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The Dancer Athlete: The Field of Dance Medicine and Science

This article was written by Valerie Williams, PT, DPT, OCS, Kathleen Nachazel, ATC, and Erica Coffey, PT, MS, SCS

Dance differentiates itself as a performing art by combining great artistic ability with difficult physical requirements that are comparable to sports.


There are specific techniques and standard movements, as well as expressive and creative qualities and requirements in dance. The need to excel both physically and artistically creates the challenging context in which dancers work.

For many dancers, dance is their passion, artistic outlet, and vocation. Because of the highly artistic and physically demanding requirements involved in dance, dancers are a unique type of athlete. They are accurately referred to as “performing athletes.”

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In the field of dance, there are multiple genres, including ballet, modern, and jazz. Dancers often begin training at a young age and progress through training in dance schools until the end of adolescence. If young dancers are especially talented, they may pursue a career in dance by auditioning for a professional company or collegiate program.

Injuries are a problem for the dancer beginning at a young age, with 43.1 percent of dancers between the ages of 10 to 18 becoming injured.

Collegiate dancers have self-reported injury rates ranging from 67 percent to 77 percent each semester. Annual injury frequencies in professional ballet and modern dancers have been reported to range from 67 percent to 95 percent.

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The most commonly injured body parts are similar in studies of many types of dancers and skill levels. They include:

  • Feet
  • Ankles
  • Lower leg
  • Lower back
  • Hip thigh
  • The spine and upper extremities

The injury types and severity of injuries are similar among professional dancers, with the most common being overuse injuries that do not require fully stopping dance classes, rehearsals, and performances. Traumatic injuries are less common; however, they are very costly.

High rates of musculoskeletal injuries and their associated monetary, physical, and psychological costs of injury have led to the emergence of dance medicine and science as a discipline of sports medicine, with the goal of helping keep dancers healthy.

Therefore, the treatment of dancers requires a familiarity with their needs and an extensive knowledge of the culture and demands of their sport to properly diagnose injuries and return athletes quickly and safely to activity.

UPMC is proud to sponsor Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s West Side Story Suite. Buy tickets today.