A conversation with Emily Eckman, athletic trainer for Dance

By Kari Dickinson

As the first athletic trainer for the School of Education’s Dance Department, Emily Eckman has been busy since she began her role in July 2022. 

Eckman (Photo: Sirtaj S. Grewal)

For 20 hours each week, she runs a dedicated clinic in Lathrop Hall where dance students can stop in to get treatment or learn how to prevent injuries. 

Eckman began her career in 2020 after graduating from Kent State University in Ohio with a bachelor’s degree in athletic training. She then attended Ohio University, where she was a graduate assistant athletic trainer for the university’s performing arts clinic and graduated with a post-professional master’s degree in athletic training in 2022. 

Eckman says her goal is to bridge the gap in health care for dancers by providing patient-centered care with a focus on mental and physical well-being. 

Recently, the School of Education’s communications team sat down with Eckman to learn a bit more about her work and why athletic training is important for dancers. 

How did you get started in athletic training?

Growing up, I was really passionate about dance, and I was really passionate about health. I was trying to find a path that could combine both of those, and the older I got, the more I saw that my friends in dance were being injured, and there was no one that knew how to help them. So that was a huge problem I dedicated myself to fixing.

When it came time to go to college and start my career, I found athletic training through my university.

I worked those four years of college to mold the curriculum to more of what I wanted to do. So although I was learning about throwing mechanics, and I was working with track and basketball, I was also doing work on my own and making projects to focus more on dance and play.

You have a background in dance. Could you share a little more about that? 

I did a little bit of everything starting at 2 years old. I did tap, jazz, modern, ballet, and pointe. And then when I got into high school, I joined my high school dance team and was the captain. So I did jazz and hip hop for basketball and football games. And then going into college, I really wanted to get my minor in dance, but it was just too crazy with an athletic training degree, so I took some dance classes when I could to stay involved and keep moving.

Working with the Dance Department here has been really great. I’m involved with all the performances, so it just kind of feels like home and it feels like where I’m supposed to be. I’m so lucky that I found a way to still stay involved and be in that community, even though I’m not dancing personally in my adult life.

Emily Eckman works on a computer
(Photo: Sirtaj S. Grewal)

Can you speak about your current role? What is a typical day like? 

In addition to being 50 percent with the Dance Department, I also work 50 percent with Recreation and Wellbeing. So I go to all of the RecWell meetings and help out with club events, and a couple of days a week I work over at the UHS clinic taking appointments with the general student population for sports or other injuries that people go through. We really focus on musculoskeletal injuries, and we can also treat concussions. So even if a business student is walking down the street and they step off the curb wrong and sprain their ankle, they can make a free appointment with us, and we can evaluate them and create a treatment plan.

I run my time with Dance as an open clinic. When I’m there, the doors are open, the dancers can come in, get treatment, do maintenance work, get evaluated, or do anything that they may need. When I am there it is crammed full — yesterday I saw 12 patients during the day, and the day before I saw 11 people. So it’s usually a constant stream of patients, and we’re doing rehab with someone while someone else is getting treatment, and when they’re done someone else is getting evaluated. 

At the beginning of the semester I was also going around to dance classes and observing them so I could kind of see the style of each professor and see what injuries might come out of that class and just make myself known to the students, since I was new and they had never had an athletic trainer before in that department.

(Photo: Sirtaj S. Grewal)

What kinds of injuries are most common for dancers, and how can working with an athletic trainer help prevent them?

With the dancers I see a lot of ankle, knee, low back, and lower extremity injuries, a few shoulders. Because this dance department specifically does a lot of inversions with their techniques, they’re more prone to upper extremity injuries as well. 

Being able to work regularly with an athletic trainer is great for dancers, even if they don’t have an injury. I’m noticing different weaknesses and imbalances that they have. Just from dancing in general you kind of focus on some strengths and others don’t develop, so evening out those imbalances can prevent injuries in the future. 

I’ve even had faculty members send students to the clinic because they notice that maybe a student’s knees are falling in pliés, for example, and they want to figure out why that’s happening. So after I evaluate their strength and range of motion and watch them go through that technique I can figure it out, and then give them exercises to correct that.

It takes a huge chunk of work away from the other faculty and staff, because they no longer have to try to act as a healthcare professional. They can simply send students to me, and I’ll take care of them.

I also think it’s great for incoming students to know that there’s a staff person in the department that will be able to care for them.

Why is working with an athletic trainer important for dancers? 

It’s really important because their body is their instrument. If you think about dance as an art and if you think about dance as a sport, it is usually athletes that get that traditional health care. It’s important for dancers to have access to an athletic trainer so they are able to keep doing what they do.

How do you work with the dancers during performances? 

It’s a marathon on performance weekends. I’m there for rehearsals and performances, usually an hour before call, so that dancers can come to me if they need any sort of massage or manual work, or a lot of them get taped for performances, or their toes are split. So it’s prepping them for the performance, and then I stay in case of an emergency situation. So if one of them gets cut or they sprain their ankle on stage and have to run off really quick, I can make sure everything’s okay.

When I started this position I wanted to focus on the dancers’ overall well-being, especially with their intense schedules. To address that, I implemented a “recovery day” after performance weekends where all of the participating dancers can come into the clinic to work on self-care. This way they can go into the next week feeling their best. I focus on active recovery, mental rest, proper nutritional fueling, and manual therapy techniques to aid in muscular recovery. 

Yoga blocks and other athletic training equipment in the UW–Madison Dance Department
(Photo: Sirtaj S. Grewal)

What do you find most rewarding about your role?

I love working with the dance population. It’s always been my dream. They’re the most grateful population I could ever dream to work with. Even on a long day at work where I’m staying there until 10 o’clock, I can tell myself that my job is going to watch a dance performance with amazing dancers, and taking care of them, and making sure that they can go out on stage and be their best. 

You get to see the fruits of your labor when you watch them on stage, and it’s just a great feeling.

You’re pretty new to Madison. What do you think of it so far? 

I absolutely adore Madison. When I applied for this job, I had never been to Wisconsin before so in my head I was thinking, well, I don’t know what’s in Wisconsin. I don’t know if I would really want to move to Wisconsin. And then I was flown up here for an in-person interview, and I just absolutely fell in love with it. Madison is not what I was expecting at all.

I live two blocks from the Capitol building, so I love going around and exploring. It’s usually what I do with my free time when there’s not a performance going on that weekend.

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