It was the season of “The Nutcracker” and the teenaged ballerina was dancing in pointe shoes for almost as many hours as she was awake. Every day she’d squeeze her battered feet into a pair of pale pink slippers, tie their silky ribbons around her slim ankles, then rise up on her toes and spin through a graceful series of pirouettes. After the curtain came down on the final show, she couldn’t point her feet or raise up en pointe; her ankles wouldn’t allow it. Her foot felt like it was on backward.
This is when Dr. Kathleen Bower ’11 was first introduced to the world of physical therapy— and was set on the path to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) graduate who would combine her love of movement with a passion for injury prevention.
Dance injuries have been on the rise for more than a decade, with a 37% increase reported from 1991 to 2007 in a study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Feet are crunched, strained, sprained. Ankles are twisted, elbows are bumped and bruised, and arms are broken during falls. Dancers risk losing mobility with every jeté.
When dancing en pointe, the average pressure on the shoe’s toe box is about 220 pounds per square inch. Some of the associated injuries can be career-ending. Bower was fortunate, though, and after months of physical therapy and a referral to a dance medicine specialist she was able to return to dance—something she’d loved ever since seeing “The Nutcracker” as a 3-year-old in Danville, California.
“When you spend months in physical therapy yourself, you realize its importance.”
In college at California State University Long Beach, Bower was in the studio six days a week and worked on her bachelor’s in dance science with a plan to pursue a career in performance. “But then I ended up with an injury at the end of my junior year,” she remembers, wincing at the thought of the pain running down her back from the sacroiliac joint dysfunction.
“I hit a wall, and decided to transition my focus. I got more involved in Pilates, learning how beneficial it is in making you stronger as a dancer and preventing injuries,” Bower explains. “It opened my eyes about what I was meant to do.”
The more she learned about Pilates and other techniques to keep dancers healthy, the more she wanted to learn. After graduating college in 2008, Bower decided to seek a DPT from the University of St. Augustine.
“From the moment I stepped onto campus, I knew it was the right place for me,” she says. “Everyone I met there radiated confidence and a pride in the university, including the students in the thick of it all.”
The difficult coursework and rigorous curriculum gave Bower a solid foundation, she says. That, plus her Pilates training, helped her stand out when she attended the Combined Sections Meeting of the American Physical Therapy Association.
“I talked to people from Balanced Body, who make Pilates equipment, and in the next booth was Brent Anderson of Polestar Pilates,” she says. “He saw that I understood physical therapy, was Pilates-trained, and had an interest in dance medicine. He said, ‘I can combine all of that for you at Polestar.’ ”
She completed her orthopaedic internship with Polestar and then, after graduation, took a full-time job there in Miami, where she continues to work with a local dance studio on injury prevention and treatment through physical therapy and Pilates.
When New World School of the Arts, a local arts high school, needed someone to work with students, Bower was offered the job. She gave lectures on injury prevention and taught students exercises to keep themselves safe.
“They’d start doing them and feel better in class. Their nagging aches and pains would start to go away,” she says. “I realized how much Dr. Edward Kane’s drilling anatomy questions, Dr. Wanda Nitsch’s constant corrections in mock clinic, and the intricacies of biomechanics that Dr. Steve Laslovich lectured about for hours had stuck in my memory and came out right when I needed them.”
In 2014, the Miami City Ballet approached Polestar to see if its team could develop a comprehensive dance medicine program, including a dance clinic staffed with PTs and an MD, to offer a comprehensive, collaborative effort to treat dance injuries. Bower is now in charge of dance medicine there. She also works with a modern dance company once a week.
Because Bower can speak the dancers’ language—knowing exactly what one dancer meant when she said it felt like there was spaghetti squash inside her ankle—she’s able to come up with treatment plans quickly. And that’s key, because these patients have very little time; her appointments with them are typically 15 minutes long. It’s important for Bower to have strong diagnosis skills.
“My time at St. Augustine taught me a lot about professionalism and helped to provide me with the necessary tools to succeed,” she says. “I realize how much my education has allowed me to flourish, and how dedication and never backing down from your dreams can lead you down the right path.”
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