Meniscus tears for dancers: symptoms, recovery, and strengthening exercises

Through my years of dancing, the most devastating injury I've ever had was a right inner meniscus tear that I experienced in the week leading up to a competition in 2008. I still know the exact move that led me to that permanent injury (don't turn your knee in too sharply!) In case you get lost about where the meniscus is and what it does, take a look at my post on the anatomy of the knee for dancers for a more detailed explanation.

In this post, I'll talk about my experiences with my meniscus tear, including the symptoms, how I managed to deal with the pain, and the exercises that I did to get my knee back to (almost) full strength.

dancer meniscus tear knee injury

Symptoms - aka, "Do I have a meniscus tear?"

1. The most obvious injury is pain in the knee. Unfortunately, this description is not very diagnostic, as a lot of injuries from minor bruises to severe ACL tears can produce this symptom, so I'll just assume you're aware of this point already. The pain is often sharp and very localized in one area.

2. The knee "locks up" until you move it in a certain way. When the knee is "locked," it feels painful or unstable until it is "freed" again. This tends to happen after the knee remains inactive for a long period of time, as in driving or sitting still for hours, or when first waking up. For me, I discovered a specific pattern of motion to unlock my knee. First, while keeping the knee bent, bring it up towards the chest. Unbend the knee, kicking outward, while lowering the foot back to the ground. The exact motion will differ depending on your meniscus tear.

3. Difficulty bending completely, or a decreased range of motion. For many meniscus tear injuries, you will be losing a range of motion. For example, I can't bend my knee any more than 30 degrees without causing a sharp pain. As such, my movements are limited on this half of my body. Wearing a knee brace during rehearsals and performance always helped.

4. It hurts going down stairs. This symptom is similar for several knee injuries, but the pain tends to persist for a long period of time. I find it difficult to walk down stairs without holding on the rail, and I put a lot of weight into my stronger knee when descending. This is almost a hallmark symptom for a meniscus tear, so keep an eye out for it!

Recovery exercises

Short of surgery, which is risky, expensive, and not guaranteed to improve the knee, there are a handful of exercises that you can do to strengthen the muscles around the knee, hip, and back to compensate for the weakness.

1. Resistance heel slide. (Requires exercise bands) Lie down on your back, and place your foot into the resistance band as you hold the handles. Bend the knee, as your foot slides towards your body. Try to bring your knee as close to your body as you can, maximizing mobility - although early on you might not be able to bend much. Kick your foot away, pressing against the band until your leg is fully extended. Repeat 10 times daily. Make sure your knee is aligned with the direction of your foot; avoid twisting. If you experience pain, either use a lower resistance band or try the exercise without resistance.

2. Single Leg Calf Raise. Find a ledge where you can hold onto something for balance. A stairwell is a perfect place for this. Put the ball of your foot on the platform with the heel off the ledge. Lower your heel below the level of the step, and come up on your tiptoe (releve, for you dance folk!). Repeat 20-30 times, then switch legs. This is also a great exercise for improving the small muscles around your ankle that help your balance.

How to install marley in your home dance studio

In previous posts, we have learned how to set up your very own home dance studio start to finish. From finding mirrors to mounting them on the walls, and even alternatives to traditional mirrors, you already know how to build a studio. But, what's left is the flooring. Dancing on carpet is a quick way to tear holes through socks and end up with carpet burns. In this post, I'll show you how to quickly and easily install marley on the floor in your home dance studio.

The floors of many dance studios are covered in a thin rubber / vinyl sheet called "marley." The purpose of this flooring is to provide some texture to the floor, and to give you the dancer a little bit more grip to prevent it the floor from becoming too slippery. It is also used to protect the wooden floors underneath from damage. Marley that is well taken care of can withstand hundreds of hours of dance time!

In the following three easy steps, you can install a marley floor in your own home dance studio.

Step 1: Measure your space.

Most often, rolls of marley are between 5 and 6 feet across. The length is usually custom ordered. Measure the space you plan to use from corner to corner. You should plan your space so that the depth of the studio is equal to a multiple of the width of the marley sheeting you intend to buy. This way, you won't need to cut any marley in half lengthwise.  

Step 2: Clean the floor.

wood floor marley dance studio

Any imperfections in the floor will decrease the life of the marley you put down on top, especially after heavy use. Thus, you will need to ensure that you are working with a smooth and level floor. This entails pulling up whatever carpet may be in the current space. You should remove any staples in the floor, and completely flatten and screws or nails that might be sticking up from the surface. 

When the hardware construction work is done, make sure the floor is now cleaned with a broom and a wet mop to remove all debris that may still be on the surface. Dust and oil will prevent the adhesive from keeping the marley secured on the floor, which could lead to a floor that slides around.

Step 3: Place the marley.

Roll the marley lengthwise across the studio, parallel to the mirrors. When you get to the end of the space you want covered, draw a line and cut cleanly using a utility knife. Move to the next row down, and continue doing this until the entire space is covered. Do not tape these pieces down yet: You will want to let these pieces of marley remain here overnight to allow any wrinkles to relax, giving you the smoothest floor possible.

Leave about an 1/8 inch gap in between each parallel piece of marley. From here, once the strips are in place, use some tape to hold down each piece. Pull the tape as tightly as possible, but avoid wrinkling the marley itself. You'll also want to flatten the tape tightly against the floor. One really good method to do this is to use the roll that the vinyl came in. It'll be a hard cardboard or plastic, and a few rolls with pressure back and forth across the seams will keep the marley secure when people are dancing on it.

And that should be it! As with any other surface, it will get dirty over time. Sweep with a broom to get the majority of the dirt off the surface, then use a water-based cleaner. DO NOT USE AMMONIA! This stuff is too abrasive, and will damage your surface.

Enjoy your new dance studio floor!

Got any good pictures or great tips that helped you put your dance studio floor together? Share them in the comments below.

Nike LunarGlide 8 review - A test in endurance, written by a dancer-turned runner

Dancers can benefit from adding a little bit of light jogging into their training regime. In addition to boosting cardiac output, running helps to strengthen the stabilizing muscles of the legs and ankles. But to get into the hobby of running safely, you'll need to spend a little bit of cash. But putting that money into a Nike Lunar Glide 8 will last you a good number of years. (No, Nike doesn't pay me to say this.)

At the time I'm writing this product review, my running shoes are about 2 years old with about 400 miles on them. They've been through puddles, smothered by volcanic ash, up the Rocky Steps in Philadelphia, and through redwood forests in the Pacific Northwest. They've been crammed into tiny travel backpacks, crushed underneath piles of junk, and covered in glitter (long story.) They've experienced just about everything an outdoor athletic shoe is supposed to, and a bunch more stuff that they're not supposed to. And I still wear them.

I've only been caught out in a summer storm twice. Each time, the soles of the shoes were soaked thoroughly until disgusting squish sounds accompanied every step. The insole comes out easily for quick drying, and the material retains it's soft, spongy, shock absorbing qualities after drying. Additionally, the shoe maintains it's shape. Shoes with leather or any kind of canvas material will absolutely deform in the rain.

I don't wear them in the dance studio. The shoes are designed to withstand very specific pressures that your foot experiences when you run - but NOT necessarily the pressures when you dance. Running shoes don't hold up too well with quick lateral movements, which you will find in many urban dance styles. Putting these kinds of pressure on the shoes may cause the stitching to come loose.

This unpaid advertisement is all to say that investing in a good pair of running shoes will serve you well in the long run. Every athletics store has a densely packed wall of running shoes, and I can't speak to the quality of 99% of them. But, I can say that my purchase in particular has been absolutely worth the value.

Best companion apps to take with you on your jog

Cross-training can improve your stamina, giving you more energy during performances. The simplest exercise you can add to your non-rehearsal days is jogging. Even just putting in a couple miles on your off days can boost your endurance.

As an avid runner, I found that getting feedback on your workouts serves as a potent source of encouragement, as you can track your progress over multiple jogging sessions. In addition to your standard mileage tracker apps (Nike+, Runtastic, Strava), I've compiled a list of the best apps to take with you on your outdoor workout sessions. These apps are mostly for fun, but I found that they can add a lot to a run.

1. Pokemon Go (Android / iOS, free)

Pokemon Go puts you in the shoes of a trainer in Nintendo's world of Pocket Monsters, the Japanese-born gaming phenomenon that has influenced a generation. This mobile app has you wandering around your city, collecting items and experience points from landmark locations called "PokeStops." Most importantly, you are tasked with finding wild Pokemon and enslaving capturing them to add to your catalog.

Jogging around the city lets you encounter many of these PokeStops as you occasionally encounter wild Pokemon. One game feature allows you to "hatch" eggs after you have traveled some distance on foot, and jogging accelerates the egg hatching process. I've hatched a few rare Pokemon out of these eggs in the middle of long runs!

This augmented reality mobile game quickly earned the top spot on the "Most Downloaded Apps" list within just a week of it's release. As of the time of writing, Pokemon Go is installed on more cellphones than Netflix, Pandora, or even Twitter. Pokemon Go users even outnumber the users of Tinder, another popular app where you find monsters.

2. Zombies, Run! (Android / iOS, free to try - $1.99 full version)


If the overabundance of zombie themed entertainment today is truly a sign of mindless consumerism, then appropriately enough, the only paid app on this list is a zombie themed app. 

In Zombies, Run! you become one of the last surviving humans at the outset of the zombie apocalypse. As you run, the game narrative describes your journey towards the last human stronghold. Along the way, you'll rescue survivors and collect supplies on your path - with the occasional sprinting session in the form of a panicked zombie chase, perfect for interval training. With more than 200 missions and a gripping narrative, you'll want to keep training to find out what happens next.

3. Charity Miles (Android / iOS, free)

Charity Miles tracks your workout statistics as you walk, run, or cycle around town, much like any other basic workout app. But as an added bonus, you'll get the feel good benefit of knowing that someone could be benefiting from your workout. At the beginning of each training session, you select one of 30+ charities, ranging in causes such as Parkinson's Disease research, the World Wildlife Fund, or the Special Olympics for example. After your workout, Charity Miles sponsors show you a quick advertisement before donating 25 cents per mile to your chosen charity.

Although 25 cents doesn't feel like much, Charity Miles has already donated more than a million dollars to their various organizations since the app's launch in 2009. 

4. Walk for a Dog (Android / iOS, free)

Like Charity Miles above, the premise behind WoofTrax' GPS-enabled app Walk for a Dog is to donate to a good cause for each mile that you put in while running. The beneficiary is decided based on your ZIP code: Walk for a dog locates the nearest animal shelters to your location, from which you are allowed to select. Walk for a Dog allows you to make profiles for each of your dogs to keep track of how fit each dog is becoming.

Animal lovers, this one is for you.

Yes, personal fitness is hard. Despite the benefits of cross-training, it's still a challenge to get your feet on the road. I found that these apps above have provided a great added motivator for me to lace up my running shoes and get out the door. 

Got other suggestions for great companion apps to take with me on my runs? Comment below!

Read more about the benefits of cross-training:

Running for dancers: Getting started

I'll warn you in advance: running is addicting. But not all things addicting are evil. I get a case of running-envy when I see people jogging when I drive lazily and effortlessly around Chicago. My preferred method of sight-seeing while traveling to a new city is jog-xploring. I often regret that I don't carry my running shoes around with me all the time, in case the sudden craving to run pops up. 

But before I became a running addict, I was definitely a hater. Why would anyone run, ever? Seriously. We invented the wheel and combustion engine for a reason. 

Here is a short check list detailing the steps of how dancers like us can get into the hobby, and eventually the habit, of running.

1. Invest in a good pair of running shoes. 

Shoes all have a unique purpose. You wear dress shoes for formal occasions, you wear tap shoes to tap, you slip into Crocs never, and you SHOULD absolutely wear specially designed running shoes for running. Not just athletic sneakers either. Good running shoes should fit well all across the entire foot, should be shock absorbent, and should flex easily to allow for smoother foot motions - among other characteristics. 


I would say that finding the right running shoes is one of the most important things you can do for your body. Dancer bodies are always getting injured, and you can minimize some very nasty long term injuries by finding the right type of shoe for your individual physiology. Bad shoes could exacerbate lower back pain, reignite an old knee injury, or lay the groundwork for plantar fasciitis pain in the heel.

Just a heads up though: They will cost you quite a bit of money. My pair of Nike Lunarglide 9s set me back about 120. Think of them as an investment in your body over the long term. Save up, buy a solid pair, and they will take you hundreds of miles while minimizing wear and tear on your irreplaceable body.

2. Hydrate yourself. 

The first time you go for a jog, you will feel like death. Actually, death would be a welcome reprieve from the agony of your heart pounding up into your throat and your lungs burning with each breath.

Being two-thirds water, your body needs a steady supply of H20 to transport vitamins and minerals into your cells while washing away toxic byproducts and waste. Without the proper water levels in your body, you could experience muscle cramps, headaches, and even exhaustion or heat stroke for the overly dramatic. Exercise physiologists say that a 2% loss of body weight through dehydration is enough to negatively impact your performance.

As a rough estimate, aim for drinking 8-16 ounces of water about an hour before your run, and about 4 more ounces before you start. Alternatively, try a water bottle waist pack to stay hydrated during your run.

3. Get a fitness tracker or download an app. 

While secondary peripherals like FitBit are wildly in vogue right now, any location-enabled smartphone will be able to serve a nearly identical purpose at no additional cost. I've used apps such as Runtastic and Nike+, both of which get the job done - for free.

The appeal of these trackers / apps is that they provide feedback on your workout. At the end of each of your runs, you will get the basic information about how you performed: time spent running, average speed, total miles traveled through all workouts combined, calories burned, and other various measures.

Keeping an eye on these statistics over time to see how they improve fills me disproportionately with excitement. Over time, you'll follow numbers like "total miles ran" and when that number hits that triple digit mark, it's immensely satisfying - and is also a great beginners goal for anyone who wants to start running. (If graphs like these please you, you might be a data nerd like myself.)

4. Now here's the easy part: Just go run. 

If you have a gym membership already, fire up a treadmill and do a half mile. Alternatively, go outside, turn on your GPS and run down the road a quarter mile, take a breather, then head back home. And if you get tired, stop if you want to, or push through if you want to. Whatever. It's your first day of running. You don't have to go far, you don't have to go fast, and you don't even have to look cool doing it. But you do have to start somewhere, and starting at the bottom is a fine place for your first run. 

5. Brag about it. 

Share your results on Facebook, Google+, Xanga, or whatever social media platform you have as your homepage. Will your friends get annoyed with your frequent shares? NO - your friends will see that you are starting down the path to achieving your goals, and they'll click that "Like" button and hit you with some words of encouragement. Your casual acquaintances and frenemies however: Yes, they will be annoyed. As the saying goes, "They hate us cuz they ain't us."

6. Now you can rest.

Stretch everything out. You're gonna feel sore the next morning anyway, even more sore than after an intense dance class - and that's expected. Dance uses a wide variety of muscles in different orders, directions, timings, etc. On the other hand, running is the exact same motion performed repetitively. Dancers with proficiency in the most athletically demanding styles may have already built up the endurance to push through a mile or two on their first run. But still, dance training won't prepare you for the post-running soreness in the thighs, glutes, calves, and sometimes even the intercostals: those little muscles in between your ribs that you didn't know existed until you started running.

Take a few days off, rest your muscles, then hit the road later on in the week. Most fitness tracking apps are great about making you feel accomplished when you first start running: You'll see that "New record broken!" notification pop up each time you run for the first 3-6 months. Hit that share button while those running endorphins are still pumping through your veins!

I'd love to hear your experiences getting started with running. Comment below with how your first run went.

More about running!