This is a topic that I can speak with some authority. I have chronic back pain, coming from scoliosis, disc degeneration, and arthritis. It’s something I lived with before I began dancing, and it something I will continue to live with throughout my life. Most days I am in little or no pain. Some days are worse. But then there are flare ups that keep me from even getting out of bed. It was something that delayed the start of my dance journey by about six months. It’s also something I don’t let hold me back.

You don’t have to be in perfect health to dance. There are many people who are afraid to begin dancing because they think they aren’t in peak condition. Those who do dance know that’s far from true, as people frequently dance with knee braces and taped ankles. Or with the invisible pain of sore or pulled muscles, nerve damage, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and much more. We don’t do it because we enjoy torturing ourselves. We do it because we love dance more than we hate the pain. But that doesn’t mean we are letting our physical health suffer for the sake of dancing. If we want to keep dancing, that is. Here is how.

Seek medical attention. Ignored chronic pain just gets worse. I lived a month with intense back pain, telling everyone it would eventually go away if I took it easy, before I couldn’t take it anymore and sought out a doctor. While you don’t have to be in perfect health to dance, without her I would have never reached a point that I was physically healthy enough to dance. I continue to see her regularly, keeping her in the know of all my dance adventures. In turn, she helps me keep dancing.

Be upfront with your teachers. When I started my private lessons, I was afraid to tell my teacher about my back problems. I was afraid he would go too easy on me, or worse, tell me he didn’t think I should be doing this. So I waited until after my first lesson was over before I told him. Right away, I realized I was afraid for no reason. As a teacher and pro dancer, he has seen, handled, and experienced all sorts of injuries, conditions, and chronic pains on the dance floor. Far from going easy on me, he doesn’t let me slide at all, never letting me slip into those bad habits that will make my back pain worse. He helps me to dance pain free, or with minimal pain. And when the pain is worse than usual, he understands and works with it or around it. This is where trust between teacher and student is crucial. I trust him to hold my health important: to never ignore or dismiss it. In turn, he trusts me to know my own limits, and share those limits with him.

That leads to the third and most important: know your limits. Doctors and teachers can only do so much if you continuously push beyond your capabilities, constantly reinjuring yourself or aggravating existing problems. Not only must you know your limits, you must share your limits, even when it makes you feel awkward or uncomfortable. If you can only lift out left shoulder so high, tell your partner before he tries to spin you. And tell your doctor so you can find out why and (hopefully) fix it. If neck pain means head rolls are a no-go, say so. If standing a certain way send bolts of pain up your back, let your teacher know (you might find out you’re standing wrong).

“Dancing shouldn’t hurt.” My teachers tell me this all the time. When you live with chronic pain, it can be hard to believe. Especially on days when I enter the studio already having a bad back day. But I am lucky. Everything wrong with my back is made better by ballroom. Stretching my spine, continuous motion, strengthening my core, improving my posture. These were all things my doctor was working with me to do before I started dancing. After, it became easy and fun. My physical health skyrocketed. But unfortunately, there’s no reversal for arthritis or degeneration. There have been days I couldn’t practice, and have had to discuss cancelling a lesson or two with my teacher. But what got me through these times was my doctor, my teacher, and knowing better than to push past my limits. So that no matter the pain, I’ll always soon be dancing again.