So how do Whim W’Him‘s dancers cope with pain?
It’s a balancing act, literally and figuratively.
Says Thomas Phelan, “I’ve obviously discussed pain a lot while dancing. For example, when I’m having my students hold the splits and they complain, ‘This hurts.’
I always respond with ‘Yeah, no kidding. We’re pulling your legs in complete opposite directions!!’ I’m not sure dancers are people with initially higher pain tolerance than others, I think dancers are just realists. We have to learn the difference between performance pain and injury pain. We know that pain is inevitable in this life. Period. So as long as it’s non-life- threatening, we learn to grin and bear it. And hopefully, as they say, ‘time will heal all wounds.'”
As dancer/choreographer Penny Saunders (who created Soir Bleu for Whim W’Him’s Janurary 2015 show) noted in a recent conversation, “You dance until the balance changes and it’s not worth it any more.” Balance is the key, and Whim W’Him dancers employ a variety of approaches and techniques to keep the joys of dancing greater than its pains.
“Pain,” Mia Monteabaro says, “is felt in very different ways and in different degrees. As dancers we are demanding of our bodies and constantly trying to find that edge. We counter that by treating our bodies with just as much love and care. Our bodies are our instruments so we fine tune them, use them as much as possible, and sometimes they break. Injuries happen for many different reasons. If you don’t warm up properly, timing is off, fatigue, or you loose focus. As a dancer you accept these risks but you try to prevent them. Nobody wants an injured dancer, but things happen and you deal with them when they do. There are understudies for that reason. It’s not encouraged to push through pain, if something is hurting a dancer there can be modifications to the choreography. If you have danced long enough chances are you have had your share of aches and pains. We are constantly teaching our bodies to move in different ways resulting in different sensations sometimes good sometimes uncomfortable. Dancing is hard work and requires strong self-discipline, but if it was easy it would be boring. The most painful part about an injury is not being able to do what you love to do.”
A high pain tolerance is clearly useful, but not universal, and in fact varies widely among dancers. Whim W’Him artistic director Olivier Wevers notes that he is highly sensitive to pain while his husband, dancer Lucien Postlewaite, scarcely notices the temperature of water that Olivier perceives as scalding.
According to Justin Reiter, “As a dancer, pain, to some degree, is inevitable. As in any other artistic medium, the instrument requires work, care, upkeep, etc. Taking class, rehearsing, and performing all take a physical toll on the human body, but I see this as a tuning of my physical instrument. I accept, but don’t always embrace, pain, and the moments of bliss far outweigh the temporary aches and pains. Pain tolerance is certainly not a prerequisite to being a professional dancer. Rather, it can fog a dancer’s ability to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy pain. I try to be as sensitive as possible to the status of my body, so that I can use it accordingly. Tolerance of pain can probably be learned… Ibuprofen helps. So do foam rollers. And lacrosse balls. Maybe even tiger balm. Dealing with physical and emotional stress are all part of the job description. Yoga is my method of alleviating both of these pains. Along with long naps whenever possible.”
A recent NPR program about the how the brain perceives pain