Prince: Pain and Dance


While the media is predictably concentrating on Prince’s alleged drug addiction, and seizing upon another opportunity to shame a black male celebrity for ratings, only Sheila E. addressed the connection between dance and pain. It is said that all of the survivors of one famous dance troupe are bound to wheelchairs. Why? This stress can cause such injury to the body that dancers might seek relief through chemicals, some of which have bad side effects.

In fact most dancers chose to retire from performing by 35 years of age because of trauma or overuse causing wear and tear on the body.  At the time of his death, April 21st at age 57, Prince Rogers Nelson had been performing for 38 years, following his professional debut in 1978. As reported in a Rolling Stone obituary by Kory Grow, early in his performance career, Prince “would sometimes strip down to bikini underpants and do exercise routines onstage.”   His music videos show Prince enjoying the execution of high kicks and lightning fast drops to the floor in leg splits. Sheila E. described how he would jump off stages or sound equipment while wearing high heels, a signature trademark of his style.

Repetitive extreme or high impact actions are likely to cause injury when executed by anyone during the ongoing practice of dance or athletics. Especially without a careful regimen of strength training and warm-ups, as hips are the main axis of all leg movement, they can place intolerable stress on the joints, often resulting in osteoarthritis.  Seventy-four dancers, athletes, gymnasts, martial artists and yoga practitioners who required medical treatment to relieve such conditions appear on www.dancerhips.com, including such iconic stars as dancers Suzanne Farrell and Bebe Neuwirth, and athletes Pelé and Jimmy Connors.

According to  a 2011 study conducted  by Dr. Douglas Padgett, Chief of Adult Reconstruction and Joint Replacement at San Diego’s Hospital for Special Surgery,

“Professional dancing is a particularly physically demanding occupation with annual injury rates of 67% to 95%, with over 20% of these being hip injuries. ‘Hip injury is very common in professional dancers. Many of these individuals tend to be hyper mobile. They are performing very rapid loading and landing activities and an extreme range of motions…’”

There are reports that prior to his death, Prince was seen using a cane when not onstage. Professional dancers, like professional athletes, often resist being sidelined by pain and injury. They ignore the report from the March 2014 annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgery that their work makes them vulnerable to hip and knee replacement operations. These are among the most commonly performed operations in the U.S.

Having personally experienced a full hip replacement, I can verify there is incessant pain once a joint deteriorates to bone on bone. However, even that level of pain may not seem as difficult as undergoing hip or knee surgery, which is likely to require a minimum of three to six months of recuperation and rehabilitation, depending on the particulars of the operation.

Many testify they do not feel pain while performing, even though in the long run continuing to perform can increase the severity of an injury.  This was likely the attitude and situation of Prince, which led to his use of prescription painkillers. He was once asked in an interview, “Do you think you will ever retire?”  He replied, “I don’t know what it is. There’s always some way to serve. And I never felt like I had a job.”

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Carla Blank’s most recent book is “Storming the Old Boys’ Citadel: two Pioneer Women Architects of Nineteenth Century North America,” co-authored with Tania Martin. She collaborated with Robert Wilson on “KOOL, Dancing in My Mind,” which premiered at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum in 2009. In May 2015 she directed a production of Ishmael Reed’s play, “Mother Hubbard” in Xiangtan, China, and in September 2015 she directed Yuri Kageyama’s “News From Fukushima” at New York’s LaMama Café Theater.

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