Courtney Henry remembers a time in middle school when she grew several inches just as her dance training began to intensify. Now a member of Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference in Germany, Henry would take dance classes at her school during the day, then have more classes and rehearsal at her studio afterwards. "As a result of this constant expansion in every direction—my hormone levels were growing as well—I remember enduring painful cramps in my lower and upper legs almost every night."
Such pains are typical symptoms of a growth spurt, or rapid growth in a short period of time. While they can happen at any point during childhood, growth spurts are most common during early to mid-adolescence: ages 12 to 13 for girls and 13 to 15 for boys. According to Chris Fisher, a physical therapist for Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, height change can sometimes be visible in a one-week period. During such a dramatic phase of development, young dancers need to have extra patience and support surrounding their ballet training.
Bones and muscles don't always grow at the same rate; as your bones lengthen during a growth spurt, your muscles often struggle to catch up. As a result, you may notice a loss of flexibility, or aching and swelling around the joints, as well as an increased need for sleep and a stronger appetite.
Common injuries Fisher sees among growing dancers include snapping-hip syndrome (from tight hip flexors or IT bands), sacroiliac pain, lax ligaments, pain in the kneecaps from not tracking properly, Achilles tendonitis (due to tight calves) and shin splints. In addition, conditions such as Osgood-Schlatter disease, which affects the growth plate below the kneecap in adolescents, can cause excessive bone pain and inflammation.
You may also experience a temporary loss of coordination. "When young dancers quickly gain a few inches in height, they often don't know what to do with themselves, how to use this extra length," says Kim Marsh, assistant to the school director at the Orlando Ballet School. "Students need to understand this is normal and can be worked through."
Kim Marsh with students. Photo Courtesy Orlando Ballet School.
Listen to Your Body
Though you might be more vulnerable to injury, you can stay healthy during a growth spurt if you listen to your body. "Injuries are not a direct cause of a growth spurt, but they are concurrent with growing people as they are training in ballet," says Dr. Steven J. Anderson, who treats dancers from Pacific Northwest Ballet and its school. "Acute injuries are hard to prevent, but chronic issues start gradually."
If pain has been consistent for more than a week, Anderson advises simple measures such as icing, cutting back on strenuous movements (like pointework, jumps and lifts), or taking ibuprofen. If the pain persists or escalates when you work back to your normal routine, see a doctor or physical therapist. Anderson notes that any aches or pains that last longer than a week or are accompanied by swelling, loss of joint motion, numbness or instability warrant a trip to a medical professional. "If you wait too long, saying to yourself 'I can work through the pain,' you may end up with a stress fracture," says Anderson. Don't be shy about letting your teachers or parents know that you're feeling tighter than normal or experiencing new aches and pains.
A healthy diet helps too. When Henry learned that potassium, vitamin D, calcium and magnesium could help her rapidly growing body, she began to eat more green, leafy vegetables, beets, sweet potatoes, yogurt, black beans and fish. Good nutrition, plus a summer off, helped her recover from a bout of stress fractures in her shins and deal with persistent leg cramps. Don't skip out on sleep or meals, as growing bodies need both rest and fuel.
Get Back to Basics
Rapidly growing dancers should approach class with added awareness. Fisher notes that imbalances in muscle length can cause dancers to compensate in their technique. Jumping can irritate a rapidly changing body, particularly in areas where there are growth plates. Rolling in your feet, sinking excessively into your lower back or, for male dancers, leaning back too far during a lift, are examples of technical shortcuts that can leave you open to injury.
As hard as it may be, avoid comparing yourself to your classmates. "You have to use your turnout, not someone else's," says Marsh, "and this is even more true when you are going through a growth spurt, when alignment is everything. You have to focus on strengthening this new body: finding placement, proper use of turnout, core strength, incremental stretching for extra-tight muscles, and coordination."
While you can still stretch, this is not the time to do it excessively. Marsh insists that flexibility and strength will eventually come back with patience and smart work, and that your muscles and tendons need time to catch up to your bones. In the meantime, you can work on your port de bras, plié, pelvic placement and controlling your jump landings (rather than focusing on jump height). You may also need to work in ballet slippers during pointe class to find more control.
If you have to step away or modify class for a while, you can still maintain your fitness with Pilates, floor barre or swimming. As you progressively build new strength and flexibility, use this time to play with rhythm, have fun with presentation and develop your artistry.