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Doctors for Dancers: Get to Know These Health Professionals Before Injury Strikes

Freelance dancer Rebecca Greenbaum was looking forward to a fun and lucrative Nutcracker gig when she became plagued by ankle pain. An orthopedist diagnosed her with tendonitis and sent her to physical therapy. Though it was informative, her ankle troubles persisted. "I would maybe feel better for a day, but the pain would come back," she recalls, so her therapists suggested acupuncture. Greenbaum was skeptical, but she was willing to try anything. Finally, she found relief that lasted: Acupuncture combined with physical therapy got Greenbaum onstage, pain-free. Two years later, both treatments remain part of what Greenbaum calls her arsenal for maintaining wellness.

Getting injured is overwhelming for any dancer, and figuring out a recovery strategy can add to the stress. Oftentimes, it takes a team of medical professionals to help you return to the stage safely. Since knowing who to see can be confusing, we've outlined some of the most common practitioners ballet dancers might visit and why.


While it's a good idea to have any concerns seen by a physician, there are certain injury symptoms that warrant prompt medical attention. These include acute trauma (especially involving the head), severe swelling, fever, significant or lingering pain, inability to bear weight, unexplainable weight loss or gain, or debilitating fatigue.


A team of practitioners helped Rebecca Greenbaum get back onstage. Photo by Rachel Neville, Courtesy Greenbaum.

Primary-care physicians: Even with symptoms more mild than these, your primary-care physician is a great place to start your care. These doctors are trained to help with a variety of challenges that can impede your dancing. They'll identify symptoms that require a specialist's attention and make appropriate referrals.

Orthopedists and orthopedic surgeons: Ballet injuries usually require a doctor with vast knowledge of muscles, bones and connective tissue, so this often leads dancers to an orthopedist. If there's any concern that your injury might require surgery—for instance, if you need to have painful bone spurs removed or damaged connective tissue repaired—you can expect to see an orthopedic surgeon.

Certain situations, like a complex bone break, may require surgery, but most injuries don't, or they can tolerate a wait-and-see approach, says Dr. David S. Weiss, MD, associate director of the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Langone Medical Center. To determine the right treatment plan, Weiss suggests you ask "What's the risk of the surgery?" and "What's the risk in waiting?" All surgeries have a degree of risk, so seek a second opinion if you're not confident with the answer to either question.

Osteopaths: This type of physician traditionally favors preventive care and relies minimally on medication. Today, you can find osteopaths (identified by the credentials "DO") in every medical specialty, even surgery. New York City–based dancer-turned-osteopath Dr. Stasia Blyskal, DO, explains that practitioners "receive extensive training in the interrelationship of the body's structure and function." For example, they might look at how the shape of your pelvis affects your turnout. Osteopathic physicians like Blyskal, who specializes in osteopathic manual manipulation, use their hands to help rebalance the body's systems. Treatments can include the high-velocity adjustments you might associate with a chiropractor, or a more subtle technique called "osteopathy in the cranial field," which feels like gentle pressure, lifting or lengthening. "Dancers work so hard, they sometimes think that if they're having pain, they need to work their body harder," she explains, "but gentle techniques can be very helpful."

Physiatrists: A physical medicine and rehabilitation physician, or physiatrist, specializes in injuries involving muscles, bones and connective tissue, as well as the brain and spinal cord. At your first visit, a physiatrist will test your joints for flexibility, strength and balance, and watch how you walk. Physiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Manejías, MD, who sees dancers at New York City's Hospital for Special Surgery, says that about 60 to 70 percent of her treatments involve a type of acupuncture for the muscles, called dry needling, while other physiatrists might give injections of steroids, lidocaine or other medications.


Acupuncture can be used to treat physical symptoms, like swelling and muscle strains, as well as mental challenges, like anxiety and exhaustion. Thinkstock.

Other Wellness Professionals

Most dance injuries are neither spontaneous nor completely debilitating. Instead, they develop gradually due to poor alignment, overuse or stress. If you're proactive, you can catch some of these problems before they become a full-blown injury. It's wise to see a health professional, though not necessarily a physician, for irritating issues—hips that click during certain movements, or ankles that are cranky every morning. Though only an MD or DO (along with physicians assistants and nurse practitioners) can legally make diagnoses and write prescriptions, there are many other practitioners who can help with these pre-injury puzzles.

Physical therapists, certified athletic trainers and massage therapists: In addition to getting you back into shape post-injury, these specialists can help prevent injuries, especially if they have dance-specific training. Along with manual treatments like assisted stretches and joint mobilization (where you typically relax and breathe while someone moves your bones), PTs and ATCs may suggest exercises and stretches for homework to help improve your alignment, range of motion, muscular balance and ballet technique. Massage can be a useful tool for preventing muscular imbalances that can lead to injury, and is also a popular post-performance ritual for dancers. Specializations vary, so look for professionals with certifications in sports medicine, orthopedics, rehabilitation or manual therapy.

Chiropractors: Because of the immediate effect of their treatments, many dancers like to see chiropractors. They employ a range of techniques aimed at helping the bones become better aligned. Expect a chiropractor to explain their plan for your visit. For instant changes, they might ask you to inhale and then bend you sideways, eliciting a loud pop, or, for more gradual transformations, simply have you lie with small wedges under your pelvis. Occasionally, chiropractors support their treatments with other modalities, like acupuncture or massage.

Acupuncturists: NYU Langone's Harkness Center for Dance Injuries' Megan Richardson, MS, Dipl Ac, LAc, ATC, an acupuncturist and certified athletic trainer who treated Greenbaum's tendonitis, calls acupuncture a "reset button." This form of ancient medicine inserts very thin needles under the skin to alter the body's energy. It can be used to treat physical symptoms, like swelling and muscle strains, as well as mental challenges, like anxiety and exhaustion.


Healing Takes a Team

Don't be frustrated if the professional you choose refers you to a different expert—in fact, be glad! As Greenbaum found, it often takes several kinds of treatment to fully recover. A reliable practitioner should recognize their limitations and have a good idea of who you should see next. You should also have a sense of when it's time to try something new. "Within three to four visits, you may not feel 100 percent better, but there should be a change," says Richardson. This is true of most treatment plans, so if your progress has plateaued, ask yourself and your provider if it's time to try another approach.


How Important Is Dance Expertise?

Seeing a practitioner who's familiar with ballet is ideal. If you live near a professional ballet company, find out who their dancers see. However, depending on your insurance or location, this may not be possible. Dr. Selina Shah, MD, FACP, a physician who treats dancers from San Francisco Ballet School, suggests that you be prepared to "be a partner in the process." You may need to do a bit of teaching by demonstrating steps and explaining class format. When dance-specific knowledge is not an option, a practitioner who is curious and open to learning about ballet can be a great health collaborator.


Don't Ignore These Aspects of Healing

  • What you eat can impact injury. Without the proper balance of micro- and macronutrients, the body isn't able to effectively repair itself, says nutritionist Heidi Skolnik, MS, CDN, FACSM, who works with students at the School of American Ballet and The Juilliard School. A nutritionist can assess your particular diet and suggest foods that will help you stay strong and heal.
  • The stress-injury connection is real. Boston-area clinical psychologist Dr. Elisabeth Morray, PhD, explains that stress can lead to a feeling of bodily disconnect, which can prevent dancers from detecting the warning signs of injury. Stress can also disrupt sleep, which compromises the immune system and reduces healing. Consider working with a mental-health professional to keep your mind and body performing at their best. —EK

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Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.


For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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