of health treatments and exercise methods to help her prevent injury. She has discovered some new approaches that could even benefit those of us who always failed the old “sit-and-reach” part of the physical-fitness test in grade school.

Sims practices gyrotonics, also known as gyrokinesis. She describes gyrokinesis as a mix of Pilates, yoga and martial arts. Gyrokinesis was created by Juliu Horvath, who was a ballet dancer until his career ended due to multiple injuries. Gyrokinesis is a combination of the methods Horvath used to heal himself, focusing on fluidity of movement and increasing flexibility.

“I fell in love with it because it made me feel so great,” Sims said. “It's not about building muscle but helps to activate and strengthen the areas that need to be strengthened. I feel stronger, limber and more connected.”

Recently while on tour in Paris, Sims tried a type of massage called Rolfing. Rolfing is focused on manipulating fascia, a connective tissue surrounding muscles and binding them together. Rolfing is no gentle rub down that one gets at a vacation spa. Sims said therapists use their elbows and body weight to dig deep into the muscles and relieve the pain.

“I tried it and I loved it. (It's) a totally different type of massage.” Sims said. “Rolfing is (focused on) pressure points, plus realignments that help the muscles and bone go back into place.”

But when the curtain comes up and the dancers glide gracefully in first position, muscles and bones become more than the nuts and bolts used to make up the human body. They transform into extraordinary movements that communicate what words cannot. Artist or athlete, what dancers' bodies can do is astonishing, even for those who understand how they work.

“I enjoy (the performances) from an artistic standpoint,” Pitcher said. “I look at them as athletes and think it's pretty impressive they can pull off these incredible postures and dynamic movements.”