Be Careful with Your Gyrations, Warns L.A.'s Break Dance Doc, or You'll Wind Up in a Sling

Caution: Break dancing can be dangerous to your health. That’s the conclusion reached by Dr. Jack Bertman, 38, a veteran emergency-room physician at the Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital. When the injuries first started to show up, Bertman, characteristically calm and efficient, found himself puzzled. “Starting in January, I noticed a lot of teenagers coming here with unexplained cuts and bruises,” he says. “I sensed that they were doing something they didn’t want their folks to know about. Well, we’d get to talking and it would turn out that break dancing was involved.”

How are the kids hurting themselves? “The most common break dance injury is to the back and lower neck—strains and sprains,” Bertman explains. “That’s because of the gymnastic gyrations the breakers do. Cuts and bruises are frequent, of course, and we see a lot of broken digits—fingers and toes.”

Bertman concedes that such injuries to youngsters were not exactly unknown prior to break dancing. But what startled him was the frequency with which they were showing up in emergency. “I see an average of one break dance injury each day, sometimes more,” Bertman says. Indeed, he has had so much experience with it that concerned parents, teachers and other doctors often call to consult, and the media has dubbed him “the Break Dance Doctor.” The sobriquet embarrasses him. “I don’t want to come across as frivolous,” he says.

But while recognizing the perils in the current fad, Bertman is in no way a medical spoilsport. “I’ve always been a fan of athletic dancing,” he says. The interest goes back to his early years in Kansas City, Mo. (“The Jerk was big when I was growing up.”) He first saw break dancing in the film Flashdance, “liked it immediately” and applauded its spread from urban streets to affluent California suburbs and, in fact, right into his own Beverly Hills home. “My 14-year-old son, Jamie, is good at it,” he says with fatherly pride. “He picked it up from buddies, all of whom live in middle-or upper-middle-class neighborhoods. And Jamie can really move.”

Nevertheless, Bertman believes that in break dancing, as in anything else, there is a sensible way to go about it. “Break dancers tend to injure themselves most frequently when they are just starting out,” he says. “In the beginning they make a lot of mistakes, some of them painful. Then, as they get better, there’s a leveling off when injuries are almost absent. When the dancer approaches the professional level, injuries pop up again.”

For teens bitten by the break dancing bug, he has formulated “Bertman’s Four Commandments of Safety,” couched in a lingo that practitioners can easily remember:

1. Simmer before you cook. As in every athletic activity, warm up first. Stretch your muscles. The only thing you want to snap is your fingers.

2. Take it slow. Learn the basics before trying anything hard.

3. Play it clean. Make sure the area you use is free of obstacles.

4. Keep it soft. Learn on a soft surface before tackling concrete. In fact, it’s a good idea to break dance on a pad.

A graduate of Yale and the USC Medical School, Bertman has practiced in several Western states, first as an ear, nose and throat specialist. As a public-health physician he and his family lived in Anchorage, Alaska where he ministered to the Eskimos. Now, along with an emergency-room colleague, Dr. Ross Miller, Bertman is writing a learned paper on the medical implications of break dancing, though he doesn’t regard it as a work for the ages. “A year from now,” he muses, “will anyone still remember break dancing?”

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