Hiding Injuries: Why Downplaying Pain Can Lead to Bigger Problems Down the Road

November 22, 2020

Sabrina Landa was thrilled to be offered a traineeship with Pennsylvania Ballet. “As a trainee, everything felt like a chance to prove myself as a professional,” she says. Her training hours increased and she was dancing more than she ever had before. When Landa began experiencing pain in her metatarsals partway through the 2018 Nutcracker season, she notified the staff. “But in fear of losing my shows, I downplayed the severity of it,” Landa says.

She notes that no one pushed her to keep dancing but herself. “I was 18 and was aiming to receive a contract by the end of the year,” she says. “I felt so much anxiety over missing an opportunity that I was afraid to be honest about my pain.” Pennsylvania Ballet’s artistic staff were understanding and supportive, but Landa minimized her injury for the next few months, wanting to push through until the season ended and contracts were offered. But after months of pain and an onset of extreme weakness in her foot, Landa was diagnosed with two stress fractures in her second and third metatarsals. She spent the next three months on crutches and six months off dancing to allow for the fractures’ delayed healing.

The silhouette of ballerina standing backstage in the wings is shown from the waist up; she wears a long pink tutu and faces bright boom lights in the wings across the stage.

Sabrina Landa backstage while a trainee at Pennsylvania Ballet. Courtesy Landa

Hiding injuries is a common occurrence among both students and professionals. Dancers are used to pushing themselves to extremes and frequently ignore cues from their bodies until they are in significant pain. They may fear missing the next performance or being deemed lazy or injury-prone, or think admitting pain shows weakness. But while you may feel the need to “tough it out,” is pushing through an injury really the best choice?

“I think to ignore any injury, no matter how minor or major, is a mistake,” says Dr. Donald Rose, orthopedic surgeon and director of the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Health. “It’s important that the dancer recognizes the injury—what it is, if it affects a ligament or a muscle—and know what is the best treatment for it.” Those who treat their injuries early and seek medical guidance (working with a physical therapist, for example) will typically have quicker recoveries and heal more completely. In certain cases, dancing on an injury can actually have long-term consequences and result in chronic problems.

A young woman sits on the ground with her left leg tucked underneath her and grabs her right bare foot with both hands.
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Shin splints, tendinitis, stress reactions, and even stress fractures are common injuries that dancers may try cover up. Yet while you may believe you’re successfully hiding your pain, technique and ability typically suffers. Jumps become lower and pointework more restrained as the body holds back as a means of self-protection, and eventually movement starts to lack attack and energy. Directors or teachers may even misinterpret why and assume a dancer isn’t working hard in class.

“Depending on what type of pain or injury you are experiencing, if it is not addressed it may compromise your dance season,” says Roberto Forleo, artistic director of the Florida Ballet. “Ballet is a competitive business, but hiding any injury in fear of missing an opportunity is not healthy. A good director cares for his dancer’s health, and dancers should feel comfortable coming forward with any issues.”

Pain will most often continue, and even intensify, the longer you ignore an injury. “If you continue to dance it can become much worse and sometimes need more aggressive treatments, even surgery, or extended time off,” says Rose. “It may not have required that if it was treated properly and earlier, with the knowledge of what the injury is.” Don’t be afraid to consult a medical professional for advice on treating pain. Understanding your body and being able to navigate an injury are important skills a dancer needs in order to have a successful professional career.

A young athletic man with a short, dark beard and white V-neck T-shirt clutches his right shoulder with his left hand and talks to a doctor.Getty Images

If you feel afraid to tell your teacher or director about your injury, consider why you feel this way and if your fears are merited. Addressing every ache and pain with staff is clearly not necessary, and there is a big difference between soreness and an injury. But remember that you know your tool better than anyone else. Being honest with yourself and your director will often lead to the quickest and most satisfying resolution. It also shows that you are responsible. “I would hope that a dancer wouldn’t hide an injury from me, and would feel comfortable enough to talk to me about any issues they may have,” says Forleo.

In fact, your director will likely feel better about being informed, especially considering a company’s team dynamic. When you push through an injury and the pain spirals out of control, you risk being pulled from a ballet at the last minute. That leaves artistic staff scrambling to recast a piece—something that could have been avoided if handled responsibly.

If your teacher or director acts in an unsupportive way, consider if the studio or company is right for you—placing more value on a performance than on your health and well-being, or questioning your doctor’s treatment plan, is a red flag. A dancer who is treated as a disposable body will never feel respected or thrive in such an environment.

Wearing a short, flowered dress, Sabrina Landa poses in fourth position on pointe, bending her right knee. She stands on a plaza in front of a grand yellow building.Sabrina Landa. Luis Negron Photography, Courtesy Landa

When Landa finally addressed her stress fractures and took time to heal, she realized that being injured had taken a toll on more than just her body. “Hiding my injury showed me that I was not in a healthy state of mind,” says Landa. She had to take over a year off, but she has since returned to dancing, most recently with United Ballet Theatre. “It took a lot of patience and self-forgiveness, but I finally get to dance pain-free again!”