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Physical Therapy for Pole Dancers

By on November 21, 2017

Pole dancing is hard. I mean really hard. It’s hard for people who do it casually and it’s super duper hard for those of us that teach and/or compete.

My husband was a college level athlete on the diving team for his University and during that experience he had several injuries – some from repetitive motions inherent to his sport and some from random accidents like falling off the spring board. The team had a physical therapist on staff, a sports masseuse, several specific coaches (for things like conditioning and technique), an air-tight schedule for training, and access to —if not world-class — certainly really good equipment for recovery like steam rooms and ice baths.

Pole dancers – well, we don’t really have any of that. If we do, we created it ourselves and cobbled it together from previous fitness/sports/dance experience or from our own research.

I’m definitely in the latter camp. Before all of this (cue appropriate wide-sweeping hand gesture to incorporate the enormity and omnipresence of pole dancing in my life now), all I knew was that I “should” go to the gym with some regularity especially as I aged and my job got progressively more sedentary. Once I started pole, I began paying much more attention to my body’s aches and pains while also realizing what my body could do given enough time and training. Life was amazing! My options where limitless! I was strong! And flexible!

And then I hit a plateau. Some things hurt that didn’t hurt before. I had students asking me questions I didn’t have the answer to. My knowledge of the body was limited. I began a learning journey that started first with my chiropractor that I’ve discussed before in my “What the Hell are My Hips Doing” series.

Having a few terrible experiences with general, “muggle” medical practitioners over the years who would assure me that I’m “quite flexible” and “quite strong” when compared to the average population, I started looking for someone who could appreciate that not progressing with or even stopping pole, contortion, and lyra weren’t options for me nor for my students regardless of pain or body “weirdness.” There must be a different way to approach what we were doing!

I started stalking Dr. Jennifer Crane from Cirque Physio about a year ago. She has a fantastic blog and active Instagram that sometimes features contortion coach Cate Brier. Both work at the San Francisco Circus Center and both are proponents of helping circus athletes and performers stay healthy and employed. They’re popping up more and more with pole dancers as everyone else is coming to the same conclusions I have. We pole dancers collectively need guidance on how to care for our bodies and how to maximize our training, especially for those of us coming to extreme sports/movement/dance later in life with little-to-no-background in how to train and recover.

Can’t make it to San Francisco? Dr. Crane does Skype sessions but only for those of us that aren’t in active pain/just had an acute injury (due health laws in the US, physical therapists/physiotherapists cannot diagnose or treat injuries over Skype, unless they are licensed in the state the patient resides in). I finally decided to try out this Skype service and was extremely pleased with the outcome. Prior to the session I filled out an incredibly detailed questionnaire not just about my own health but also my circus related goals. Boy is it refreshing to write “Rainbow Marchenko” down as a goal to a health professional and 1. Not have them laugh at you and 2. Have them know what you’re talking about. She had me do a few specific movements during the session, asking to turn this way and that way as she nodded and wrote things down. Then she recommended specific myofascial release movements and specific exercises to enhance my flexibility demonstrating them on camera and then having me repeat the exercise back. Most of these exercises I’d never seen before even in my own flexibility research and training with other flexibility professionals. After the session, she sent a personalized follow up pdf with details about everything we talked about and a recommended frequency. The entire process was professional, detailed, and personal. Not once did I feel bad about wanting these crazy goals as a 35 year old woman with metal plates sprinkled throughout her body and no athletic experience. Not once was I subjected to random, inappropriate comments about my attire when showing photos of myself or of other polers doing moves I wanted to achieve. And most importantly, never once was I told that I couldn’t improve or reach my goals.

I continue stalking Dr. Crane (seriously – follow her right now) and I’m doing my exercises regularly. I am seeing improvement not just in my own body but also in how I teach and share with my students. This pole journey is a long road and it is made shorter by understanding how to take care of our body.

I asked Dr. Crane to share some tips for pole dancers working not just with her but with any physical therapist or physiotherapist to improve their movement, enhance performance, and decrease pain of chronic injuries/issues:

When you’re looking for a physical therapist, what’s the first thing you should look for?

(for more on this read her entire blog post)

Charlee Wagner wearing the PoleFit® Retro Set

The key points: look for someone who is a board certified orthopedic or sports specialist. This is a very robust degree, and something that I always look for when I’m looking for a physio. The next thing I look at is how much time they spend one-on-one with patients—anything less than 30 minutes isn’t worth it. If the PT only works with me for 10 minutes before passing me off to a high school/college tech to do theraband exercises, I’m absolutely not interested in spending my time or money there. In my clinic, I spend 60 minutes one-on-one with each patient- this allows both me to get very specific with what the root cause of the problem is, how to address it, and establish a customized plan of care to meet these goals. You should also look for a physio who empowers YOU to take charge of your recovery. I generally shy away from any practitioners who tell me I need to see them 2-3 times a week for months at a time (excluding post-operative care, of course!) I believe that your physio should teach YOU how to take care of your body, and how to recognize what you can address yourself, and when you need to come back in for a checkup/ tune up. Most of my patients I see once every 4-6 weeks—which is vastly different from most big clinics that do 2-3 times per week for 6-8 weeks! I prefer the 4-6 week model for circus artists and pole dancers, especially. This tends to be a population of athletes who WANT to take care of their bodies, and are willing to put in daily time to do so—they just need a professional to help them figure out what this looks like, and establish a plan. This is what I do—after each visit, I send my patients a very detailed exercise program, with photos and instructions, broken down into warm up/conditioning/cool down. This puts recovery into the patients hands, and is so much more empowering than encouraging patients to rely on providers for pain relief and rehabilitation.

Another way to ensure that you’re going to get your time and money’s worth is to go to a physio who is out of network with insurance—direct pay PT. When you go through insurance, you often cannot choose your PT, and if you can, insurance still is the one that dictates how much care you receive. As an out of network physio, I don’t have to cater to insurance companies, I cater to my patients. My patients and I are the ones who set goals, and we decide (together) when these goals have been met. Additionally, most insurance will not cover return to high-level sports, which is what most circus artists and pole dancers need. They don’t care if you can’t do a straddle inversion—they only care if you can get to and from your job, do your job, and other basic “activities of daily living.”

Should a healthy/uninjured person seek a physical therapist? 

Absolutely! The same way we are encouraged to see a dentist twice a year, I like to encourage everyone to see a physio twice a year (minimum!!) for a checkup/tune up. For those of us who demand more from our bodies (circus artists, dancers, pole dancers), I suggest a bit more frequently: 3-4 times per year. This way, you can get assessed before an injury occurs, and can get set up on a proper program of injury prevention that’s targeted to YOU—your body, your life, and your apparatus.

Additionally, if you’re uninjured, but hitting plateaus in your training (flexibility, strength, etc), this is another good time to see a physio. Sports and orthopedic PT’s (SCS, OCS certified) have extensive knowledge in these areas of the body and human performance, and can often assess what may be limiting your progress, and get you on a path to meet your goals more efficiently and safely. This is the premise of my Skype sessions- they’re for uninjured performing artists who wants to attack their training goals as efficiently as possible, while avoiding training-related injuries!

What questions (top 3) should you ask a physical therapist before you decide to work with him/her?

  1. What sports and orthopedic related certifications do you have? Look for OCS, SCS. ATC is a bonus.
  2. How long do you spend, one-on-one, with patients for the initial evaluation (look for 45-60 minutes)? For follow up visits (look for 30-60 minutes)?
  3. Have had experience working with high level athletes? (for that one, I just am looking to see if they’re the type of physio that will cop out with a “you really just shouldn’t be doing this sport” answer. I find those with more experience with high level athletes are more willing to get creative with rehab approaches, and less likely to just give you a blanket “stop doing xyz activity” answer.

What should I expect in my first session?

You should expect to be listened to! If its a physio who hasn’t worked with a lot of performing artists, bring videos and photos of relevant tricks to your injury or issue- a good PT can dissect movement patterns and skills, even if they aren’t familiar with the sport. You should also expect to receive a PT diagnosis, including faulty movement patterns, weakness/tightness/asymmetries that could have contributed to your problem. You should expect to receive a prognosis and any activity restrictions/modifications, along with a timeframe for return to full participation in your apparatus. Depending on the PT’s specialty and their specific treatment style, you may have some manual work done, but you should DEFINITELY receive an exercise program for addressing the issues uncovered in the evaluation. Many PT’s don’t give a super detailed exercise program/handout, so bring your phone and take videos of all the exercises they want you to do, along with sets/reps/instructions. If they don’t offer it, ask what you should do as part of your warm up, conditioning, and cool down that will help you get on track as fast as possible. Make sure you don’t leave without a concrete understanding of what your PT wants you to do for “homework,” as this is where the real magic happens!

How helpful/useful are Skype sessions versus in-person for physical therapy? 

Michelle Natoli Photo by LATE NIGHT TALES – Christina Bulka Photography

Skype sessions can be fantastic! Due to telehealth laws, physios in the US cannot diagnose or treat injuries over Skype, unless they are licensed in the state the patient resides in. Because of this, they’re really only appropriate for those who are currently un-injured. Skype sessions are perfect for those who are hitting plateaus in their training, whether it be in flexibility, strength, a certain skill, or even in creating a custom training program that has injury prevention built in. Even through Skype, I can tell a lot about the movement patterns, strength, and mobility of athletes, by either having them send me specific videos in advance, or by instructing them through a comprehensive movement assessment that’s specific to their apparatus/specialty. Skype sessions are also a good idea for those switching apparatuses, or returning after a period of time away from training, to ensure they won’t get injured in the process.

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Colleen Jolly
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Colleen Jolly

is AFAA and elevatED certified pole dance enthusiast and entrepreneur. She has been poling for six years, runs and owns the International Pole Convention (PoleCon), teaches pole and lyra in the DC metro area at FIT4Polers and MyBodyShop, and is a partner and instructor with 123Poling.com. She loves performing, regularly competes, and lives in Washington, DC with her husband and two kitties.
Colleen Jolly
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