Dancing through Pain

By Haydee Ferguson

“Pain has an important function”

Pain is the body’s way to force you to pay attention to something that is not right, something that is harmful, or something in they way you are treating your body needs to change. If you start to force yourself to ignore it, endure it, or in different ways soothe it without at the same time dealing with the causes, you also stop having access to this information that the body gives you. If you continue to dance through pain you are putting yourself at risk of further injury.

Do you think pain is normal in dance?

Around 80% of the dancers I ask this question say “yes”. Some of these dancers are as young as 10 years old. I find it alarming that we have this idea of normalising pain within dance, where dancers “push through” pain and potential injury thinking they are letting their teachers or their team down if they have time off. Dancers often come to see me and say that they get pain in their hips with grande battements a la seconde or pain at the back of their ankle when they pointe their foot… And finish the sentence with “but that’s normal for me”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Pain is the body’s way of telling you to pay attention to something that is not right. Sometimes it is something that is harmful or it may be something in the way you treat your body that needs to change. If you start forcing yourself to ignore it, tolerate it or ease it without taking the time to deal with the cause, you will stop having access to this important information that the body gives out. So pain serves an important function.

Pain is an output, 100% of the time, no exceptions. Pain is something you experience and is your brains interpretation of pressure, temperature and/or chemical stimuli. It is influenced by attitudes, beliefs, personality and social factors, and can affect emotional and mental wellbeing.


There are 3 types of pain

1. Nociceptive

The early warning physiological protective system. This is the early alarm system of the body letting you know that you need to stop and pay attention. E.g. the sharp pain you feel when you roll your ankle when landing from a jump.

2. Inflammatory

Assists in the healing of the injured body part by creating a situation that discourages physical contact and movement. E.g. swelling around your ankle that stops you from being able to move it after you have rolled it..

3. Dysfunctional

Maladaptive, resulting from abnormal functioning of the nervous system. E.g. an ankle that is still painful months later and stopping you from being able to return to your full dance load even though the original injury has completely healed.

Good Pain vs Bad Pain

Pain from muscles that have been worked in the day or two before (often described as “good pain”) is generally ok to push through. This type of muscle ache is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). It usually warms up with exercise and settles over 3-5 days. It usually occurs at the beginning of term after holidays or when learning new skills and using muscles in a different way. Pain that does not ease after 3-5 days or gets worse throughout a class should not be ignored. This sort of pain usually happens when something has crossed the line and is harmful.

The earlier little niggles are picked up and managed the less likely a dancer is to have to sit out of class completely. If injuries are respected and allowed to settle in in the early stages, the dancer may only need to modify their class load or choreography and at the most require a couple of days off dancing. Injuries that are ignored and pain pushed through may require weeks or months off dancing and an intensive rehabilitation program put in place.

Pain and injury can be a gift. I know this is a strange thing to say, but when we take time out to allow our body to rest and recover we can strengthen our awareness and respect for our body. 

Enjoy this inspiring short film made when Principal Artist of the Royal Ballet, Lauren Cuthbertson was returning to the stage after sustaining a severe ankle injury.

Haydee Ferguson.

Physiotherapist with a dance history spanning more than 25 years.

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