by Jessica Wilson
‘Injury’ is word that is never far from any dancer’s mind as one of their constant and greatest worries: every year, 80 percent of dancers suffer at least one injury that affects their ability to dance.
Whether it is working to prevent injury, dealing with a current injury or recovering from a past injury, dancers are always considering the implications. The industry as a whole has considerably raised the profile of dance injury in recent years, indicating not only that the arts sector is tackling additional strands to ‘injury’, but also that there has been a significantly low focus on injuries and wellbeing in past years. For example, UK magazine Dancing Times collated a health directory for dancers throughout 2011, providing readers throughout the dance industry with further and definitive information, and offering a wealth of resources in terms of alternative practices. A range of complementary therapies were focused on, including Sophrology (dynamic relaxation) and Osteopathy, as well as more well-known procedures such as Massage and Physiotherapy.
In addition, Dance UK, the UK’s national voice for the dance sector, organised The Dance UK Medical Practitioners Directory as part of their Healthier Dancer Programme, offering access to their free online database of practitioners and complementary therapists for the dance sector. Helen Laws, Healthier Dancer Programme Manager, spoke extensively about the ethos of Dance UK, and the thinking behind the Healthier Dancer Programme.
Dance UK was set up 30 years ago by members of the dance profession who wanted an organisation to represent their needs and take collective action to improve the conditions in which dance was created, performed and experienced. From the onset, one of the key concerns for dancers was injury and its impact on their careers and ability to maximise their potential.
As Laws advocates, Dance UK is “constantly striving to reach an ever wider and more diverse dance population as our work in dancers’ health is relevant to all those dancing no matter what style or stage of their careers, for fun or professionally. We want to make sure that everyone’s experience of dance is a positive one, and that it is taught safely and effectively and that as far as possible dancers experience more of its health benefits and fewer injuries.”
Consultation with the UK dance sector last year showed that the work of the Healthier Dancer Programme is still considered vitally important. Dance UK and its work around dancers’ health exists because the profession needed a collective voice to tackle the big issues that affect the sustainability and development of dance. Dance UK works to serve, support and strengthen the profession in the face of one of the biggest issues of the profession: injury.
The health of dancers is not merely important to Dance UK, it is vital to the art form. “It is a tragedy to lose a great performer at their peak through injury; with companies working fewer dancers in the current economic climate, it is even more important they remain fit, healthy and able to perform, to ensure that those around them are aware of the risks of overwork and burnout.”
Dance UK is noted for its professional identification of the issues facing the dance industry, recognising the importance of dancers being able to approach a medical practitioner they trust or someone with a good reputation within the dance world regarding injury. This is in accordance with the practitioner having a distinct knowledge of dance and the implications of injuries on the performing body. The first hurdle of recovering from an injury is not always dealing with the injury itself, but convincing a medical practitioner that your body is not just any body. A practitioner understanding the effects an injury can have on a dancer’s life and career gives the dancer the reassurance that they are already on the road to recovery.
For Laws, the development of the Medical Practitioners Directory has meant “Dance UK has addressed the specialist needs of dancers in a variety of ways. The searchable online database lists details of some 250 medical, psychological, and complementary health practitioners throughout the UK. Our primary concern in creating and maintaining the directory is to ensure that dancers can find a qualified practitioner with dance specific experience. All those on the directory have been recommended by members of the dance profession. These individuals have experience treating dancers and understand the specific needs and concerns surrounding injury prevention and dancers’ health. This fact is very important to the dancers who use the service, as they know they are more likely to find someone who has a deeper knowledge of the possible causes and consequences, as well as the most appropriate and effective treatment for their injury or concern.”
A dancer’s body, much like that of an athlete’s, needs the same support an athlete would receive. “We have also designed the directory so that dancers can find a practitioner to suit their specific needs. The Directory lists practitioner qualifications, specialist and dance specific experience, memberships to professional bodies, and contact details. Dancers can search for services by practitioner name, type, and region, allowing them to tailor their healthcare experience to their location, preferred treatments, or specific professionals.”
In May 2011,UK magazine Dance Review focused on the steps to be taken from injury to performance, reporting that that the best injury prevention was fitness in showing the great contrast in fitness levels between sports professionals and dancers. Whilst this may contradict many strength and fitness beliefs the dance sector may have, it is comprehensible that higher fitness levels provide a robust counter for the risk of injury through a variety of circumstances. Naturally, the routines of sports professionals and dancers are highly dissimilar, yet increased fitness levels and general complementary practice sure cannot hinder?
Also affecting injury prevention and recovery is the inner voice of the dancer’s psyche, willing the body to continue through the pain. In everyday life, pain is the indicator to stop, yet for a dancer it is seen as a positive, and that the feeling is ‘right’. This attitude is rather negative in the attempt to mask the pain, but one that is ingrained within us all as we strive for more every time. The injuries can be likewise imprinted on the body’s muscle memory and the brain; the effects of an injury can remain long after the dancer has recovered as the dancer is apprehensive of the pain the injury once caused when the same movements are carried out after recovery.
Nutrition was also focused on; inadequate nutrition may also affect injury prevention and recovery through the restricted and insufficient diet of an elite performer. This can compromise the healing process, for example through the increased risk of stress fractures.
The dance industry has done much over the past decade to create initiatives which directly benefit dancers in relation to injuries and the problems encountered as a result of these, for example, Dance UK’s Healthier Dancer Programme. The Programme arose following the UK’s first major industry ‘Healthier Dancer’ conference in 1990, in which the late Sir Peter Brinson donated his £30,000 DigitalDance Award to a major piece of national research into dancers’ health and injury. The findings of this research were published in the ‘Fit to Dance?’ report, the recommendations from which formed the impetus behind the work of the Healthier Dancer Programme from then on.
Laws commented, “there is still more work to do and there are always new generations of dancers to keep informed and new developments in dance medicine and science to disseminate. But in the 10 years between our two national health and injury surveys we saw a reduction in back injuries, improved dance spaces (environmental factors being cited less as causes of injury), fewer eating problems, less smoking, more warming up and cooling down and better healthcare provision in the largest dance companies and vocational dance schools.
There is also much more inclusion of safe and healthier dance practice information/education in the dance and dance teacher training courses in the UK. Dancers seem to know more about what they need to do to look after their bodies even if circumstances beyond their control aren’t always conducive.” The programme works to improve the physical and psychological health and wellbeing of dancers through offering advice and information to dancers by arranging events and conferences for the dance community, the Practitioners Directory, research and medical expertise.
As the UK’s national voice for dance, Dance UK provides huge potential for present and future dancers in keeping up-to-date with developments in dance medicine and science in order to maximise the benefits to dancers’ health and performance. The programme also encourages dance organisations, companies and schools to develop and share opportunities for further professional development through information, ideas, resources and publicity, sharing ideas and knowledge. The Healthier Dancer Programme initiated much collaboration between dancers and medical professionals, enabling future ventures to sustain their missions.
Large-scale dance companies such as The Royal Ballet now have full multidisciplinary healthcare teams, with others developing their medical and science facilities alongside the space for treatment, rehabilitation and fitness. To continue moving in this direction will hopefully see the dance sector improving much of their facilities for the maintenance of dancer’s health and wellness. Laws added, “the work that Dance UK’s Healthier Dancer Programme has done to promote dancers’ health and fitness and the prevention of injury has also given rise to the development of a number Masters degrees in Dance Science and a growing pool of practitioners using this knowledge to feed into their work teaching and training dancers and working with them to improve performance and prevent injury. A Masters in Performing Arts Medicine has also begun this year catering, among others, for those pursuing a Sports and Exercise Medicine specialism within the NHS who wish to focus on the performing arts”; this offers much promise to the health of the dance sector.
BIO: Assistant Editor Jessica Wilson is a final year student at Middlesex university in London, studying Dance Performance. Jessica reviews London shows for the Society of London Theatre’s initiative for 16-25 year olds, TheatreFix, writes features for A Younger Theatre and blogs for Cloud Dance Festival, with additional press responsibilities. She has completed many marketing internships, the most recent at English National Ballet.
Jessica has also previously interned for SOLT, East London Dance and the ISTD dance examination board. Jessica is a National Youth Dance Ambassador for Youth Dance England, focusing on young people’s access to dance. She is extremely passionate about opportunites for young people enabling them to succeed and hopes to continue advocating this in the future through a variety of means.