Core Work: A chat with Joy Karley

Joy Karley’s journey to Broadway Dance Center was a weave of passion, artistry, and (believe it or not) science! Karley currently teaches ballet, Pilates, and frequent foot care and extension classes at BDC and, while her trajectory may not have felt linear at the time, her resume is incredibly impressive.

“I started dancing in Cleveland, Ohio in those 3-5 pre-dance combination classes,” remembers Karley. “I had three older brothers and my mom wanted me to do something ‘girly.’ I took everything from tap and ballet to tumbling.” Throughout her adolescence, Karley trained at various studios including the Cleveland Ballet. “Back in the 70s and the 80s, dance scene was still a very abusive environment,” she concedes. “To my teachers at the time, I would never be good enough or skinny enough to succeed.”

With that invigorating mix of disappointment and determination in her bones, Karley decided to apply for college where she felt she could major in dance and train in a more supportive environment.

She was accepted to Kent State University where the dance program was, at the time, part of the physical education department rather than performing arts or musical theater. “My degree was a B.S. (a Bachelor of Science). But I didn’t want to take the science requirements, so I pushed them off to my senior year.” While exercise physiology initially sounded boring to Karley, she eventually discovered she loved learning about human anatomy and how the body works. It all clicked—She could relate that knowledge to her dancing.

Alongside her academics, Karley found a side hustle teaching fitness classes at local gyms. “There was no such thing as a ‘fitness certification’ back then,” she recalls. “All you needed was a cassette tape and some rhythm!” Slowly but surely, Karley’s interests began to dovetail.

“Still, dance in college is like dance—or any performing art—anywhere else,” Karley admits. “There’s discouragement everywhere you go. My advisor even told me to change majors!” But a lightbulb went off after reading a small Dance Magazine article about the Pilates method, a training program popular among dancers. “I wanted to help dancers get better at what they do,” Karley told her advisor. “I think you’d better focus on your studies…” her advisor replied.

That same fire was ignited in Karley again. “I finished my degree, continued teaching fitness, and delved into learning more about other fitness methods including Pilates,” she says. “At that time Step Reebok was brand new. I learned to teach Step from Tamilee Webb (“Buns of Steel”). She kind of mentored me about pursuing a career in the fitness industry.”

Karley knew she had more to learn, so she headed west to San Diego State to get her master’s degree in Biomechanics and Athletic Training. “San Diego had the biggest concentration of well-known professors and was where Step Reebok was doing all their innovative research,” says Karley, whose thesis actually contributed to the research and development for the step training manuals. “It wasn’t so bad to study at the beach either!” She also kept up teaching dance and fitness and freelancing with some small dance companies in Southern California.

After a stint in Los Angeles, Karley got recruited to work in fitness marketing in New York City. “The environment was very toxic and misogynistic,” she recalls. “I missed dance, so I started taking (and eventually subbing) classes at Broadway Dance Center.” It was here that everything seemed to fall into place. “I realize I’m doing exactly what I told my advisor I wanted to do—help dancers get better at their craft,” Karley says with pride. “To all the teachers who told me to quit, I’m teaching at Broadway Dance Center in New York City and empowering dancers to become better, stronger, and smarter artists.”

Karly taking class with longtime BDC teacher, Natasha Del’Elmo

“Being onstage is great, but I have had such rewarding experiences as a teacher.” Karley recounts one story about a former International Student Visa Program student who dragged himself to her ballet class because it was required for his program. “While the student was very resistant at first, after a few weeks he started getting really good. I would catch him checking himself in the mirror and clearly enjoying class,” she remembers. “When the program ended, he came up to me and said, ‘I want to thank you because you taught me about ballet and made me appreciate it.’ That makes what I do worth it. If ballet comes on TV and his buddies joke about it, he might defend it and say, ‘No, that’s really difficult. Those men are athletes.’ That makes an impact.”

Karley’s classes are popular amongst dancers because she teaches not only technique, but a deeper understanding of how the muscles and joints work to achieve each movement. “In my day, we were taught to just make your body do that. It was like Darwinism…the weak would be weeded out and the cream of the crop would rise to the top,” Karley explains. “I try to teach people from a biomechanical standpoint so dancers can understand their abilities from the inside-out and work with what they have to train and perform safely. There’s a lot of imagery in ballet, but some of it is untrue. Understanding what’s actually going on anatomically can make a huge difference in a dancer’s technique.”

Good workouts are the ones that withstand the test of time. They can certainly evolve, but they’re scientifically proven and aren’t just ‘trends.’ “Science behind it ensures you’re not going to get hurt,” explains Karley. “Ballet actually proves to be scientifically sound—You start with plies and end with jumps after an hour of warming up. It’s progressive physically.”

If you understand how your body works, you can avoid injury and get stronger. Dancers, like athletes, have a tendency to push through pain in order to perform. “The industry is getting much healthier,” addresses Karley. “Companies have physical therapists on staff and training programs are encouraging dancers to take control of their own self-care through classes like Pilates, yoga, and active isolated flexibility. Imagine how much longer you might be able to dance if you take care of yourself.”

In addition to a dancer’s core technique classes, Karley strongly encourages Pilates as a critical form of cross-training. “Pilates keeps dancers healthy and strong,” she says. “Young people think ‘It’s not going to happen to me,’ but you don’t realize how vulnerable you are until your first injury.” Pilates strengthens and lengthens the body with a sense of control and centering through your ‘powerhouse’ (core abdominal and lower back muscles).

Karley’s additional specialized signature classes evolved from her own students’ needs. “Years back I had a dancer who was planning to have bunion surgery,” Karley recalls. “I gave her a foot kit (sold in the BDC store) and, after using it only twice, her foot pain went away.” Karley got inspired to design a foot conditioning class to help dancers care for their most important instruments—their feet. In addition to her foot class, Karley’s other signature classes, stretching and improving extension, remain popular at BDC.

Over her years teaching here, Karley has noticed an ever-growing bad habit amongst her younger students: tech neck (poor posture from texting, gaming, or working on a computer). “These kids have the posture of senior citizens,” Karley worries. To combat this postural problem, she suggests four simple exercises: 1) aligning the body starting a the feet and stacking the skeleton all the way up to the crown of the head, 2) some sort of core activation exercise like opposite arm/leg reach, bridging, or ab curls, 3) an upper back ‘swan,’ and 4) cat/cow stretch to mobilize the spine. “If you can start your day with these exercises or do them before dance class, they’ll make a world of difference.”

To become an even more informed dancer, be sure to drop into Karley’s ballet, Pilates, and frequent signature classes at BDC.

The Harkness Center for Dance Injuries

Albert Einstein wrote that “Dancers are the athletes of the gods.”  Now, whether or not you’d consider dance to be a sport, I’m sure we would all agree that dance is extremely athletic, requiring stamina, strength, balance, and agility.  Still, dance is rarely given the same respect and acknowledgment as athletics.  I spent my freshman and sophomore years working as an assistant athletic trainer for my college’s sports medicine department.  As much as I loved (*sarcasm) taping stinky football players’ ankles, massaging sweaty track runners’ calves, and the like, I really chose this job because I could train with the physical therapy equipment (thera-bands, medicine balls, ultrasound machines) when the room was empty.  I can remember though, those few occasions when a dancer from our school’s nationally-ranked ballroom team would come to the training room.  Other athletes would scoff and even the trainers would not take the student’s injury seriously.
  • Dance Medicine/Science only became a field of study in the late 1970s/early 1980s.
  • The annual frequency of injury among dancers has been reported to range between 23-84% while as many as 95% of professional dancers have ongoing pain.(University Health Network, Toronto)
  • Statistics show that 80% of dancers incur at least one injury a year that affects their ability to perform – compared to a 20% injury rate for rugby or football players. (University of Wolverhampton)
  • 31% of ballet dancers have had, or will have, a stress fracture (Rudolf Nureyev Foundation Medical Website)
  • 24 % of ballet dancers (mainly female dancers) have a scoliosis (Rudolf Nureyev Foundation Medical Website)
  • Over 50% of dancers are uninsured and cannot afford medical treatment for injuries/illness.
When I said goodbye to sunny Southern California to take part in BDC’s Professional Semester, one of the first seminars we had was an orientation at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. The Harkness Center, associated with NYU’s Lagone Medical Center, provides preventative and restorative care for dancers.   These include physical therapy, sports medicine/athletic training, and injury prevention workshops and assessments.
The Harkness Center for Dance Injuries (HCDI) aims to:
  • provide excellent musculoskeletal healthcare to the dance community at affordable rates through a team of specialized medical professionals.
  • offer free, one-on-one prevention clinics for individual dancers
  • make available free or subsidized preventative and educational outreach programs for dancers, teachers, choreographers and administrators about the occupational, behavioral and mechanical factors associated with dance injuries.
  • assist the dance community with identification and reduction of injury risks
  • conduct ongoing research which advances the quality of dance science and improves the delivery of dance medicine.
  • establish standards of excellence for dance medicine practitioners.
  • interact with the dance community to minimize medical insurance costs.
  • provide continuing education opportunities for the medical community in the specialized area of dance medicine.
  • enhance the visibility of the dance medicine specialist within the dance and medical communities and in the general public.
  • serve on the boards and committees of national and international dance medicine associations and journals.
Injury Prevention Assessments:

“The Harkness Center offers one-hour, free-of-charge injury prevention assessments for dancers. During the injury prevention assessment session each dancer is seen individually for an hour by a therapist who reviews the dancer’s complaints, medical and nutrition histories and performance during a battery of tests. The screening is designed to evaluate the risk the dancer is exposed to and to discuss the dancer’s concerns before an injury occurs. At the conclusion of the assessment the dancer is given an individually tailored injury prevention exercise regime with recommendations for modification of their technique, training strategies, footwear and/or dance environment. The aim of the screening is to maximize each dancer’s potential for wellness.”

Interview with Leigh Heflin, administrative coordinator at the HCDI:
When was the Harkness Center founded? 
The Harkness Center for Dance Injuries (HCDI) was founded in 1989 in partnership with the Harkness Foundation for Dance and the Hospital for Joint Diseases in response to the New York dance community’s critical need for specialized and affordable health care.
Why is the Harkness Center different from a standard doctor’s office or physical therapy clinic?
HCDI caters to the unique treatment needs of the dancer. Our physicians and rehabilitative staff combine their medical and research experience with their expert knowledge of dance and dance science to provide highly specialized care to the dancer patient.
What services do you provide for dancers? 
We have many services including weekly dance clinics, physical therapy, FREE injury prevention assessments, injury prevention workshops, functional capacity screenings, ergonomic evaluations, etc. You can see a full list of our services with descriptions atwww.danceinjury.org.
  • Dance Clinic: The Harkness Center for Dance Injuries holds weekly dance clinics by appointment.  Dancers’ injuries are evaluated and treated by a specially trained team of orthopaedic surgeons, primary care sports medicine physicians, physical therapists and/or athletic trainers.
  • Physical Therapy & Athletic Training Services: The Harkness Center has a staff of physical therapists and athletic trainers specially trained to care for the dance population. These clinicians have had a minimum of two years of orthopaedic, sports medicine and manual therapy training and have participated in in-service training dealing with the occupational and psychological stressors of the dance environment.
  • Free Injury Prevention Assessments: The Harkness Center offers one-hour, free-of-charge injury prevention assessments for dancers. During the injury prevention assessment session each dancer is seen individually for an hour by a therapist who reviews the dancer’s complaints, medical and nutrition histories and performance during a battery of tests. The screening is designed to evaluate the risk the dancer is exposed to and to discuss the dancer’s concerns before an injury occurs. At the conclusion of the assessment the dancer is given an individually tailored injury prevention exercise regime with recommendations for modification of their technique, training strategies, footwear and/or dance environment. The aim of the screening is to maximize each dancer’s potential for wellness.
  • Injury Prevention Workshops: The Harkness Center provides injury-prevention lectures to community groups upon request. These programs are intended for dancers, teachers, parents, and/or management, as requested by the individual organization.  Topics can be chosen from a list of most-often requested, or custom-made to meet the specific needs of the school/company.   Examples of popular topics include: injury prevention, cross training, nutrition & hydration, pointe readiness, anatomy, and environmental safety.
What if a dancer does not have health insurance or the financial means to cover his/her treatment?
The NYU Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases strives to provide medically necessary care to patients regardless of their ability to pay. The Hospital’s financial assistance program is available to New York State residents and individuals, regardless of residency, who receive emergency services and who formally demonstrate an inability to pay their hospital expenses.
Additionally, the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries offers financial assistance for dancers thanks to the LuEsther T. Mertz Advised Fund of the New York Community Trust who made a challenge gift in 1997 to the Center to create an endowment that would ensure a long-term solution for providing access to healthcare for dancers without insurance or financial means.
Both of these financial assistance programs require the dancer to formally demonstrate financial need by completing an application that includes submission of proof of income, savings and expenses.
What are the most common injuries you see in dancers?  What preventative measures can dancers take to avoid these injuries? You provide free one-on-one injury prevention screenings for dancers.  Why do you do this and what do the appointments consist of?
Injury type and occurrence will vary dependent on the genre of dance; however, most studies show that the foot and ankle are the most common injury site for dancers.  If you would like to prevent injury the best thing to do is to make sure you are taking care of yourself, cross training to properly prepare your body for the demands of dance technique and allowing enough time to rest. To learn more about your body and get exercises that might benefit your health and career longevity call HCDI to make an appointment for a FREE Injury Prevention Assessment at 212-598-6022.
Does the Harkness Center provide educational workshops for dance students and professionals?
Yes, to schedule an Injury Prevention Workshop please call 212-598-6022 and ask to speak to Leigh Heflin. She will help coordinate and plan a workshop specific to your school/companies needs.  (More info above under services).
What would you recommend to a dance that is interested in studying/pursuing a career in Dance Medicine?
Currently, dance medicine and science is only defined by the actions and ideas of various health professionals, dance educators, alternative practitioners, and researchers that practice in the area of dancer health. Each discipline brings a unique perspective and body of knowledge to the health concerns of dancers. This diversity of perspectives is rightly perceived as a strength. However, this diversity prevents a simple answer to the question, “How can I learn about dance medicine and science?” The short answer is, “It depends.” Students should be asked, “What unique skills, abilities, and knowledge do you currently possess and which ones do you want to acquire? Precisely how do you see yourself contributing to dancer health?” Focusing on the students learning objectives will clarify which discipline associated with dance medicine and science they should pursue.

For a listing of possible careers please visit the HCDI website (http://hjd.med.nyu.edu/harkness/dance-medicine-resources/what-dance-medicine-and-science/career-overviews)


To schedule your free injury prevention assessment at the Harkness Center, call 212-598-6022.