According to the World Health Organisation, health is defined as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. An awareness of this can help the dancer to achieve their full potential on and off the stage. For the dancer, any injury to any part of the body can influence the biomechanics of the whole body if not dealt with effectively, thus making the dancer more prone to injury.
An injury is essentially damage done to the body which reduces the normal range of movement for dancers. Mental health issues, eating disorders, depression or inherited genetic conditions such as scoliosis may also affect a dancer’s health. There has been extensive research within the field of dance science in the past 10 years to raise the profile of safe practice in dance and the benefits for teachers and dancers. It is crucial that injuries are reported and treated immediately in order that the dancer’s injury is not exacerbated and a pattern of injury established.
Dance science is in its infancy and tests to establish how and why an injury occurs are currently being developed. Organisations such as IADMS are publishing the results in their Journal for Dance Medicine and Science. Other organisations such as The Laban Centre are leading the way in developing dance specific tests to support dancers and dance research.
Complexities of injury in dancers
The recent trend towards a more contemporary choreographic style in ballet may have influenced greater levels of injury in ballet dancers. Equally, the trend within contemporary dance for more extreme and non-traditional movements may exacerbate injuries because the body has no pattern of training for these movements. The research project, ‘Fit to Dance 2’ reports a 7% rise in injuries in ballet professionals caused by new or difficult choreography.
At Scottish Ballet, the Artistic Staff and the Health and Support Team (the Gyrotnoics instructor, physio and massage therapists) work with the dancers to devise a programme of training to support them and their development. This is especially important during times of demanding artistic and physical development when dancers are more susceptible to injury.‘Fit to Dance 2’ listed nine recommendations to reduce injuries in general in dancers.
- Dancers should be physically fit
- Dancers should warm-up and cool-down properly
- Dancers should eat and drink properly
- Dancers should not smoke
- Dancers, teachers, choreographers and directors should know more about how the body works
- Dancers should receive immediate high quality treatment for injury
- Special consideration should be given to the menstrual status of female dancers
- Dancers should know how to, and be enabled to relax, pace themselves, combat staleness
- Dancers’ psychological needs should always be considered alongside their physical ones
A dancer whose nutritional intake is insufficient to support their training is also at risk from injury. The outcome of poor nutrition is that the dancer will be lacking in energy, muscle and concentration, all of which will affect their performance.Injuries are sometimes exacerbated by the external pressures from the dance world to fit an aesthetic ideal and, in some dancers, the psychological tendencies towards perfectionism, self-sufficiency and fear of losing the role or job.
Careful consideration is required to establish whether this is due to psychological reasons such as an eating disorder or whether it is down to a lack of education or care.
Dancers have a relatively short performing career, with it usually over by their mid 30s. Many dancers retrain, gaining further qualifications, which will allow them to move into teaching at this stage. The lifestyle of the dancer has a long-term impact on their quality of life, long after they have stopped dancing.
Factors that reduce injury in dancers
Strength training in a sport or discipline other than dance can support the development of a musculoskeletal structure and help the body to withstand the demands of dance training techniques. The medical profession and biomechanical scientists can provide a detailed analysis of individual body patterns that can help dancers achieve their aims.
The importance of considering the impact of training throughout a dancer’s life is crucial to safe practice, particularly in adolescence, when growth patterns may make the dancer more inclined to injury. A great deal of damage is done to the growth stages of the young dancer by poor nutrition or technical training that can result in longer-term conditions such as osteoporosis. However, these issues are all preventable with education, responsible teaching, and access to the medical profession.
Dance teachers are responsible for teaching their students to recognise their own limits and to work with them in an appropriate way. The dancer is responsible for following the advice that is given to them on technique, nutrition and strength training and incorporating this into their daily routine.
It is essential for those who are teaching young people to be aware of the body’s motor development and the mind’s cognitive stages so they can adjust and modify the training as appropriate, in order to deal with issues that may arise from normal individual growing patterns. Personal training plans for the young dancer should be flexible and able to respond to such physical and mental developments.
Screening programmes help dancers to identify a variety of suitable complimentary training techniques such as Yoga, Pilates, Feldenkrais and Gyrotonics. Dancers can work independently with whichever of these techniques best suit their personal physical and mental needs.
Dance science, proprioceptive training and biomechanics
We know that in the many areas of dance, science is beneficial both to the teacher and to the dancer. Proprioceptive training is used in the rehabilitation of dancers after they have sustained an injury. The dancer will use information to retrain the injured muscle allowing it to work more efficiently and effectively
Equally useful is the biomechanical analysis of a dancer’s movement patterns if they have a recurring injury. In order to maintain and improve the aesthetic, dance practice needs to embrace the body of scientific research. There is an argument that applying science to training reduces the quality of the aesthetic but this is outweighed by the wealth of evidence that shows dancers perform better with additional non-dance training. Most importantly, dancers deserve quality of care and performance-life longevity equal to that of an elite athlete.
With better training methods, education and access to screening, the length of a dancer’s career may well increase so that dancers are fit to perform at an older age.