I am so pleased to introduce our guest contributor, Rachel Rist, M.A., Director of Dance at Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, an hour outside of London. The Tring Park School is one of only 21 schools in the UK selected to receive government funded Dance and Drama Awards. Graduates go on to prestigious careers in all the arts, dance included. I have known Rachel for 20+ years, and it has been a pleasure to watch her emerge as one of the titans of dance medicine worldwide. She is a wonderful role model for teachers and school directors who want to integrate dance medicine knowledge into their training programs, and that is the topic I asked her write about, for this first article (we hope she will do more!!). – Jan Dunn, MS, Dance Wellness Editor
by Rachel Rist, MA
Twenty five years ago, when Dance Medicine was relatively unknown, as a newly appointed Director of Dance at an elite school in the UK, with a faculty of about 35 dance teachers of varying genres, I had a strong vision of the healthy dance training that I planned for the school. Unfortunately, at that time, nearly all of the faculty had been trained in the ‘old school’ system of ‘dance till you drop’ and ignore injuries, because; ‘that is how we did it in my day…’ This perpetuated the myth of over-reverence for a traditional system of training that was at best brutally strict and, at worst, produced a tremendous drop out rate of injured dancers and damaged performers. The faculty were luckily open to change as many of them had in fact, been injured out of the profession themselves still relatively young in their careers as professional dancers.
Key to encouraging dance teachers to reassess their own practices and looking for ways to implement new ideas, was to find a physiotherapist (PT) whom the teachers liked and respected – and to then establish weekly team meetings with that therapist and encourage frequent dialogue, have training sessions with them, and ask them to watch classes and rehearsals. The teachers found themselves also asking the PT questions on an informal basis around the coffee machine, or at lunch break, so when he came to lead them in an introductory session in Core Stability, they were already on board.
The next development was to introduce a screening process for the students. This is an increasingly common tool for schools and companies to use with their dancers (Editors note: See our recent article on this topic.). It involves looking at the dancer’s body / overall health / technique, and providing feedback for them — in terms of potential areas of weakness that might cause future problems.—i.e, it is a preventative tool.
The first step in this effort was to encourage any teachers who wanted to have a screen, free, for themselves. They came away from their personal screen understanding that the more we understand our own bodies, the better able we are to look after and maintain them. Teachers were fascinated and soon even the more skeptical ones were asking for a screen and were very keen to encourage their students to attend one. The students gained much from the screenings and importantly, came away with an individually designed training plan for their own physique. Alongside this was the In-Service training sessions for the teachers every 6 weeks, often led by myself or invited experts. (All sessions were during lunch times and providing baked goodies was an integral part of ensuring good attendance!)
Implementing Pilates and supplementary training was a natural progression from the screening process, and the faculty could see how valuable this could be for an injured dancer, to maintain range of movement and strength whilst still protecting an injury. The Pilates teacher was also a natural link between the Physiotherapist and the teacher (and importantly, was also an ex- professional dancer herself). At every development, good communication was vital, as was leading by example.
Implementing fitness training, however, was a lot more challenging. In a school that delivers academic work in addition to elite dance training, finding the time to do this in the packed curriculum was a real challenge. If something new goes into it, something has to come out of the timetable, or we have to work the students harder during their breaks. A compromise was to give a little lunch break time and a little class time to create a slot for the supplementary fitness training. It was 6 weeks before any benefit was revealed, and there was barely a day went by that a teacher, student or parent did not protest at the additional training. However, the outstanding results in improved fitness and condition of the dancers in the annual school show was all the validation it needed.
While working from a solid foundation of committed teachers, maintaining an open dialogue and always encouraging teachers to ask, challenge and find out more, we still needed to ensure that our training systems were in harmony with outstanding quality training of the adolescent dancer. This continues to be done by lesson observations, staff development and training, team teaching, regular training sessions and an ethos of constant evolution and growth. However, the most convincing and exciting outcome was seeing our dancers graduate into national and international level dance companies, go on to have long careers and indeed second careers as Artistic Directors. Longevity of a professional career at a high level was always the goal.
As new teachers joined the dance faculty, they were chosen not only for their experience and professional skills, but also for their interest or knowledge or passion for learning about the body. Gradually, teachers (and importantly, prospective students) gravitated towards the school precisely because the school had a reputation for providing outstanding training within a safe and healthy dance environment.
Now, with an incredible faculty of nearly 45 staff of highly experienced and skilled teachers, our school remains at the forefront of providing healthy dancers who are sought after by leading companies.
Personally, I was inspired by Dr. James Garrick, MD of Saint Francis Memorial Hospital Dance Medicine Division (in San Francisco), who, when I asked how he had become interested in Dance Medicine, replied; ‘it was a bloody-minded ballet teacher…..’
My mission was clear.
BIO: Rachel Rist, M.A. is the Director of Dance at Tring Park School for Performing Arts in Hertfordshire, UK. She has a Master’s Degree in Performing Arts, and is a published author of a first book, ‘The Injured Dancer’ (1986) and a second book ‘Anatomy and Kinesiology for Ballet Teachers’ (1996) and regular feature writer of many articles for dance magazines. She was President of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science, (2003 – 2005) and later, Chair of its’ Education Committee. She has twice hosted the annual IADMS conference in 1997 and 1999. She is still a board member of IADMS. Rachel was the Chair of the Faculty of Education for the Royal Academy of Dance, and a member of the Executive Committee. She has worked extensively with Dance U.K, as a member of the Editorial Board for the ‘Fit to Dance?’ reports, 1 and 2 and on the editorial board for the ‘Dance Teaching Essentials’ book, is on the editorial board of the magazine ‘Dancing Times’.
Rachel was on the Steering Committee for the Music and Dance Scheme’s ‘Excellent’ projects, Steering committee for Foundations4Excellence, and Vice Chair of the Council for Professional Dance Schools. Rachel was also a founder developer of a qualification with Trinity International Examinations board on Safe and Effective Dance Practice.
She was external examiner for the dance degree course at Middlesex University and also external examiner for the MSc in Dance Science at Trinity Laban. She lectures extensively nationally and internationally on Dance Medicine and Training.