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Animated Edition - Summer 2005
Science says...
From pointe shoes to pointed remarks, Matthew Wyon offers insights into a dancer's health
I first put my foot on the path that led me to dance at the age five, when I attended my initial ballet class (all due to the book Ballet Shoes). I trained in classical technique weekly until my teens, whilst at the same time playing sport. But at sixteen I tore my iliopsoas muscles during rugby, which resulted in two years of physio. In retrospect this was probably a good thing for the dance world, as my technical abilities were less than impressive.

The cause of my injury, apart from the fact that a huge chap had sat on me, was this: I had developed my flexibility beyond the requirements of rugby and had little control of my limbs at the extreme ranges of movement. I eventually ended up studying a sport science degree at the same institute as Rambert Dance School. My dissertation looked at the often wayward nutritional practices of the dance students. I tried to persuade the dancers to drink an extra half-litre of skimmed milk a day to increase their micro-nutrient intake. The majority refused as they thought it would be fattening, even though the energy content of the milk was the equivalent of three tablespoons of rice.

Interacting with dancers again renewed my interest in the art form, this time within an intellectual rather than physical capacity. After two years of personal training in London, I started a masters degree in sport science and again examined dance within my dissertation. This time I wanted to know what was happening at the extremes of an active range of movement. For instance, what limits the extent of a developpé? The study was totally inconclusive except that I found that a dancers' hamstrings possess reduced electrical activity (resistance, that is) the more they are stretched.

Stating the obvious, the body is an astounding instrument. The more I study the incredible number of interactions that need to occur for even an eyelid to blink, let alone the complex movement patterns seen in dance, the more I'm hooked. Dance is an interesting movement form, too, in that, unlike sport, performance is not 'first one past the finishing post' or 'who can jump highest?' Therefore, not all of the lessons from sport science are applicable to it.

It was gratifying to be asked to be a research assistant on Dance UK's first Healthier Dancer Survey. This was a real eye-opener on the trials and tribulations of dancers within the UK. The fact that eighty percent of them get injured each year, and that the majority of the perceived causes are preventable, was a shock. How is it that a dancer can train for fourteen years but just perform for twelve? Why does the average professional retire at thirty-four, often at the peak of his or her technical abilities? And just why do they get injured so often?

My subsequent research has shown that while the physiological demands of dance performance are not that strenuous, often the physical fitness of dancers is poor. This renders the relative work load for the dancer high. Dance training has generally promoted a holistic approach to the body but, again, research suggests that physical fitness is often neglected. Or else it is assumed that the current training systems are enough to prepare the body.

Tradition is fine as long as it works, but nothing should be so conservative that new ideas are rejected out of hand. I strongly believe that dance needs to review how it develops its artists' fundamental skills in order to promote quality, not quantity, in their training. Dance performance is constantly evolving, but training practices are much too slow to keep pace. The result is an ever-widening chasm between the two. It's within this gap that I feel the roots of injury and shortened careers have gained a foothold.

Crucially, dancers forget to work through their feet. When landing from a jump their legs are less bent, thus causing more force to travel up through the body. When negotiating a lift, misalignment may induce a similar negative impact. In both instances the force often seems to end up at the lower back, resulting in injury or discomfort at the very least.

Fatigue, the main perceived reason for injuries, has a major effect on technique. As soon as we get tired, technique becomes compromised. Movements are less smooth. Limb positioning becomes less accurate. If technique is optimally learnt in short time periods, are ninety-minute classes and three-hour rehearsals actually the most valuable option? Should a class always follow the same format, or can it be fluid enough so that the focus of the session happens within twenty minutes of starting?

So how can fatigue be beaten? One method, mentioned earlier, is to train sensibly. The other, also previously hinted at, is to improve the underlying fitness levels of dancers. In an informal study at English National Ballet company dancers, in addition to their scheduled rehearsals, carried out two one-hour circuit classes per week for ten weeks. The result was a significant reduction in injury during their subsequent tour, and the dancers felt fitter too. Just as importantly, the artistic director felt that they danced better. Circuit classes were subsequently fitted into the rehearsal schedule, thereby reducing the volume of the sessions as rehearsal periods became more intensive; this concept is known as tapering.

At the University of Wolverhampton we're awaiting the outcome of a grant application to conduct a study that might indicate more clearly if dancers who are fit do indeed dance better and are less prone to injuries. Dancers are a great investment worthy of long-term protection. Their health and well-being must be of paramount importance within a company, because without them there'd be no show. To me it seems short-sighted of the Arts Council that companies cannot, as part of their funding bids, put in costings for injury prevention and treatment. If this were permitted, a clear message would be sent out reinforcing the importance of the dancer within the dance. It might also help reverse the habits of choreographers, who often prefer younger dancers to mature ones whose abilities are perhaps in decline.

Dance UK, through Helen Laws and the Healthier Dancer Programme, has done a wonderful job with the results from two surveys and other dance medicine and science research, spreading the word through workshops, lectures and conferences. There has been a mixed reception to such output. Some companies and schools take the Programme's suggestions on board. Others pay scant heed, though the dancers and students themselves usually are more committed as it's their bodies that are directly affected.

Science is also creeping into undergraduate dance courses, allowing dance students a better understanding of the demands placed on their bodies. At Wolverhampton there are modules in years one to three, which are followed up with a masters degree in Dance Science and PhD opportunities. The goals of dance science are an increased understanding of what dance does to the body, and how best to counteract potential problems and prepare the dancer to meet them. Its role is to provide a support mechanism that works alongside choreographers, artistic directors, school directors and teachers. Often it just confirms what those in the field often suspect, but other times it will challenge tradition and suggest other paths.

For instance, two to three body weights of force go through the body on each landing; and when a dancer is lifted, the greatest force - that is, two body weights - exerted on the lifter is not on the way up but on the way down. How do we prime the body to cope with such forces? By doing more and more jumps, do we jump higher or are we just increasing the chances of getting injured? How many women are trained to lift now that it is an integral part of contemporary choreography? When should we start doing lifts, during rehearsals or earlier?

Science doesn't claim to have all or even most of the answers to these and a multitude of similarly detailed questions, but it will provide an idea of how transferable a concept is to other situations. The body is an amazingly complex organism and dance a beautiful expression of that complexity. If I can help a dancer dance longer, better and injury-free, great. But if I can advise dancers how to do it for themselves, even better. I myself have come full circle since my inaugural Ballet Shoes days, as I am now researching and assessing variations between the different makes of the pointe shoe in stability, shock absorption and wear.

Matthew Wyon PhD CSCS, Course Leader MSc Dance Science, Course Leader MSc Applied Sport and Exercise Science, University of Wolverhampton Tel: 01902 323 144. Email:

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Animated: Summer 2005