‘A phenomenal relationship’

Grand Rapids Ballet dancers aim to stay strong and on point with a support team of athletic trainers.

Steven Houser slipped on his first pair of ballet slippers as a 6-year-old growing up in Portland, Oregon.

These days, he rarely takes them off.

The 30-year-old professional dancer is now in his 13th professional season, his sixth with the Grand Rapids Ballet.

As graceful and fluid as the dancers appear, the profession is wrought with injury—stemming from long, demanding physical hours and precision poses.

While warming up before class recently, Houser felt “something odd” in his neck. By the end of the session, he could barely move his head.

John Ferraro, Grand Rapids Ballet Company manager, called the Spectrum Health Medical Group Sports Medicine Team.

The Grand Rapids Ballet and Spectrum Health have enjoyed a harmonious relationship for the past five years, with sports medicine professionals and athletic trainers helping dancers achieve ultimate health and conditioning.

“Spectrum sent someone right over,” Houser said. “She really helped me out a lot because I had an important rehearsal that day.”

‘Piece me back together’

Houser said he’s grateful for the quick response, and grateful he could continue his love of “expressing emotion, physically.”

He’s on the mend.

“There was a bunch of stuff out of alignment,” he said. “It sent everything into spasm. It took a couple of weeks to get to a normal place. I think without that quick response, it would have taken much longer to heal.”

Even when there aren’t unexpected injuries, Spectrum Health athletic trainers Emilee Van Hoven and Allie Hoyt visit the ballet twice a week; Heather Pietrzak and Paige Bachelor visit the ballet three times a week. They work with dancers who are recovering from injury.

If they see a major issue or something that needs more attention, they refer the patient to Matthew Axtman, DO, a sports medicine specialist with Spectrum Health Medical Group.

“It’s a bit reoccurring, so they all help piece me back together,” Houser said.

After six hours a day of dancing—for six, sometimes seven days a week—even the strongest and most fit bodies tire.

“They keep an eye on things that could turn into something major,” Houser said. “My hip hurts a little bit today. My ankle feels a bit jammed. Those little things can become chronic if you can’t be seen quickly. Them being here so frequently is incredibly helpful.”

Houser said Fridays are typically the hardest day because the aches and pains compound over the week.

“Even if you’re just getting your calves to relax a little, it helps,” he said.

Depending on the nature of the injury, the sports medicine team will sometimes do soft tissue work, sometimes mobilization.

“Sometimes they’ll give you exercises and tools we can use on our own to maintain certain things, like stretches,” Houser said. “Or they’ll tape us up to help keep things in place.”

Hand in hand

Phillip Adler, manager of the Spectrum Health Medical Group Sports Medicine program, approached the ballet about a partnership in 2011. Dr. Axtman had previously worked with the Atlanta Ballet and other dance groups.

“The expertise he had really made the ballet believe we had the experience to manage this unique area of sports and performing arts medicine,” Adler said. “I was the primary athletic trainer that would go down whenever the ballet needed anything.”

And so began Spectrum Health’s performing arts medicine partnership with the Grand Rapids Ballet.

By the second year of the collaboration, Adler brought on additional sports medicine staff to help in the endeavor. They covered not only rehearsals, but performances.

“I have worked with a lot of high-level athletes and NFL players, but I’ll be honest, ballet dancers are not nice to their bodies,” Adler said. “They have to go on point balanced on one leg, with the hip bent at 90 degrees for 15 or 20 seconds with maybe a partner. They’re working eight or more hours a day.”

Ballet companies typically don’t have injury prevention or strength and conditioning programs like many other professional sports teams do.

“I don’t think the vast majority of people realize what goes into putting on a ballet performance,” Adler said.

Adler said the partnership can help extend dancers’ careers.

“They have such a finite time to be a professional ballet performer,” Adler said. “How can we help them prevent injury or manage injury so that it prolongs their career? Not so long ago a surgery for a ballet dancer was career-ending. We’re making sure if those things come up, how do we maintain careers?”

Ferraro said he has noticed a huge decline in injuries since partnering with Spectrum Health.

“It’s been a huge benefit to us,” the ballet manager said. “The dancers have absolutely loved it.”

The athletic trainers often spot and prevent things before they become serious injuries.

“If somebody starts to feel an issue or something isn’t feeling right, they can let us know and the athletic trainers will come pretty much any day they’re needed,” Ferraro said, noting he’s grateful for the assistance.

“A lot of bigger ballet companies don’t even have this benefit,” he said. “It’s just a phenomenal relationship for us.”

For more information on the Sports Medicine program, call 616.267.8860.

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