Deep Relief

How Massage Helps You Dance

By Nancy Alfaro

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/Winter

Massage. The word evokes visions of serenity and relaxation. But for dancers who work long days, massage is also a basic requirement for maintaining physical and mental health.

Massage practitioners study a variety of techniques and may combine different styles within a typical hour-long session. Dancers may experience Eastern massage forms like shiatsu or acupressure (Japanese compression massage based on Chinese theories of health and well-being), or Thai massage, which incorporates yoga-like stretching to increase range of motion. The therapist may also include Western styles like deep-tissue, Swedish, or myofascial release. All three include long, gliding strokes and kneading. They focus on releasing chronic tension patterns in deeper layers of muscle tissue, alleviating chronic pain, and increasing blood and lymph circulation.

Michael Leslie, massage therapist for the San Francisco Ballet, finds deep-tissue work in greatest demand there. “It helps dancers use their bodies better because it aids their alignment,” he says. It also softens tissue and helps muscles release so they “fall back into place.” Deep-tissue massage also helps normalize muscle tone, allowing dancers to perform better at the next rehearsal or performance.

Frequency of sessions varies according to schedule and individual preference. Russ Beasley, massage therapist for both Broadway and American Ballet Theatre dancers, works on some dancers on a daily basis and with others on a weekly or bimonthly basis. Most of his dance clients come in for a weekly visit on their day off, with occasional extra visits during the week for spot work. Beasley feels the weekly sessions allow therapists to get to know a dancer’s likes and dislikes, and allow for a better understanding of the unique aspects of each dancer’s body.

Injury often plays a role in what areas get worked. “First we’ll look at the muscle groups surrounding the injured part to see what we can do to keep those areas functioning optimally,” says Jennifer Levitz, a former Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer who is now a company massage therapist. “When inflammation decreases, we work right on the injured area to restore function.” Leslie says that working with tissue surrounding the trauma area will enhance the healing process, since it improves circulation to the area. Work on a typical overuse injury can start within a day.

Beasley feels massage rarely makes things worse for a dancer, but a physician should evaluate injuries first, especially if there’s bruising or if pain prevents sleep. “Generally, injuries need a period of rest before being treated with massage, whether it’s 24 hours, several weeks, or longer,” he says. Once an injury has been properly identified, and the physician gives an okay, massage is safe when approached conservatively.

All agree that, by taking on mild soreness before it becomes a bigger problem, massage can help prevent injury. “At Twyla Tharp’s Broadway production of Movin’ Out, the overwhelming consensus of the performers was that massage was the single most effective technique to keep them going and to limit injury,” Beasley says.