Dancers turn to physical therapy for more than a fallback

By Elise Reuter

One Kansas alumna never guessed where her dance career would take her. Holly Rauch has worked at Neu Physical Therapy for more than two years, after earning her B.A. in dance in 2006.

“I wasn’t really interested until my junior year when I had a knee injury. I shadowed a physical therapist and I haven’t turned back since,” Rauch said.

Like many other dancers going into the medical field, Rausch found her two interests supported each other. The dance classes not only made her more attuned to her body, but they also gave her an intuitive knowledge of how it works.

“I think they go hand and glove together,” said Rauch. “As a dancer, from day one you’re constantly hearing about posture and alignment. It makes you more aware of what muscles you use—of how muscle connects to the bone.”

Watkins physical therapist Karen Loudon demonstrates how to use physical therapy mats to see if patients are out of alignment or have a muscle imbalance.

She isn’t the only dancer to find success in physical therapy. According to Karen Loudon, a physical therapist at Watkins Health Center, several others have settled down from performing and a life on the road to find a career in physical therapy. The question is—why?

“A lot of performers go into physical therapy,” said Loudon. “They like the movement, and I think they’re drawn to it because of their dance background.”

Physical therapists trained to work specifically with dancers are in high demand. Sophomore Kelly Casper recalls when she suffered from several dance-related injuries that kept coming back. After working unsuccessfully with several physical therapists, Casper looked for dance physical therapists, and found waiting lists up to eight months long.

“To me, it’s so different from sports because you use your muscles in such different ways, a lot of times they [therapists] don’t really know how to help you. So, I would leave a doctor’s office and have no idea how to help myself, with no idea what to do, until my friend referred me to dance physical therapists,” said Casper.

This experience ultimately brought her to follow in Rauch’s footsteps and pursue a degree in physical therapy on top of her B.A. in dance. Unfortunately, this requires more work than expected.

Loudon noted that the course work for studying both dance and pre-physical therapy would be quite rigorous, as the two departments have separate prerequisites. While the dance department does not have a specific track for students interested in dance and physical therapy, they do offer several classes for dancers that are similar to the coursework.

Laban movement analysis, ideokinesis, and musculoskeletal concepts are just a few examples. Learning anatomy, injury prevention and movement efficiency—from a dancer’s perspective—can still prove to be useful for budding physical therapists.

Physical therapists use several tools to help dancers, including weights, rollers and elastic bands.

“I think one reason why dancers are good candidates if they so desire to go into that field, is because they have to be aware of what their body is doing,” said associate dance professor Jerel Hilding. “Their movements not only have to be expressive, but they also have to be efficient, with a clear intent to the action. It’s primarily for artistic purposes, but it has a functional purpose as well.”

Rauch agreed that the dance coursework helped her prepare for her future in physical therapy. While she still gets to work with dancers, she also sees a broad range of patients, from those with acute injuries to severe disabilities. After she earned her doctorate, she never ended up pursuing a performing career. But, she still got to work with the medium she knows best.

“I knew I wanted to do more than just performing,” said Rauch. “This is a nice marriage for me between my love of science and my love of the art and movement.”

Sophomore Kelly Casper shares her experiences studying dance and physical therapy at KU:

You can find the transcript here.

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