In August 2021, during her first musical theater audition since emerging from COVID-19 lockdown, Lia-Shea Tillett was executing a turning jump when she heard a pop and felt pain shoot through her left leg. The dancer, 27 at the time, crumpled to the floor and had to be carried from the room. Two short months after returning to what she loved, she had just torn her ACL.
Since undergoing surgery in October 2021, Tillett has made a measured return to the performing arts, although her recovery is ongoing. At the time of the audition, she was dancing for Gotham Dance Theater, a contemporary and street dance company. The job was her first following the shutdown of performing arts in New York City in 2020. Tillett was heartbroken.
“It sucked because obviously so many of us were out of commission for something that was out of our control,” Tillett said, referencing the pandemic. “And then to be put out of commission by something else that was kind of out of my control — but also weirdly felt in my control because it was my body — it was weird.”
A serious injury can be a nightmare for dancers, whose jobs rely upon physical well-being more than just about any other performers’. According to three surveys of professional dancers published in medical journals over the past two decades, around 80 percent suffer at least one injury per year that affects their ability to perform. Adding insult to literal injury, Tillett thinks her tear was likely preventable. A touring theater company had requested that auditioners wear street shoes but gave choreography that was difficult to safely execute in sneakers, especially for out-of-practice post-quarantine dancers, Tillett said.
Although change has been slow, signs suggest the industry’s culture around dancer well-being is shifting. Organizations worldwide have made headlines in recent years for implementing such injury-prevention strategies as cross-training, movement workshops and anatomy and physiology lessons. Because accidents can cost dancers and their employers time and money, there is a growing focus on injury prevention, said New York performing-arts physical therapists Megan Wise and Marissa Schaeffer.
Significant portions of their practices are dedicated to teaching conditioning workshops and partnering with theater and dance companies to show employees the safest ways to train and perform. Wise and Schaeffer are former dancers, so they understand the risky movements their patients must perfect.
“When I was one of the [physical therapists] for ‘Cats,’ that was a production I had done before,” said Wise, who owns a therapy studio called The Broadway PT. “And so there were times where I would literally be on the ground with them being like, ‘Well, let’s go through your choreography,’ and doing the choreography with them, and being able to be like, ‘Well, what if we did it like this? And maybe your shoulder needs to change in this way.’”
Betsy Cooper, interim chair of dance at Marymount Manhattan College, said collegiate dance programs have also been advancing wellness practices. Much has changed since she was a dancer-in-training in the ’70s and ’80s, she said.
“I think there’s been immense progress in general in the dance field about talking about dance psychology, talking about nutrition, talking about the importance of cross-training, not over-stretching,” Cooper said.
At Marymount, professors teach dance classes with the limits of human anatomy in mind, and students pursue interdisciplinary studies in nutrition, dance medicine, physiology and other topics, Cooper said.
Schaeffer, who owns FlySpace Physical Therapy on the Upper West Side, noted that preventative care and training are especially critical for dancers. This is true not only because their ability to work depends on physical health, but also because they often lack access to quality post-injury care.
“They don’t have enough money,” Schaeffer said. “Jobs don’t offer health insurance. Even if they do offer health insurance — I’m just thinking about the performing-arts physical therapy world in New York City specifically — there are few clinics that take insurance. And those clinics are full.”
Dancers who work for premiere companies, such as the New York City Ballet, do receive health insurance through their employer or an adjacent union. However, many New York dancers don’t have that option because they work a mishmash of short-term contracts, teaching jobs, choreography gigs and side hustles. Such artists don’t earn much — New York metropolitan area dancers made an average hourly wage of $31.37 in May 2022 — and usually must buy their own insurance or go without.
The exact demographics of the city’s dance workforce are unclear, but national data provide clues. Of working U.S. dancers in 2022, 19 percent were self-employed and just 30 percent worked for performing-arts companies. (The rest worked in amusement, gambling, recreation and bar industries.) According to a 2019 report, 67 percent of New York’s music or performing arts workers had worked as freelancers in the past year.
Emily Hart Lopez, 29, a professional dancer and dance teacher, has the UnitedHealthcare Community Plan, a Medicaid-based plan. She has experienced only minor repetitive-use injuries, such as nerve impingements, hip strains and muscle spasms, but she fears she would go into debt if she were more gravely injured.
“To get the kind of care I would need if it was something that serious, it would be a huge expense for me, because the kind of insurance I have really doesn’t cover a lot of things, I’ve noticed,” Hart Lopez said.
Schaeffer served as a senior physical therapist for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from 2018 to 2022. Halfway into her time there, the pandemic highlighted the importance of holistic wellness and the financial benefit of keeping dancers out of doctors’ offices. When the company returned to the studio after seven months away, Schaeffer and the physical-therapy team oversaw a series of five-week sessions in which dancers focused entirely on training — no rehearsals.
For three hours per day, five days per week, the dancers did cardio, bodyweight training, joint-mobility conditioning and dance classes that slowly reintroduced difficult techniques into their repertoire. They attended anatomy and wellness lectures. Despite having been out of practice for more than half a year, they didn’t get seriously injured — the company saw only one worker’s-compensation case between its return and Schaeffer’s October 2022 exit to focus on her business, she said.
Although many prominent arts organizations have made similar strides toward prioritizing injury prevention, Schaeffer, Wise and Cooper all said the industry has a long way to go.
They agreed that a broader cultural change will require two elements. First, performing artists must continue becoming physical therapists and wellness-focused dance educators, as many have. Second, the next frontier of dance institutions needs to follow larger organizations’ leads: hometown, pre-professional and competitive studios. The earlier that dancers learn to care for their bodies and minds, the longer they can benefit.
“We really need to invest in our training programs and the spaces and places where dancers are learning what it means to be a dancer,” Schaeffer said.
Tillett thinks she might not have experienced such a traumatic injury if more of her early career had been spent learning the right ways to train, to listen to her body, and to safely dance with various shoe and surface types. Still, despite the impact on her career — she now dances less intensively and prioritizes acting more — Tillet is in some ways grateful for her experience.
“I’m not going to bend myself over backward for anybody; I’m not going to kill myself in order to get a job anymore,” Tillett said. “I think I used to really be like, ‘I have to prove myself. I have to do things that I’m not necessarily comfortable doing — push myself.’ And I definitely don’t really think like that anymore. I put my safety first.”