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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Dance now pay later
Animated, Winter 1997. The stakes have never been so high as dancers are seduced into thinking of only the present. Kenneth Tharp argues why we should resist temptation and act on the findings of Fit to Dance? It is time for change
Many people are surprised to find how many dancers are regular smokers. Me too! I have no wish to pass judgement on fellow dancers we all have our habits good and bad, and our own ways of 'coping' it's just that for me the idea of a dancer who smokes heavily is as ridiculous as driving down the motorway blindfold with the handbreak on! It just doesn't help! I'm lucky I don't smoke and I'm not unhappy about that. My regret is that sadly, at the age of 36, I still don't drive a car, I have a bicycle instead. As an observer I have often thought that, people take more care of their cars than their bodies. I am hugely impressed with the amount of care and attention that some folks lavish on their automobiles forever polishing, waxing, rubbing, pulling apart, rebuilding, checking this, checking that, which fuel? Which oil? It's endearing, even if to me a little strange, and if at the end of the day something finally falls apart or drops off it's usually nothing that a quick visit to the local garage or to the nearest Kwick Fit won't fix. And, if things get really desperate, one can always take out a loan and buy a new one.

We live in an increasingly disposable society; how often are we told it is much more economic to throw out the old than to repair it. We are continually enticed to buy now pay later! Tempting yes, but dangerous, and a frighteningly real metaphor for what can happen to dancers' seduced into thinking only of the present, and who end up paying painfully for earlier mistakes. The wealth of scientific knowledge from Sports Medicine and the changing attitudes towards dancers' healthcare, highlighted in the Fit to Dance? report, are encouraging us as dancers more than ever to take greater responsibility for our fitness and welfare and quite rightly. But I think it is fair to add that our working lives are far more complex than many imagine, and that many of the pressures that assail us are caused by things not directly under our control cold theatres, hard floors, over demanding schedules are just a few examples. We are under daily pressure; unlike an annual MOT, we have to make the grade with every performance, night after night, and even the journey from rehearsal through to performance can be, (if you'll forgive the car analogy again), a rough ride.

Dance is an art form that requires such a wholesome application of mind, body and spirit for me, this is what makes it both special and supremely challenging. To train as a dancer is to undertake an affair with one of the most intensely demanding disciplines. It is not for the fainthearted or the glamour seeker, and it requires so many qualities above and beyond sheer talent. Tenacity, courage, sustained commitment, plus enormous mental and physical stamina are among some of the essentials that a young dancer will need to develop very quickly if they do not posses them already. The standards to which dancers must aspire are extraordinarily high. Like the evolution of the car times have changed.

Dancers are required to he more and more accomplished, not simply in the area of physical skill; nowadays we must be masters of a variety of styles, to be able to improvise, use our voices, work with sophisticated music, or without any at all, to have choreographic skills, to be able to teach, and to have a good understanding of anatomy, physiology, nutrition, dance history, and general stagecraft, including design, costume and lighting. They say it takes at least ten years to make a good dancer (it takes only a few hours to make a car). We are constantly being pushed and are pushing ourselves to extend our limitations. That is why good training and thoughtful practice are essential.

Dance and Drama students received heartening news in a recent announcement by Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage with a promised package of £25 million for accredited courses. This is the result of persistent and concerted lobbying, however I think that we should not let this hard earned success blind us to the fact that this is only an interim step for the next three years. Dance has a history of chronic underfunding, and there are many students, past arid present, who have suffered because of this. Many often forced to take on extra work either at night or at weekends to support themselves. They can soon, find themselves on a downward spiral of exhaustion, ill health and injury.

Instead they should be learning that sufficient time for rest and recovery for both mind and body, is not a luxury, but an internal part of a balanced and healthy training programme. And when dancers do get injured, if only the remedy was as simple as a quick visit to the garage for a new body part! It is heart breaking to think of the number of young dancers who are so determined to achieve their goals whatever the cost, that they set off on what could be described as a course of self destruction. However gifted, and however resolute the dancer, we must not forget that we are dealing with the human body which is a powerful and at the same time vulnerable instrument, that needs treating with understanding and respect. Inadequate funds, stress, poor nutrition, insufficient rest, fatigue, exhaustion, depression and anxiety are a recipe for disaster either now or later. Just as with a car, poor quality fuel, no oil or water checks, no regular service or maintenance, meanwhile driving at top speed and pretty soon our proud car owner is struggling to keep a badly damaged vehicle on the road. It is with our youngest dancers that the education must begin as teachers, choreographers or more senior dancers we have a responsibility to try and encourage safer, healthier practice. That is why the Fit to Dance? report is so important because that process begins with knowledge.

For myself, I have been dancing since the age of five - more than 31 years of my life. I think I have been lucky, lucky to have good teachers, lucky perhaps to have a genetic make up that was naturally robust, and lucky to have been in full time employment for so many years.

In nearly 13 years with London Contemporary Dance Theatre I was fulfilling my dreams as a dancer and reaped many of the benefits of being with such a company:
  • Regular employment, lots of performing with national and international tours each year
  • Daily company class to maintain and develop and refine our skills
  • Working under the most gifted and knowledgeable teachers and choreographers
  • Good studios clean, warm with sprung floors
  • Entering the company at the bottom I was surrounded by dancers and a rehearsal director who had years of experience and who were hugely supportive to a young initiate.

Most notably, the company moved steadily forwards towards preventive treatment, at one time we had as a matter of course a regular check every one or two weeks, in order to pinpoint vulnerable areas early on and to stop minor injuries becoming chronic.

Having said all that - it was never cushy, class alone was a test of stamina and courage, and a relentless schedule of rehearsal and performance meant a constant battle against fatigue and exhaustion.

I have been working for the last two years as a freelance artist I must admit I enjoy the variety as a performer, teacher, choreographer, part time musician, even actor. But I have become acutely aware of the enormous range of pressures faced by the independent dancers with little support or safety net. It has made me realise how much I perhaps took for granted before.

The conditions under which many independent dancers and artists working in smaller companies with limited resources, are becoming more and more familiar to a greater number of dancers, particularly those outside the large classical companies. To be brief, a small company with naturally ambitions plans almost inevitably ends up demanding of its dancers long hours. Sometimes this can involve working in several different rehearsal spaces, sometimes cold, draughty, hard floors and no showers. There is little or no contingency either in the rehearsal period or on tour for those occasions when a dancer gets injured.

Arc Dance Company earlier this year adopted two final year students from Northern Contemporary Dance School to be present during the rehearsal period, and 'on call' throughout the tour. I thought this was a good way of giving mutual support: experience to very nearly professional young dancers, and to the dancers in the company. Both understudies went on!

The thing is, that it's hard to talk about the reality of this situation, because at the end of the day one can end up with what looks like a hypochondriac's shopping list; in reality a whole host of small but significant pressures can accumulate and end up in unfortunate cases in injury. The pressures are real, and I was lucky in my time in a large revenue funded company to be shielded from some of these stresses we at least worked in good studios!

Earlier this year I sustained two injuries that caused me to stop dancing. I recovered quickly from the first, and although I couldn't walk for a couple of days with a hack spasm, there appeared to he no underlying injury and I was able to perform again in just over a week. The second occasion I tore my left calf muscle (gastrocnemius) I was told it would be a good six weeks before I could expect to be dancing properly again. Ironically I had shared an injury prevention session given by a specialist, with my Youth dance company, the night before. At the time of the injury I was teaching a professional class I was warm and it was the last few minutes of class, I wasn't even doing anything dramatic, just a chasse... I had had no warning that anything was wrong, or so it seemed. If I did, I didn't hear it. Sylvie Guillem was recently quoted in the Independent as saying, "The most important thing for a ballerina is to listen to her body. Every small sinew talks to you, and I listen hard". If the rest of us don't listen perhaps it is because we are afraid of what we might hear? My sinews don't talk in French, and these days I overhear them saying, "I wouldn't do that if I were you... I say, steady... You've got to be kidding! What again? You'll pay for this! Maybe tomorrow... Not tonight Josephine, I've got back ache!

But Sylvie is absolutely right, as dancers we must learn to listen to our bodies, and the art of listening, like dance, is an art to be learnt, and having listened, we must learn to act appropriately.

Lying on my back in the studio, leg raised, ice pack in place, arnica cream and anti-inflammatory tablets in the gullet, surrounded by concerned and caring colleagues, who in the back of their minds were probably thinking, It could have been me!" I was asking myself Why? Not so much Why Me? But what had I done or not done to make this happen? What could I have done to prevent it? In the following weeks of limping, physiotherapy and swimming, I had plenty of time to replay the moment itself, the moments before, the day before, the weeks, months and year before, searching for the reason or combination of reasons for my calamity. I thought about the cold theatres, freezing rehearsal spaces, the heavy workload I couldn't be sure I'm still not sure, in the end I decided it might simply have been the result of old age and 31 years of dancing.

My thinking also heightened my awareness of the lack of support for dancers outside the remit of a large revenue funded company. In particular:

1. Simply accessing information about healthcare is harder for the independent dancer, always on the move. There isn't always a company notice hoard and you may need to change rehearsal space every few weeks

2. We are told that immediate treatment is vital in the case of injury the time it can take to get an appointment with your GP, and then subsequent referral is often everything but immediate, and the frustrating lack of knowledge and understanding about dance and dancers' results in many dancers paying for expensive private treatment from their own small wage packet

3. The whole area of medical insurance is a gaping hole. You cannot drive a car without insurance so how is it right that we as dancers' in a high risk profession find it virtually impossible to find adequate cover that we can afford (I paid about £180 in three weeks for treatment of my calf injury). The recommendations in Fit to Dance? are very clear and draw attention to many areas that are ripe for improvement. It is time for change.

Through my involvement with Dance UK, and the Healthier Dancer Programme I have learnt a lot in the last two years. I think I have become more focused in my practice and certainly much more aware of things I can do outside the dance studio to help my fitness and overall performance. I am more disciplined about warming up and cooling down, aware of the need for aerobic training I cycle regularly I swim a lot and exercise in the water, have enrolled at my local gym, try to monitor my fluid intake, continue to meditate and practice tai chi and yoga. My physiotherapist nags me regularly to visit as a matter of course once a month for preventative treatment, or a minimum of every six weeks. I am still learning and changing.

To conclude, I would like to acknowledge and congratulate all those who have been involved in the realisation of Fit to Dance? Much has been achieved already and I think we are all looking forward to the future expectantly. Fundamentally, the way forward, as I see it, is about putting the concerns of long term health for all those involved in dance on a par with artistic goals. It is about education from the youngest dancers upwards. It is about recognising within the profession the shared responsibilities:
  • Those of the dancers themselves
  • Those of choreographers and teachers
  • Those of Company Administrators and Managers
  • Those of theatres and performing venues.

And politically, it is for Government and funding bodies to recognise that it is only with sufficient money that we can fully utilise and put into practice the knowledge that is being made available to us. It is about providing adequate support throughout the profession, and putting prevention at the top of our list. As dancers we must not allow ourselves to be treated as disposable commodities. It should no longer be simply a question of blind courage and finger crossing, as highly skilled practitioners we must learn to be more intelligent, more informed and raise our expectations of a healthier life style, and better, longer careers. The journey need not be so rough which reminds me, I must take my bicycle in for a service.

Kenneth Tharp, dancer, choreographer and teacher.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001