Eat, Sleep, Dance, Repeat: The Importance of Sleep for Dancers

importance of sleep for dancersBy Alyssa Hartley for Athletico Physical Therapy

As summer comes to an end, Fall brings a season of routine. This is especially true of dancers who are back to academia on top of rehearsal. Professional dancers, for example, will begin preparing their upcoming repertoire for programs like Joffrey Ballet’s Giselle and Hubbard Street Dance Company’s Fall Series.

While the days are getting shorter, rehearsals are getting longer and cutting into valuable time meant for counting sheep. The CDC recommends 8-10 hours of sleep for teens 13-18 years old, and 7 or more hours per night for adults 18-60 years old. This can be difficult to achieve for dancers, whose rehearsals consist of specialized physical activity of high volume, frequency and intensity throughout the week. Dancers also don’t usually have an off-season, which can contribute to increased incidence of altered sleep-wake rhythms, illness and musculoskeletal injuries. In fact, studies show:

Rarely Sleeping Beauty

In Germany, there was a small study of 24 classical ballet dancers and their sleep quality prior to a ballet premiere. The total time spent asleep and ratio of time asleep vs. awake in bed was low in the ballet dancers compared to age-matched athletes. Over the course of 67 days prior to the show’s premiere, there was an even greater exacerbation in these sleep factors. This was true while the amount of time spent in ballet class and rehearsal per day did not change. Now, imagine this same degradation in sleep over the course of multiple shows throughout the year. That adds up to be a lot of missed shut-eye for dancers!

Wide Awake

There have been hundreds of studies on athletes and disturbed sleep. Athletes that participate at the Olympic, international, national and professional level, such as professional dancers, are considered “elite”. A systematic review of the literature of sleep quality in elite sports shows that elite athletes generally show high levels of insomnia symptoms (inability to initiate and maintain sleep). Pre-sleep arousal (more brain activity) and sleep restriction (not having the time to sleep long enough) were the most prevalent issues. Thus, lack of sleep can actually exacerbate insomnia, creating a vicious cycle.

Benefits of Sleep for Dancers

The processes that occur during sleep have been widely studied, and the benefits are far-reaching for all humans, but certainly for athletes. Sleep increases the secretion of growth hormone, which is necessary for dancers to grow and get stronger. Memory consolidation and motor-sequencing occurs during sleep, which is necessary for dancers when learning new choreography or technique. Therefore long-term to even short-lived disturbances in sleep can cause a dancer to perform worse mentally and physically, possibly affecting his or her contracts professionally.

Sleep is an essential part of mental and physical recovery. Many dancers, from recreational to professional, have challenging classes and rehearsals on back to back days without enough time for recovery. If an athlete does not have enough recovery between high-intensity workouts or rehearsals, successive workouts or classes are done at a less than optimal physiological condition. If training stress is too high, and there is not enough adequate recovery, such as prior to a competition or performance, “overtraining” can occur.

Over time, this pattern results in a plateau of performance and possible injury. A meta-analysis shows that dancer injury is extremely prevalent, with ankle, foot, lumbar and cervical spine injuries being the most frequently injured. One small study even found highest illness prevalence after six weeks of an overload training regimen in athletes. No dancer wants to be injured or sick before a performance, indicating that appropriate recovery – and most notably sleep – is imperative for excelling on stage.

Tips to Catch Some Zzz’s:

  • Make sure you are in a cool, dark environment
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine and drug use
  • Eliminate screen time prior to bed
  • Aim to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day
  • If possible, consider a “post-lunch” nap for around 20 minutes for greater energy, but not within 4 hours of bed

Adequate sleep can help prevent injuries and improve daily functions, but it is still important for dancers to pay attention to their bodies. Should any unusual pain or discomfort occur during or after rehearsal, make sure to begin the healing process as soon as possible by scheduling a complimentary injury screen at your nearest Athletico location.

Schedule a Complimentary Injury Screen

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