Dance Health

Caring for your dancing hands and wrists – give ‘em a hand as winter sets in.

hand care for dancers

As dancers, our hands and wrists help us to execute choreography, express ourselves in movement, propel us through floorwork and more. Yet the challenges and habits of modern life, such as constantly being on devices, can bring down how well our hands and wrists feel and function. Winter is also coming, often bringing dry skin and increased joint stiffness. Read on for some simple solutions to these problems.  

Lotion up, then glove up.

Winter is just around the corner, and (at least in colder areas of the U.S.) that means that skin can get dried out. Circulation to these areas is less than areas closer to the heart, so the skin can be more vulnerable to colder outside temperatures. Dry, tight-feeling skin can also then limit fluidity of motion.

Accompanying itchiness can also be distracting; you don’t want to be thinking about wanting to scratch or rub your hands when you’re in class, performing or auditioning! In more severe cases, the skin of the hands and wrists can get so dry that it cracks and then bleeds. Besides being irritating, and sometimes painful, that’s not a great look for Nutcracker or a big audition!

The best remedy is a regimen of lotioning. Separate skin types react differently to different ingredients, so it’s best to try out different brands. Trial/travel sizes are available for some brands, so you don’t have to risk buying a container of a certain brand to then find out that it’s not right or effective for your skin type. Once you’ve found the best lotion for you, apply after showering (when pores are most open to the extra moisture). Then try to pack some in your dance bag, applying as many times per day as you find your skin needs.

Once “lotioned-up”, don’t let cold air strip away that moisture by going outside without good gloves. The best options, especially for active and busy people like we dancers, are lightweight and breathable fabrics (such as cotton, linen and rayon). Wear two or three lightweight layers, taking one or two off if you get warmer. You’ll be ready for the varied temperatures you may experience throughout your day – out in the chilly open air, a drafty backstage or a much warmer rehearsal studio.  

Easy movement and stretching.

Just like every part of our body, our hands and wrists need frequent gentle movement and stretching for joints and muscles to continue working together smoothly. Warming up muscles helps to re-lengthen them, as well as loosen up fascia (connective tissue) surrounding them – necessary for fluid, unencumbered movement. That’s one part of what allows we dancers to go further and deeper in movement and body placement, safely and with the appearance of graceful ease.

This all becomes even more important, and at the same time more difficult to obtain and maintain, in colder temperatures. Colder muscles cannot stretch as easily, and are more vulnerable to tearing if forced. Muscles can also involuntarily tense up in the body’s effort to keep itself at a temperature within homeostatic range, or a range in which it can safely function and survive.

Try to get in the habit of warming up and gently stretching your hands and wrists before dancing – just like you warm up your feet, hips, back, core, shoulders and head. Our hands are sometimes just as involved in movement phrasework as those parts are! Try slow and gentle wrist rolls (in both directions), going the full range of motion of the joint. Next, point fingers down and back up to the sky, going back and forth a few times.

Then, flex one hand back toward your face and point the other hand’s fingers downward. Pull back gently on the top hand to get a mild stretch through the bottom of the lower arm’s wrist. Then point those bottom fingers downward and place the top palm just below the wrist. Apply gentle pressure to create a stretch through the top of the wrist and forearm.

Next, try massaging out different areas in one hand with the other, then switch. Last, but not least, scrunch your fingers into a fist, and then release them 10 times. Finish off with a good shake-out or two of your wrists and hands. They’re ready to join the rest of your body in dancing your best!

Put down your device for a bit.

Constantly being on our phones, tablets and laptops can also strain our hands and wrists – at any time of year. To type, we have to use muscles in repeated patterns that can cause fatigue and cramping. That can limit how much you can use your hands and wrists with fluidity, precision and strength while dancing. Looking down at screens can also strain spinal and shoulder muscles, causing pain that – because of nerve pathways through the shoulders and arms – can also show up in the hands and wrists.

A simple solution is to take some time away from your device. Perhaps answering a few emails or updating social media can wait. Even five to 10 minutes can be a very welcome break for your hands and wrists! Mark through some choreography, take a short walk outside, or simply close your eyes and listen to your breath. It could also be helpful to do the short sequence of hand/wrist exercises listed above. Even putting down your device for 30 seconds, and doing a few of those exercises can be worthwhile! Small solutions can mean big differences.

We dancers know and feel how all parts of our body are connected, so caring for your hands and wrists is caring for your whole body. Your technique and your artistry will be better off for it. You will be more able to skillfully balance on your hands in contemporary, carry graceful port de bras in ballet, smoothly shape your hands for specific cultural dance forms and more. And wellness is not a one-time solution but a lifestyle. Once in the groove, it can be fulfilling and fun. “Merde” to all in that journey!

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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