Dancer Health with Physical Therapist, Heather Herod Cole

Heather Herod Cole is a dance physical therapist based in Nashville, where she owns P3 Precision Physical Therapy Pilates Center. She has her Masters Degree in Physical Therapy from Ithaca College and is certified in orthopedic manual physical therapy via Maitland Australian Physiotherapy Seminars. Heather is an active member of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), including the Orthopedics section & Performing Arts Special Interest Group, and is an advanced clinical instructor of the APTA. Heather is also a member of International Association of Dance Medicine and Science and serves on the executive committee of the Dance/USA Task Force on Dancer Health. She is the official physical therapist for Dance Theatre of Tennessee, and currently serves on the healthcare committee for Nashville Ballet. In this Q&A, she discusses evolving attitudes about—and the availability of resources for—dancer health.

What led you to the field of physical therapy?

I was a dancer and a jock. I had a lot of injuries so I understand how important this is.

Tell us about the Dance/USA Task Force on Dancer Health.

It’s a great organization.  It was started by the Council of Managers for Dance/USA to address the tremendous need for improved dancer health care. We are an all-volunteer group of health care professionals who work with dancers. The goal is to improve health standards and care for professional dancers.

And what about the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS)?

Another wonderful organization! It brings together people studying dance medicine and science from all over the world. Advances in science dealing with dancers’ specific needs in the last few years have been very exciting—and important.  IADMS produces research and publishes reports on multiple aspects of dancer health issues. They host international conferences and publish a journal to bring scientists together for collaborations and to share ideas. We are really learning a great deal.

Is the science trickling down to teachers and students and having an impact on how people train?

Definitely.  People at all levels in the dance world are becoming significantly more aware of dancer health issues -- from companies to schools. (IADMS publishes a Bulletin for Teachers on healthy training.) I think this is due to a few factors. For one, there’s been so much progress in sports medicine that we are able to apply to dancer issues. Also there has been a rise in popularity of dance, partly based on the reality and competition TV shows. There are more dance studios than Little League teams in the US now. With more dancers comes an increased demand for science and medicine to care for them. The response to pain used to be “just suck it up and deal with it” but it really doesn’t have to be that way. And it shouldn’t be. It’s important to respond to an injury intelligently. You can give an injured area time to heal, and help it heal correctly, while continuing to move the rest of your body. The old attitude of trying to ignore the pain for fear of losing time isn’t a good, or necessary, way to handle a problem.

Of course, nobody wants to be injured to begin with. What’s your advice for preventing injuries?

You have to be a healthy person before you can be a healthy dancer. You need to make sure you have balance in your life and generally take care of yourself, emotionally and physically. Eat well. Get enough sleep. Stay hydrated. Walk in parallel. And know that there are resources out there to help you. For example, Dance/USA has several valuable informational papers online to help guide dancers in healthy decisions and practices that are totally free about things like staying healthy on tour, nutrition, dealing with depression, and health care options for uninsured or underinsured dancers.