Warning: Salsa can be dangerous to your health!

Anyone who has been dancing salsa for any length of time has surely experienced that painful spike heel in the foot, the elbow that smacked into your head and nearly concussed you, that unwise move or sudden dip that nearly ended up giving either you or a partner an unintended black eye or severe muscle strain and, of course, the manifold bruises that are our usual ‘evidence’ of a hot night dancing at a packed, popular club. While you may emit a sudden yelp, limp off the dancefloor briefly and/or glare/curse at the particular dancefloor villain who inflicted your injury, usually you just chalk it up to a ‘normal’ hazard of the night or shrug it all off with a ‘no pain, no gain’ attitude. But what about SERIOUS dance-related injuries? Surely they just happen to the professional performers, teachers and international salsa stars, don’t they?

Well, I hate to tell you this, but NO! They can happen to anyone – and WILL happen to any keen social salsero/a eventually, if they are not careful – I should know, as I am currently (after 12+ years of frequent social dancing, 10 of which have also involved teaching regularly) dealing with: right-knee patellar tendonitis (from a previous ligament injury but exacerbated by dancing); left-hip trochanteric bursitis (all those spin preps!) and right-arm tendonitis (commonly called ‘tennis elbow’, but I refer to it as ‘Cuban salsa elbow’), not to mention quite pronounced bunions (from years of wearing too-high heels to dance in and doing frenetic pachanga/boogaloo swivels on the ball of the foot), all of which are overuse injuries caused by an excessive addiction to salsa! So, if you love your salsa (and of course you do, or you would hardly be reading this), please pay attention to the following warnings and advice.

 

WHY INJURIES HAPPEN

First of all, salsa (and mambo, of course) dance, whether we think of it as such or not, is effectively an extremely competitive sport. It is also in fact one of the most highly aerobic forms of exercise we can engage in, so it is going to be an immediate challenge for anyone who is unfit, such as those new to dancing or those who haven’t danced in a while. It is also always going to be difficult NOT to sustain an injury when you are: a. tired; b. have a previous injury or pre-existing medical condition; c. dancing in a hazardous environment (or with a hazardous partner) – but more about these later; or d. trying to do something your body is not yet practically prepared for.

As with any intensive sport, salsa requires many hours of training and practice, particularly if one’s aim is either continually to become better or, especially, the best. And let’s face it, from the moment any of us began dancing salsa, we have always wanted to get better. As we get better, we perhaps begin to compare ourselves with others, or decide we want to be at least as good as so-and-so. So we attend more classes, buy more videos to practice with at home, have more one-to-one sessions with teachers we admire, and attend congresses and workshops halfway around the world. And once we get really good and are acknowledged as such, either we are in frequent demand as teachers or decide we want to try our hand at official competitions – either way, we are now constantly exercising, constantly stretching and extending our muscles, constantly on the go, constantly taxing our bodies. So what is bound to happen at some point, whether we ever make it to a professional level or not, is an injury.

 

TYPES OF INJURY

One-third of all sports injuries are related to overuse; 80% of these are in the ankle, foot or knee, but can also occur in the calf, hip and lower back – so that is obviously relevant, since these are the limbs and body parts we are most constantly exercising when we dance salsa. Thus, if you are as addicted to salsa as I am, and do it long enough, you are quite likely to incur an overuse injury.

Of sports injuries in general, the most common are:

1)    sprains and strains – muscles and ligaments can be overstretched or twisted, causing long-term damage if repeatedly exercised as these can result in small tears in the muscle.

2)    stress fractures – repetition and force needed for various moves, such as those involving jumping – can eventually cause small (‘hairline’) fractures in the bones of the foot and ankle.

3)    tendonitis – this is a painful inflammation of a tendon (connective soft tissue that helps anchor muscles to bones), as in the Achilles tendon in the ankle or the elbow tendon, resulting in ‘tennis elbow’.

4)    blisters – usually from ill-fitting shoes or other clothing causing chafing to skin.

5)    toenail injuries – usually caused by wearing shoes that crowd and force the toes together, causing bruising of toenails or ingrown toenails  (these are also a contributing cause of bunions, an often painful deformity of the foot that is usually hereditary).

6)      impact injuries – these are usually in the form of a bruise or impact to a joint from falling, or bumping into other dancers or nearby props or furniture. 

 

Injuries specific to salsa:

Of the injuries that are specific to salsa dancing, most are incurred during spins and pivots, so are more likely to affect women than men. However, a few of these apply to both men and women. These include:

1)     Hip pain– Edie the Salsa Freak has already written on the topic of right-hip pain being prevalent in female salsa dancers due to the constant strain on that hip from preparation for spins on the right; however, as I am presently suffering from left-hip pain and know of other female dancers who, like me, originally trained in the Cuban-Colombian style of salsa, in which the man always leads the woman on her right to then turn her to the left, it is then actually the left hip that is bearing most of the strain of the spin in this style.

2)    Strain on the medial ligament – from constant bending/straightening of the legs and transferring weight from one leg to the other repeatedly, as we do in salsa and other Latin dances (eg merengue, cha cha cha).

3)    Shoulder, knee or hip dislocations – these are serious, though not uncommon injuries, which are usually the result of trauma to the ball-and-socket joint caused by forceful impact (as in a fall). However, the kneecap can also become dislocated through sudden twisting, and the shoulder can be dislocated when it is forcefully twisted into an awkward position, such as in a violent, jerky or improperly executed move or spin. Female dancers are more likely to be susceptible to knee dislocations as they may have improper leg alignment or their quadricepts muscle may be out of shape.

4)    Excessive dehydration and heat stroke – dehydration is the loss of water and salts that are essential to the body’s normal function; it occurs when the body loses more fluid than it takes in. If a person becomes dehydrated and cannot sweat enough to cool their body, their internal temperature may rise to dangerously high levels and cause heat stroke.

5)    Exercise-related migraine – one salsera I know told me that she had experienced a sudden, excruciating onset of migraine (having never had this before) after continuing to dance for several hours when she was severely dehydrated.

6)    Bruises and punctures – from forceful impact with other dancers or dancers’ high heels or jewellery. Some of these can be quite painful; if there is swelling or a wound is open and bleeding, it may be necessary to stop dancing and apply ice to the affected area, or to clean and sterilise the wound and then apply a bandage to prevent infection.

7)    Lower-back injuries – dancing on concrete or other hard-floor surfaces places a lot of strain on the spine and lower back, which may then become more susceptible to injury.

8)    Plantar fascial strain to foot – this is a series of fine tears in the sheet of fibrous tissues extending from the foot to the heel. It is one of the most common foot injuries experienced by dancers, and occurs as a result of a jarring strain to the foot from dancing on hard surfaces.

9)      I am sure there are many more that I have missed out; please feel free to add your comment at the end of this article if you or someone you know has experienced any other type of salsa-specific injury.

 

Particular risk factors for injury to salsa dancers include:

1)    Failure to rest or recover properly from a previous injury – this is the most common cause of serious injury to salsa dancers. I’ve done it, and everyone I know who has had an injury has done it; it seems we just can’t stop dancing long enough, even when it hurts like hell, to give our bodies a chance to heal! But if we do not, we are likely to make what would only be a short-term injury into a chronic one, which may later require surgery and complete, forced rest (compare two weeks of not dancing to six months of not dancing, if you need any persuading to rest now).

2)    Tiredness and fatigue – not only does this affect your ability to perform moves or spins properly, it is also the time when your defences are down and you are less likely to execute care in your leading or following, thus an injury can easily happen.

3)    Failure to warm up properly beforehand – as with the effect of tiredness on concentration, muscles that are not properly stretched or warmed up prior to sustained salsa dancing are weakened and much more vulnerable to injury, particularly if you are performing or training intensively for a show.

4)    Over training– dancing for too long or too often, as for competitions, can lead to many repetitive or overuse injuries, particularly affecting the tendons and bones.

5)    General lack of fitness – dancing when you are overweight or unfit is likely to place a strain on your lungs and heart as they struggle to take in and circulate oxygen properly.

6)    Inexperience – beginners are especially vulnerable to injury because they haven’t yet mastered proper leading/following techniques; are nervous and therefore prone to tense their bodies instead of trusting their leader/leadership; and have not yet built up proper aerobic strength for sustained salsa dancing (eg anything more than 20 minutes of solid dancing counts as sustained salsa dancing).

7)    Poor posture and/or bad technique for spinning – not centring your weight properly will affect your balance, leading to a fall or placing undue strain on parts of your body as you will always attempt to compensate to prevent a fall.

8)    Breathing problems – breathing is essential to health and affects all the organs and muscles. It is far too easy to become out of breath or feel faint or dizzy, thus weakening the muscles and predisposing to injury, when doing multiple spins or a series of very fast, complicated moves to very fast music.

9)    Not maintaining adequate hydration – as mentioned, this can cause dizziness, faintness, heart palpitations or migraine/black-out and even lead to heat stroke. These symptoms can lead to further injury in addition to other long-term effects on internal organs. Drinking excessive alcohol, combined with high temperatures and failing to drink sufficient water while dancing intensively, is particularly dangerous.

10)  Foot/ankle problems – these most often occur because of the ankle being turned in or out forcefully, which can also occur because of improper footwear or flooring.

11)  Improper shoes– this includes shoes that are too tight around the toes or heel; are either too big (thus not supporting the ankle sufficiently to be safe when executing spins or pivots) or too small (thus tend to chafe the skin, giving rise to blisters or toenail problems); do not give adequate flexibility to the foot or support to the ankle properly, as in having an ankle strap or covering the ankle; or are to high and thus likely to affect your balance.

      Ladies, please take note: apart from spike heels being a lethal weapon on the dancefloor that should actually be banned for being as anti-social and dangerous to others as cigarette smoke, wearing heels that are too high predisposes you to injury as they throw your weight forward, thus placing more strain on your lower back as you tend to lean back to compensate. They can also contribute to bunions (a generally hereditary deformity of the big toe and other toes that can be extremely painful), as more strain is placed on the ball of the foot, thus affecting the bones of the toes and foot. They don't call 'em 'killer heels' for nothing!

12)  Hazardous flooring – The laws of physics state that there is a ‘ground restrictive force’, in which the ground pushes back when force is applied to it, which means the floor itself actually causes added resistance to movement, eg spins and pivots. Hence, when a woman comes out of a spin or pivot, she usually needs to step back (eg apply force to the ground, which will then offer her resistance, which in turn helps her regain her balance). However, difficult floors — eg, floors that are uneven or sloping; where there are rips in the carpets or cracks or holes in the joins; where there are puddles or even broken glass from spilt or dropped drinks; or where the surface is sticky — can seriously impede spins as they affect both the mechanics of the spin and the resistance needed to regain balance after a spin. If there is a fall, it will depend on how resilient the floor is as to the amount of injury, because if it is too hard, there will be a risk of greater impact and force; however, if the floor is too springy, there may be too much strain on the muscles, particularly the soft-tissue muscle around the joints. A slippery floor will cause a dancer to tighten up his/her calf and foot muscles in order to attempt a better grip, which can cause muscle fatigue and strain, whereas a sloping floor will force the dancer to make even more adjustments that place increased stress on joints and soft tissue.

13)  Beyond the issue of flooring, salsa clubs and venues are often riddled with environmental hazards — for example, furniture that juts onto the dancefloor, such as corners of tables or chairs; poor lighting, particularly in small corners; poor staging areas; split levels of dancefloors where there is no railing or banister to separate the levels; not enough separate space near the bar to protect dancers from drinkers/drinks; pillars or other architectural elements in the middle of the dancefloor; kitchen doors or doors for waiting staff that open onto the dancefloor, etc.

14)  Human hazards – these generally come in two varieties: wild dancers, who have absolutely no awareness of the force of their leads or of other dancers dancing nearby; and non-dancers who prefer to stand around the dancefloor with drinks or lit cigarettes in hand, oblivious to the fact that fast-moving objects are hurtling towards them at a rate of noughts. Occasionally these two varieties merge to form an even more dangerous hazard, which is the drunken non-dancer who suddenly believes he or she can dance, or who will attempt to pick a fight with dancers or other non-dancers in the middle of a dancefloor (see my comments on Floridita in ‘A night to remember — for all the wrong reasons’) — either way, these people can unwittingly contribute to many an injury, as dancers may attempt to swerve to avoid them, and thus bang into furniture or other dancers.

15)  Psychological factors – while dancing may make you feel better if you are feeling stressed, angry or depressed, it is not a long-term cure for these issues, and exercising vigorously when underlying psychological factors are disturbing you can also affect your body’s ability to function properly and to ‘bounce back’ if you sustain an injury. It is also possible that taking any negative attitudes with you onto the dancefloor may make you a hazard to others as well as to yourself.

 

TIPS FOR AVOIDING OR DEALING WITH INJURY

Ever notice how you feel great as long as you are dancing, but as soon as you stop, all the aches and pains appear? That just shows you how much wear and tear you are placing on your body — so while the exercise is great for you, remember to pace yourself and not overdo it, particularly if you are aware of any pre-existing injuries. If you experience any pain or sudden drop in energy, make sure you have a rest between dances — or perhaps take your body’s cue that it is time to leave!

It is really essential to build up your stamina gradually, and then continue to maintain it. As a competitive sport, salsa dancing requires the same commitment and discipline that any athlete would apply, namely: proper nutrition, sleep and proper rest (this can be a challenge for salsa dancers because of all the late nights dancing in clubs), and cross-training in other dance styles (ballet, jazz, hip-hop, flamenco, belly dance, etc) and sports such as swimming, yoga or Pilates.

If you are no longer doing lessons before joining the club to dance, make sure you warm up and stretch your muscles properly beforehand. (Note: if teachers fail to teach you how to stretch or include stretching exercises as a warm-up/cool-down before/after a lesson, the onus is on you to do it yourself – however, see section on liability.)

Regular performance of strengthening exercises, such as those advised by a physiotherapist, will help both to prevent an injury occurring and to protect an area of injury and facilitate its healing. If you have sustained any injury, please make sure you speak to a properly trained and qualified physiotherapist and do any exercises they advise, as it is important to keep the muscles moving, though not in any adverse way. Proper strengthening will ensure the muscle maintains its elasticity without becoming strained.

Understanding your body’s limitations will help you to develop dance techniques that complement your physical abilities, and will keep you dancing longer, stronger and better. Dancing is best when it appears smooth and effortless, which is also good for your body’s conditioning as well as your ego — so a basic rule of thumb is: that if it is putting a strain on your body and does not feel natural, it is not good dancing, nor is it good for you. It is good to stretch yourself with new moves or movements, but if these feel awkward or uncomfortable, your body is clearly telling you that they are not for you, or not done in that way, or perhaps just not for you yet. Learn to listen to your body, rather than assuming that because some teacher demonstrates a move you should be able to do it exactly as he/she does it — many teachers teach moves that may be suitable for a performance but are not really suitable for a social dance occasion. Also, while it may be easy to them to do these moves because they have several years’ more training than you, you may either seriously injure yourself or your dance partner if you try to do these moves before you have practised them sufficiently so that they flow smoothly and easily.

Don’t dance when you are tired, ill or stressed, as you are not only likely to be sloppier in your leading/following, you are also much more likely to sustain an injury and/or strain your muscles, or spread your illness/stress to others! Too many dancers continue to dance when they are clearly exhausted or not really ‘in the right place’ to be dancing. If this is you, do yourself and everyone else a favour, and get off the dancefloor now! Contrary to a salsa addict’s belief, salsa will still be there if you have a break from it; and sometimes giving yourself the time and space you need to recover properly will help you to come back to it with a renewed passion and strength.

Always make sure you consult a doctor before taking up salsa or resuming dancing after an injury, especially if you are pregnant or have any serious pre-existing or newly emergent medical conditions (eg heart condition), or are using any medications that will affect your blood pressure or heart rate.

Mantaining adequate hydration is important in any sport, but it is particularly essential for sustained salsa dancing. It is no good drinking alcohol or caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea or Coca-cola as substitutes for water, as these further dehydrate the body — so make sure you drink at least one full litre of water for every 20-30 minutes of sustained dancing, and twice that if also drinking alcohol or another dehydrant.

Too many clubs these days have un-dancer-friendly policies regarding water consumption, either refusing to supply this freely to dehydrated dancers (I believe this is still in breach of the law [certainly of health and safety regulations], though trying to win this argument in a club once you are inside and a captive punter is not easy, as I have experienced previously at a well-known London venue – the only solution I know of therefore is to avoid such clubs if this is known to be the situation), forcing you to pay inordinate amounts for bottled water or insisting on throwing out or taking away any bottled water you may have brought with you. Therefore, my advice is to drink 1-2 litres BEFORE you even hit the dancefloor — that way you start the evening with a ‘full tank’ of  hydration, and are less likely to get dehydrated quickly!

As the water in the UK is one of the cleanest in the world, you are always safe to drink tap water here – though do strive to avoid taking another dancer’s drink by mistake, as this is one way to spread infection.

Your attitudes toward your dance partner will not only determine whether you are a good or popular dancer, they will also determine whether you are a SAFE dancer, so try to be considerate to your partner, and be aware that he or she may have injuries or health concerns that may affect their ability to dance in certain ways. I actually only know of ONE male leader (Tyson) who regularly asks at the beginning of the dance whether or not his partner has any injuries he should know about — this is an excellent practice that others would do well to emulate, and is one reason I have always sought him out since his attitude has always made me feel protected and comfortable.

Because of my present ‘Cuban salsa elbow’ tendonitis, I must actively avoid: learners who cannot lead spins properly yet; any dancers who appear to be out of control or dangerous (which includes some leaders who fling their female partners around like rag dolls, oblivious to dangerous floors, broken glass or pillars); dancers who tend to lead on only that side of the body (Cuban-Colombian-only dancers are most often the worst offenders, even if I otherwise enjoy this style); or any dancers who have previously used excessive force or otherwise uncomfortable leads with me — particularly as I have discovered that most of them either do not listen or cannot hear me when I try to explain that certain movements hurt, and they must be careful with that arm. Basically, if they keep repeating a painful or awkward move that I think is likely to cause or exacerbate an injury, I just avoid dancing with them.

Ladies need to be responsible for controlling their own spins and for supporting their own weight during a dip. It is important to centre your body properly for a spin and to bend the knees and elbows to manage your own body weight and maintain your own centre during a spin (although essentially this is what the leader is doing when he is leading you in a spin — centring you). It is also essential that you learn to support your own body weight in a dip or lean rather than hurling this on to a partner. Try practising bending your knees and twisting from your waist as you lean back (as in a twist-dip), with all of your weight supported by your thighs, so that you know how to support your own weight in a dip without relying on your partner to support you — again, they should act as a frame for your dip, rather than the actual foundations.

Men need to be aware of the ladies’ height and ability when leading spins if you pitch a spin too high, she will struggle to keep her proper spin technique and form and can lose balance; if it is too low, she may bend awkwardly to try to avoid hitting your outstretched arm. Although this can be a serious problem where there are obvious height differences, it need not be if you follow the simple rule of preparing your lead for the spin by gauging the level of the lady’s eyes, then raising your hand just slightly above this so that it is effectively just above her head (of course this means you must actually look at her to do this properly).

 

If you are leading an unknown dance partner, the usual rule is to do a few simple spins first and then add as you go along, once you are confident that she can handle more (while I am quite happy doing 20 spins on my ‘good’ side, I can only manage about 7 on my ‘bad’ side, but everyone is different). Please also be aware that your lead of spins or moves can go seriously wrong if you are unaware of how the floor or environment may be affecting your partner — if you lead her to spin on an uneven floor and she is injured as a result, it may be that you are liable as well as the venue manager!

Always check with a teacher to ensure your spinning technique is correct if there is any doubt. Spinning well takes years of practice and can always be improved; don’t be afraid to ask as it will only help you to improve, and may also protect both you and your dance partners from injury. 

 

A NOTE TO TEACHERS, PROMOTERS AND VENUE OWNERS/MANAGERS ABOUT LIABILITY:

Perhaps it is because I am American-born, thus hail from the land of litigation, or because I have been teaching salsa for several years under the auspices of Adult Learning -- where all teachers are required to do environmental health and safety assessments prior to commencing a course, and are also usually required to have both public and personal injury liability insurance cover — I am very aware that both teachers, promoters and venue owners/managers may be made liable for claims involving injuries to students or participants that can be traceable to a fault in their teaching, or in the equipment or set-up of the venue.

Although it may be impracticable or impossible to take a full health or risk-assessment survey of a class of 250 or so that changes every night, teachers do need to be aware of any potential health and safety risks, including assessing the level of ability in their classes, and should guard against teaching too-difficult or too-strenuous moves that may cause injury if those leading them are really not ready for them. They should also be aware that while plenty of moves may be follow-able during a lesson, where it is all explained and broken down, they do not necessarily translate safely to a social dance situation where the students are practising the routine with people who were not in the class — this does happen all too often, I’m afraid. I’ve seen far too many would-be advanced leaders attempt a move learned in a class that would have been fine if led by the very experienced teacher or in the context of a show, but that really was not suited for a social dance — or at least to be led by that level of student. And teachers, who do you think is actually responsible if something goes seriously wrong and someone gets injured? Most likely, you!!!

Promoters and venue managers/owners — you should also be aware of any potential health and safety hazards in any venue on which you are hosting an event, as if there are any serious injuries or even fatalities (I am thinking of clubbers who have died from a combination of drink/drugs, serious dehydration and heat stroke), you may be held liable. If a performer twists his/her ankle on a stage because of faulty flooring and suffers a loss of livelihood as a result of the injury, they may claim against you. Similarly, if a club becomes too crowded and there is a fire, and all the exits are blocked, who is going to be liable? — You!

There are a lot of areas to reckon with, but if you are hosting or involved with any small- to large-scale salsa event, please ensure that you have enough staff on hand who are trained in first aid; that all fire exits are easily accessible and clearly visible; that all flooring hazards are removed; that all electrical plugs and outlets are in safe areas; and that there is adequate lighting in all areas. Also, please consider your customers’ health and safety needs, and make tap water available to those who need it – plenty of other money can be made from those who are drinking in preference to dancing, but all dancers will need to drink water at some point in the night as otherwise they may suffer serious injury. And again, who would most likely be liable? -- You!

Therefore, if you are involved either as a part- or full-time professional (e.g. earning money in some capacity) in the salsa game, and do not presently have any insurance cover, I urge you to take this out immediately -- although the likelihood of a claim being made against you may seem slim now, it is still possible -- so it is infinitely better to be safe -- than sorry.

I have written this in the hopes that it will benefit everyone in the salsa community so that we can all continue to dance -- healthily, happily and safely. If you have any comments or experiences you would like to share, please post these at the end of this article where it says 'Comment'. -- Ed.


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