When Savannah Lash brought home the platinum award for her dance solo this past spring, it was a dream come true for the high school senior. One of the highest awards in dance competition, the platinum had begun to seem out of reach for Savannah as she faced challenges with decreasing flexibility and increasing pain.
“I was dancing a lot – two hours a day, seven days a week … sometimes maybe more – and I was starting to develop some lower back issues just from having super tight hip flexors from overstretching and dancing so much,” Savannah explained. “It was really disappointing to me because I was at the peak of my competitive career, and it was getting super hard to keep up with all the other dancers around me.”
Having had some previous experience with physical therapy (PT) and a front-row seat to her mom’s healing PT journey, Savannah started to ponder if PT might help with her dancing. As a dancer whose repertoire includes modern, contemporary, hip hop, jazz and ballet, Savannah felt confident in her strength but understood that there is more to musculoskeletal health than strong muscles.
“I started to wonder if I was using the wrong muscles because sometimes different muscles turn on that are not the right ones,” Savannah said.
Despite the little voice in her head, Savannah trudged on, ignoring the pain and limitations it caused, chalking it up to working hard and dancing a lot. Then, she got into a car accident.
“It was super minor, and nobody got hurt, but my whole back completely tensed up,” Savannah explained. “My back was already hurting and now it was super tense, so when I went back to dance it was really affecting me. I couldn’t do the moves I wanted to do anymore because of it.”
Knowing her daughter had ambitious goals, Amy Lash decided it was time for her to try physical therapy.
“Savannah has always been a competitive dancer and by this time, her senior year had come, and all she wanted was to be in the top levels,” Amy said.
For more than a year, Amy had watched as Savannah pushed herself, through pain and frustration, never giving in or accepting that she may have passed her peak.
“She just wasn’t growing as a dancer like some of the girls were, so she wasn’t getting the parts she wanted.”
Savannah admits being a bit unsure about PT at first, but all of her anxiety dissipated once she began working with Jonny Arnold at Therapeutic Associates Physical Therapy at OMG Southtowne.
“Jonny took in the fact that I am a dancer and that dancers do some wacky things with their bodies,” Savannah said. “He did so much research and put himself in a dancer’s shoes – he learned dance terms and how to do certain dance moves and then would ask me if he was doing it right. He made sure to understand not only what I was doing but the certain things that would happen when I was doing them. It made me feel like I was actually being heard.”
For Amy, seeing Savannah connect with Jonny was reassuring.
“She can be very shy and introverted,” Amy shared. “But, she just warmed right up to Jonny and got comfortable.”
This was important, Amy added, because Savannah came to PT with something she felt was really personal. She wanted to advance in dancing, and it meant everything to her. Jonny, Amy said, understood that.
“I’ll never forget the image of him dancing like a ballerina! He studied it and put himself into dance positions so he could understand what Savannah was experiencing.”
Though his knowledge and expertise as a physical therapist meant Jonny could watch Savannah move and test her strength to determine where to start laying the groundwork for her care, to truly understand what she was trying to do with her body meant taking that extra step.
“Once we lay a foundation, we have to look at how to apply it to that higher level, especially with a higher-level athlete,” Jonny explained. “That’s where I wish I had the knowledge for everything, but that’s not feasible or likely.”
Jonny not only took the time to ask questions to gain an understanding of what Savannah was feeling, but he also dedicated himself to learning all he could about dance, which included leaning on one of the clinic’s PT Aides who had extensive dance experience.
It was important to him, Jonny said, to be able to talk and communicate in a way that made sense to Savannah. Understanding dance terms, and making sure he was using them right, was a priority for him.
“If I can’t speak the language – PT talk to dance talk – then the connection’s not going to be there,” he explained.
It was also critical, Jonny added, to take into consideration what Savannah’s coaches were telling her and asking of her.
“Where can I apply the PT knowledge and connect it with what the coaches are saying so that we can get this to be full circle? Part of it was truly learning from Savannah what was needed, hearing what the other experts in her life were communicating so that I could try to bridge the gap between the two.”
It can be challenging for an athlete when the two sides of the story don’t come together. For Savannah, the need to push higher and further in her dance positions to compete at an elite level was contradictory to the need to back off when she experienced pain and loss of control.
Jonny met her in the middle.
“Jonny would really listen to what I was feeling and then create exercises to help me strengthen certain muscles and correct when I was doing something strange that I had no idea I was doing,” Savannah said. “Then if I was having trouble with an exercise, I could share that with him and always felt comfortable speaking up for myself, which in certain situations sometimes I don’t. I really felt like I developed a friendship with Jonny, and it was nice to be able to express how I was feeling and have him understand and help me.”
That personal connection played a large part in Savannah’s success story. An even bigger part, Jonny noted, was the young athlete’s commitment.
“I always tell people that we have to be in this together,” Jonny explained. “It’s a testament to Savannah for sure that she took what I equipped her with and ran with it. She decided to take the knowledge and bring it back to what she was doing before and elevate that to a new level. She is an all-star in many facets for sure.”
The journey from a place where she accepted, and expected, that low back pain and other discomforts were inevitable for her as a dancer to a place where she understands that while the things she asks of her body may be different or extreme, she has the knowledge and the ability to be strong, confident and pain-free, has been one Savannah said she’ll be forever grateful for.
“I believe I’ve completely surpassed the level I was at before,” she said. “You know, as humans, we grow as we get older, but I really feel like having PT helped me grow again as a dancer, and to become the person I am today. I made it up to a platinum award! I think that’s a pretty good journey.”