In the story of the professional dancer, Jenny Murray shows how dancing is a tough career. Not only does it require absolute dedication and sacrifice of education and some pleasures, but such extreme focus can lead to a plethora of injuries that can linger in later life. The life span of a dancer at the top of her game is dependent on many factors. Jenny Murray agreed to share her experience as a professional dancer with ConsultingFootPain. She took me back through some of her career and we discussed what this meant to her and of in particular for her health. You can also read my interview with two other dancers who took up podiatry as a career. Dance with me podiatry stories.
Dancers must start early
Although Jenny started with drama when younger, she preferred dancing. On leaving school at 16 she went to a dance agency college.“It wasn’t like one of these government-funded ones in London. It was more of an agency, so they could send you on jobs and things. You needed to have everything. I did a few contracts where I did backing singer, but they usually use professional singers. So I did backing vocals and things, but mainly I preferred dancing. At the age of 18, I started auditioning properly and then that’s when I started my first cruise ship employment. So I then danced in the theatre shows on the cruises.”
I asked her if she was pushed into dancing knowing that some parents can be coercive.
“There were some girls who were coerced by their parents. They did not make it past 14 because as soon as you hit that kind of teenage age, you can’t be pushed to do dancing. My dance teacher always used to say it’s got to come from within. She said, we loved your Mum because she dropped you off at the car park, you came to dancing, and then you would just tell your Mum where you needed to be. Mum would just drop me off. My Mum did not know – and still does not know anything about dancing. Before I used to go to the competitions, she used to say, Okay, smile, enjoy it. And that was it. And that’s because I learned from a young age that this is what I wanted. I just knew it.
Foot shape – Jenny informed me that she had high arches. “Isn’t walking outwards quite important to dancers,” I asked.
“My brother always says I walk funny or walk like a penguin, and I know how to go through my feet. Also, things like I can’t wear flat shoes for longer than an hour because I need to wear a bit of a heel. I don’t have any problems with them whereas my friends really struggle.”
Education – Mum and I had the battles about school because I just knew that it just wasn’t for me. And I think my Mum knew inside that school wasn’t for me, but I think she just wanted me to at least get a bit of an education. When I look back, I think she had a point, but we did have a bit of battle.”
Jenny would go to endless competitions, for example, taking up her Easter holidays, so she competed while her friends were relaxing or studying throughout. There was no time for her to study so her mother would give her a revision book to give her a chance to succeed.
“I’ve probably had a lot of pain most of the time, and I think a lot of dancers do go through a lot of pain, but you just kind of get on with it.”
Core philosophies embedded in dance
Reflecting on her career she says she has been injury-free so I pressed her a little more as I couldn’t believe there to be any suffering in dance. Taking care of yourself is important I suggested. She believed that she had little guidance in order to protect herself from injury. This certainly seemed the case as a mature dancer.
“I had a really good teacher who was excellent at telling young children how to go about some techniques. She was very good at using stories as a way of describing things to young children. You knew you needed to land softly, bend your knees, all those kinds of things. You don’t really think too much about this until you’re older and then you understand it a little bit better. Dancing is about building up active preparation. When you first start ballet as a child you do things on the bar. This involves rises, lower rises, and things like that. All this movement goes through your feet. That’s the way you build and progress. It frustrates teachers when they see other dance schools trying to do fancy things like leaps. Luckily my dance school was very good at nurturing the students.
“I was told you need to scrape your feet to grow strong skin.”
Footwear and ballet
“Once you get to adulthood you don’t get any kind of guidance. They just want you to do the job they believe that you should know this by now. So, I mean, I was prepared for it. The thing about shoes is you need to break them in. You need to go through the pain to get to the comfort, especially with point shoes. I actually started point work and didn’t put any kind of cushioning or anything because So I actually didn’t have any padding. I know a lot of people would use lambswool or you could actually buy certain pads. My dance teacher always used to say, Well, what if you do a competition and you forget your pads and you forget your lambswool? When I got older, I was told you need to scrape your feet to grow strong skin. I started using things to avoid unnecessary pain. I was actually okay with ‘point work’ in terms of my feet as I had high arches. The only problem was I used to break my point shoes quite a lot, so it was quite expensive having to keep getting new ones. It’s so dangerous if they’re too soft. And that’s with any kind of shoe really, even with the kind of Oxford, which is like if you watch ‘Strictly’ it’s those kinds of heel shoes. I would just love them if they felt like slippers, but they’re probably so bad to dance with, not supporting the feet at all. But, you know, I would just go for it because there was slightly more comfortable and I didn’t want to get new dance shoes. When I’d start a professional contract, I’d get a pair of shoes, they might have been new, or they were maybe from someone else, but they were my size. It was a bit of a lucky dip. My friend needed size 2 shoes, and she would be given a size 5 and so we’d have to create some kind of way of cushioning her foot. After a week she would just be in so much pain because obviously in the shoe you move a lot and it’s bad, you kind of have to just deal with that!”
I wanted to know if physiotherapist, podiatrists or any other healthcare specialists had been involved with her dancing career? “No, not at all. Not at all. Never. I mean, I could have done with it. I think any dancer could have done with a bit of physio advice. I had never even heard of a podiatrist. If somebody had a major injury, they would pay for it themselves and they’d have to go down that route. But no, never, never had any help from a professional at all.”
Do you think a lot more could be done for dancers to help their musculoskeletal problems? “Absolutely. I’ve got a few friends that are training, studying to be something like a physio or sports scientist and I always say to them, you need to work in the dancing community because you’d be just so busy. If you found a dance school, advertise and give them professional help. You’d build up a good business because it’s so hard to find any kind of help.
You must have had blisters calluses, nail pain, ingrown toenails. What about shin splints? This is a very big area for podiatry and physiotherapy. Take me through some of the commonest problems that you’d manage yourself, but would otherwise be bog-standard for dancers.
“The main problem I have and I still have, I think it’s called a corn on the sides of both of my little toes. I still have it now and it does get so painful. And that was the main issue. I spend most of my time just putting a cushion on the sides of my feet particularly with heeled rather than the point shoes. Because of the kind of the pressures these shoes produced, oh my God, I just used to be in so much pain, and even now still I think it’s the result of dancing. I still just get on with it but I should really get them sorted out, but again, it’s knowing who to go to. Do I go to my doctors or what? I didn’t really know about podiatry until I met someone in the profession. It can just be so depressing just to have pain. When you’re doing something you love is just so frustrating. And then obviously, with your nails constantly in the shoes. I needed to take good care of my nails. Always having them short to avoid any pressure due to banging your nails.
My Dad has always suffered from ingrown toenails and my Mum’s always told me how to look after that part. But again, I don’t know, if I’d not known about that the blister patches from ‘Boots’ I would have been in trouble more frequently. I’ve had other issues with my back, a little bit of tension in my glutes (gluteal muscles). I had sciatica once. It was so painful and just took so long to go. So I don’t know whether that’s connected to the foot because I know it can travel from down upwards. But apart from that no, I’ve been quite lucky. I’ve pulled a few hamstrings in my time, but with my feet again it was just constant blisters and obviously the point shoes. But I think I never would class them as a bad injury because you just get on with it. I don’t have it in my mind that that caused any kind of issues. I’ve probably had a lot of pain most of the time, and I think a lot of dancers do go through a lot of pain, but you just kind of get on with it. You didn’t class it as an injury. I mean, I’m talking of ankles. We could do three or four shows in a day. I remember one girl after every show. In the evening we used to have ‘show food’ where we’d just fill out on food. She used to just go to the bar, get a massive bag of ice and just sit with her ankles in there. She was just in so much pain with her ankles but she would just do it.”
Our discussion changed to technique and dance floor surfaces.
“I was more ballet trained. We’re meant to land softly. One problem I had was that the floor was not always appropriate in some of the places where I had to dance. The floor was just not appropriate. The amount of shin splints I used to get was awful. At the end of the day I just had to lie on my back with my feet up because the floor was just battering my shins. You could feel it after.”
What floor would be the most appropriate for your style of dancing then? I asked.
“Sprung floors are the new thing now really, but if you go to old-fashioned places, they’ll often have a stone floor or a brick floor sometimes in these old-fashioned studios. Sometimes you have to just dance in a location where they needed you do a number. But dance studios should be sprung.”
Cruise ship entertainment
While Jenny never sustained a major injury it was clear she had sustained chronic problems over the years. Her next comment perhaps underlies the pressure that professional dancers have to put up with. “The worry of even mentioning it or anyone hearing about it because you don’t want to tarnish yourself with an injury!”
Jenny entered the cruise ship entertainment industry P&O, Thompson, and MSC.
“I’d had such a good experience because I travelled the world and it let me save money. However getting an injury is an expensive thing and a very annoying thing if someone gets injured, especially on a cruise ship. You have to fly them home, then you have to fly someone out. So if you’re not a promising candidate, if there’s any chance you can’t last. The shortest contract is six months and once I was on a ship for almost a year and a half. So if you can’t go into full fitness, then yeah, I think that’s another reason you just don’t complain. You don’t complain. If you’ve got any twinge, you keep it quiet. I do think it’s got to come from ‘within’ looking after yourself and injuries. A lot of people struggle if they don’t have mobility and flexibility. It doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be a professional dancer, but it’s going to be ten times harder if you don’t have that mobility. I was very hyper-flexible but then on the opposite side, my strength wasn’t so good. You do have to look after yourself. I never did running or other sports that could cause my ankles to go over or pull a muscle. It’s your responsibility to look after your bones.”
Jenny’s perception of injury is different to a clinician. The intensity endured by professional dancing cannot be underestimated. Acceptance of injuries is a worry to podiatrists. The damage provoked by incorrect technique or heavily loaded joints does lead to concern for long term injury, if not wellbeing.
“It’s so hard for dancers, especially when you get older. I was very lucky, I’d gone through all my professional career without any major injuries or stops because a lot of the time an injury can end your career. Maybe it’s a kind of age thing. Dancing is very materialistic. You have to have a certain look, and there is constant competition.
Now aged 30, Jenny had been dancing since she was 6 or 7. Ten years after leaving school she decided to change direction. “I always knew in the back of my mind that dancing was forever. I felt that I wanted to leave it in a good place rather than someone forcing me out. I’ve wanted to take it into my own hands. I knew I was ready. So I thought, well, now’s a good time really, I just wanted to be home. A lot of people don’t have the education to fund themselves and look after money. So that’s another issue. So at the age of 26 she applied to Cardiff University. A late starter in some ways but young enough to catch up…
En pointe – The great toe receives considerable body force not just going onto ‘point’ but due to constant impact. The square toe box helps but the foot takes a battering. Inside these joints, a slow process emerges over time leaving the dancer with a high chance of arthropathy later in life as cartilage does not repair. The rule in not going onto pointe until 12 years of age is universally appreciated because the growth centres (plates) at this critical time are easily injured. According to the International Association of Dance Medicine & Science, the type of dance is important, not the age. In the case of girls, 12 is not the maturation age. Moving onto adulthood the effects of impact trauma to the great toe are all too easy to see. Small bleeds lead to fibrinous attachment which tears the cartilage and with new bone formation. If this happens at the great toe, the midfoot and hindfoot, let alone higher joints, each will bear the pain and pleasure of this specialised pastime. It is for the dedicated alone to survive the rigours and effects later on in life. Image Lisa Craig’s foot. Video – 1.43‘
Interview with Jenny Murray 5th April 2021.
G. Torba and D. A. Rice, “Pressure analysis of the ballet foot while en pointe,” Biomedical Engineering Conference, 1993., Proceedings of the Twelfth Southern, New Orleans, LA, USA, 1993, pp. 48-50.doi: 10.1109/SBEC.1993.247350
1 Boots is a pharmaceutical firm selling healthcare and cosmetic products in the main in the U.K. Founded in 1849 by John Boot, Nottingham, England.
2 Guidelines for initiating Pointe training J. Dance Medicine & Science 13,(3)90-92The
Thanks for reading Jenny Murray’s ‘The Story of the Professional Dancer’ by David R Tollafield
Published by Busypencilcase Reflective Communications Est. 2015
5th July 2021