A Leap Forward for Dance Medicine


This is part of a series on PBT’s involvement in the 25th Annual Meeting of the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science. Learn more about IADMS at www.iadms.org.


Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre shares a key advantage with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Penguins – the specialized medical care of the UPMC Sports Medicine team.

Ballet dancers are artists; but they are also elite athletes, executing leaps, turns and footwork that push the boundaries of the human body. Like any professional athlete, PBT dancers rely on athletic trainers, physical therapists and physicians who understand the unique physical demands of their field.

As Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr can attest, specialized care can help dancers prevent, manage and recover from injuries – extending their careers and giving them more time in the studio and on stage.

Among the UPMC Sports Medicine team is Valerie Williams, PT, DPT, MS, OCS, a physical therapist and graduate student researcher for the Neuromuscular Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh. Her seven-year relationship with PBT has played into her doctoral research and presentations for 25th Annual Meeting of the International Association of Dance Medicine & Science.

A long-time dancer, Williams studied ballet seriously until her junior year in high school and continued dancing recreationally into college.  Dance now shapes her PT career.

“It was always an interest to work with dancers,” she said. “I think people who have danced are good to work with people who are dancing. You can speak the same language.”

She’ll be sharing her insights during a panel discussion and two presentations at the IADMS annual meeting. Another member of the PBT and UPMC Sports Medicine family – phyisical therapist Catherine Vargo – also will present during the conference.

Williams’ topics are specific and scientific – she’s working toward a dissertation comparing the way collegiate and professional dancers land jumps and whether strength predicts how well they do it. First, she’ll present her findings on the testing methods she used to analyze a classic dance jump – the grand jeté.

 “I used 3-d motion analysis to analyze a grand jeté. This is a study that looked at how accurate those measurements were,” Williams said. “A lot of injuries do happen from jumping (across all sports)….(With dance) we have different things that we look at for how they land, like at their knee or at their foot.”

Her second presentation helps therapists match specific tests with therapy settings to achieve optimal results. Some tests, for example, work well in a one-on-one clinical setting but not for back-to-back evaluations of multiple dancers. The UPMC team, for example, has found that group screenings work well for pre-season strength testing.

 “Ones that we like best are looking at their hip strength (which can affect other areas of the body). We have them try to hold their leg in a position and then we apply resistance down and see if they can hold it,” Williams said. “If they can’t, then we try to get them doing some hip strengthening exercises.”

 “It’s a really good way to look at people at the beginning of the season to say, ‘Hey, you should start exercising these muscle groups or go to the Pilates instructor for a little bit of extra conditioning.’”

Dance medicine is still a developing niche in the sports medicine field, but Williams said she thinks awareness is growing with the emergence of dance movies and TV shows in mainstream media.

 “I think it’s helping people who do research in sports medicine become more aware that dancers are athletes; they’re just different,” Williams said.  “Now it’s actually more well-received in the sports medicine community at large.”

Dancers use their bodies differently than other athletes, so they pose unique stress zones.

“Hips, ankles and feet are huge,” Williams said.  “Another hard thing when you’re working with a dancer as opposed to working with a hockey player or soccer player, is that a lot of times in other sports you can tape it up, cover it up and protect it with braces, tape or padding, and you can’t do that in dance. That’s an interesting challenge.”

Many of Williams’ colleagues on the UPMC team hold regular consultation hours at PBT Studios. But on performance day, you can find them in the wings.  Williams’ and her team members rotate shifts at the theater, helping dancers with pre-show problem areas and standing by to assist with any sudden injuries on stage.

“It’s nice when you’re backstage before a show and you’re able to work on somebody and provide a little bit of relief to get them through the show… just providing reassurance that it’s better to get this taken care of now rather than letting it become something bigger,” Williams said. “Just giving a little relief and a little encouragement, I think, goes a long way.”


PBT Physical Therapist Shares Insights on IADMS Meeting