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Returning To Dance After Injury

Updated: Mar 16


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Figuring out when you're "ready" to get back to dancing after an injury can be a tricky balance. You want to get back to the activity you love as soon as possible, but it's important to make sure you're not going back before your body has had a chance to fully recover to prevent the same injury from happening again. One of the best tools we can use to assess your readiness to get back to dance is with return-to-sport testing.


Return-to-sport testing is widely used by physical therapists working with athletes who want to do exactly that: get back to playing their sport. These tests provide measurable (objective) data to help determine your readiness to get back to your sport without re-injury.


There are dozens of return-to-sport tests used and researched regularly, but these tests are most often designed for athletes who play "traditional" sports like soccer, football, or basketball. Sports like these require lots of running, pivoting, cutting, and even physical contact with other athletes--all of which place these athletes at high risk for specific injuries.


Irish dance requires the same level of athleticism as these sports, but as dancers we do not run, pivot, cut, or (purposefully) come into contact with other dancers, so the most frequently seen injuries in Irish dance can be different from other sports. Furthermore, the mechanics of Irish dance are different than those of these more "traditional" sports, so return-to-dance testing should reflect these unique demands.


With this in mind, we've put together a few tests that provide objective data relevant to Irish dancers looking to get back to dance. This checklist of tests objectively measures mobility, stability, strength, and speed--all key to the unique style of Irish dance.


Return to Dance Checklist:

Knee-to-Wall Test

This test measures your ankle dorsiflexion, or the ability of your ankle to flex. While the ability to point your toes down (ankle plantarflexion) is important to dance, ankle dorsiflexion is key to maintaining healthy foot mechanics and calf muscle length. Furthermore, after ankle injuries--especially sprains--or being in a boot for an extended period of time, ankle range of motion tends to be extremely limited. Objectively assessing this range of motion is key to the early phase of returning to dance!


To complete this test, stand in front of a wall with your uninjured side's toes right up against the wall. Keeping your heel on the ground, try and tap your knee to the wall. If you can touch the wall, back your foot up approximately one inch at a time and repeat until you cannot touch the wall without lifting your heel. Measure or mark the furthest point that you could tap your knee to the wall, and repeat on the injured leg. The two measurements should be equal to pass this test.



Here you see Ella completing the knee-to-wall test, starting with her toes right up against the wall, then bending her knee to tap it. She then slightly backs her foot away and repeats the test, keeping her heel on the ground. Back as far away from the wall as you can without letting your heel pop up at all, as seen in the third picture, and then measure the distance from the wall to your toes.


Single Leg Calf Raises

Research from the Australian Ballet Company [1] found that calf muscle endurance - the ability to maintain strength over a period of time - helped prevent ankle injuries in their dancers. Specifically, they reported dancers who could do a minimum of 25 single leg calf raises had fewer ankle injuries than those who could not. With this research in mind, 25 single leg calf raises serves as a baseline for dancers working on returning to dance after injury.


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This test assesses this calf muscle endurance, but also requires foot and ankle stability and mobility to successfully complete it, making it an important part of the return to dance checklist!


To complete this test, stand near a wall or chair to hold onto for balance. Standing on your uninjured leg first, lift onto your toes and lower your heel back down to the ground with control. Count how many you can do without having to stop and rest! Notes on form: make sure your weight stays between your first and second toes as you lift off your heel, and that your knee stays straight when you lift. Any rep where your knee bends or you roll onto the outside of your foot will not count towards 25 reps!


Shoe Balance Test

Stability is essential to decreasing your risk from injury. One of the biggest factors in maintaining stability is proprioception--or your body's ability to know where it is in space. After injury, the specialized receptors that sense this information and send it to your brain can become damaged and struggle to keep your body in safe alignment. For example, after an ankle sprain these receptors forget how to keep your ankle in a neutral alignment, so if you land "off" your ankle is more likely to roll again.


One of the best ways we can assess proprioception is with balance exercises like this test. To complete this test, start with your shoes and socks off and in front of you while you balance on your uninjured leg first. Pick up and put on your sock and shoe and tie your shoe without losing your balance, then repeat on your injured leg.


Loss of balance counts as:

  • Putting your back foot down

  • Resting your back foot on your standing leg

  • Hopping

  • Touching the ground with your hand



Single Leg Glute Bridges

While you might think of your "core" as only being your abdominals, the core muscles are actually all of the muscles that provide stability to your shoulders, spine, and hips--including the glutes. Your glutes, or the muscles in your bum, are essential to the stability of your entire leg. According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a lack of core control increases strain on the surrounding bones, joints, and ligaments and has been related to increased risk of injury in the lower back and legs [2]. With this in mind, strong glutes are essential to rehabbing one injury while also preventing future injuries!


To complete this test, start laying on your back with your injured leg lifted and uninjured leg on the ground. Tuck your hips under by bringing your hip bone closer to your ribs, then press through your heel to lift your bum off the ground, then lower to the ground and repeat. Set a timer for 1 minute and count how many you can do on your uninjured leg, then write down this number. Repeat on your injured leg. Make sure you're using good form for the entire 60 seconds!



You'll then have to do a bit of math to get a final number. Take the number of reps on your injured leg and divide it by the uninjured leg, then multiply times 100. Let's say I did 25 reps on my injured leg and 27 on my uninjured leg. This would look like: 25 / 27 = 0.92 x 100 = 92%.


To pass this test, we want this number to be greater than 90%, which means there is less than a 10% difference from side to side. If your number is less than 90%, this means your injured leg has less glute strength endurance than your uninjured leg. If your number is greater than 100, it means your injured leg is stronger than your uninjured leg! Generally, a 10% difference in strength from side to side is considered normal, as we all have a "dominant" leg that will be slightly stronger than the other. If your number is over 110, it means your injured leg is significantly stronger than your uninjured leg, and this uninjured leg could be at risk for future injury.


0-89%: uninjured leg is weaker, test is not passed

90-110%: legs are functionally equal, test is passed

111% or more: uninjured leg is at risk for injury


Single Leg Cross Jumps

In a championship length reel, dancers on average hop or land on one foot over 100 times! This means that to safely return to dance after injury, we need to make sure you have enough single leg stability to land each of these hops or jumps safely on each leg. Additionally, the style of Irish dance requires dancers to quickly spring off of each landing and into the next hop or jump--meaning you need speed and power in addition to stable landings.

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To complete this test, start in your gym shoes and draw an imaginary box on the ground. Starting with your uninjured leg, set a timer for 20 seconds and hop onto the 4 corners of the box, counting how many hops you can do in the time. Write down how many hops you did and repeat on your injured leg.


Just like the previous test, we'll need to use some quick math to get our final number, but we'll be using the exact same formula! Take the number of hops on your injured leg and divide it by the uninjured leg, then multiply times 100. Let's say I did 52 hops on my injured leg and 57 on my uninjured leg. This would look like: 52 / 57 = 0.91 x 100 = 91%.


The same rules for passing this test apply here as well:

0-89%: uninjured leg is weaker, test is not passed

90-110%: legs are functionally equal, test is passed

111% or more: uninjured leg is at risk for injury



When working through these tests, use the table below to help keep track of the results of each test!

Test

Criteria to Pass

Your result

Knee to Wall Test

Distance from wall even on both sides


Single Leg Calf Raise Test

25 calf raises on each leg


Shoe Balance Test

Can complete without losing balance


Single Leg Glute Bridge Test

(Injured leg / uninjured leg) x100 = between 90-110%


Single Leg Cross Jump Test

(Injured leg / uninjured leg) x100 = between 90-110%


It's important to note that passing this checklist does not mean that you are ready for competition. These tests are meant to be a baseline measurement of your readiness to return to dancing without modifications like not doing big jumps or limiting the amount of time you're at class. Additionally, passing all of these tests does not mean you're immune to injuries happening again down the road. Instead, these tests assess your mobility, stability, and strength to help measure your risk of re-injury. No test or exercise can completely prevent injuries!


The results of these tests can also help guide your training. Let's say you passed the knee to wall, single leg calf raise, and glute bridge tests, but struggled with the shoe balance and single leg hop tests. This means you have good mobility and strength, but should keep working on improving stability and reactive power, or the ability to land one jump safely and begin another quickly.


If you are working your way back to dance after an injury, make sure you're taking care of your injury by using these tests as a baseline to assess your readiness to return to dance while ALSO seeing your doctor or licensed physical therapist to help you prevent further injury.





 

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[1]. Strength beats stretch | the Australian ballet. The Australian Ballet. (2018). https://australianballet.com.au/blog/strength-beats-stretch


[2]. International Association of Dance Medicine & Science, Education Committee, (2015). Core Control: "Not Just Abdominals." IADMS, retrieved from https://www.iadms.org/blogpost/1177934/211325/Core-Control--Not-just-abdominals?hhSearchTerms=%22core%22&terms=.



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