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Developing Healthier Dancers at English National Ballet

by Helen Laws

In 1998, English National Ballet (ENB) invited Dance UK’s Healthier Dancer Programme to design a week-long Healthier Dancer Event with the company, for its dancers. The event was to provide a broad range of injury prevention information, equipping the dancers with the necessary tools to look after their bodies and minds more effectively during the coming season.

This was the beginning of what the company now calls its own Healthier Dancer Programme.

The subjects covered in the first year with the dancers were: Warm-Up and Cool Down Techniques, Positive Approach to Injury Recovery, Nutrition and Hydration, Injury Prevention, Stress Management, Professional Dance and the Female Body, Performance Anxiety, Assertiveness, and Fitness Training. Rachel Seghers, Personnel Manager and Administration Director at ENB, felt it was essential that the dancers had access to up-to-date information in these areas and believed that investing in their professional development was a means of encouraging a positive, more open and healthy attitude to dancers’ health and injury within the company. The aim was to develop better informed dancers, leading to healthier and happier dancers with potentially, fewer or less serious injuries. The event was made possible by funding from the Diana, Princess Memorial fund. The positive response from the dancers meant that the company was determined to hold a follow-up event next year so that new company dancers could benefit from the same educational opportunities, and current dancers could refresh and develop their knowledge. In the summer of 1999, a two-day Healthier Dancer Event consisted of sessions looking at: Eating Disorders and Dance, Yoga, Introduction to Aerobic Fitness Training, Strength Training for Men, Aerobics Take 2 -Fitness Walking, Nutrition and Hydration, and Personal Safety Awareness (felt to be particularly useful for those dancers new to the country and London).

Those initial Healthier Dancer Events gave the dancers and company staff an idea of the different areas that could be developed to improve the performance and well-being of the dancers. They have led to ENB integrating various supplemental training and educational sessions into the dancers’ schedules on an ongoing basis. Through experimentation, the company is developing work with exercise physiologists, psychologist and nutritionists. These visit periodically, and work with the company physiotherapist, Jackie Pelly, to assess the needs of the company’s dancers, and set training goals or provide educational interventions that fulfil physical and psychological needs throughout the season. For example, at various points in the year dancers can attend aerobic training sessions, in place of a class, to boost their cardiovascular fitness, or attend yoga sessions at the end of the day to aid physical recovery and mental relaxation.

Most of the additional training is optional and dancers decide for themselves (with advice if needed) what their needs are at any particular time. Presently, the senior male dancers are most interested in the supplementary training on offer as they find the strength training, in particular, extremely beneficial to their performance. One dancer said he wanted to be ‘as valuable for as long as possible’. Younger dancers coming to the company have now experienced supplemental training at their vocational schools and see it as a normal part of a dancer’s preparation and training.

All dancers are warming up more effectively at ENB as they now fully understand the benefits of doing so.

It is apparent that the female dancers are coping better with he workload since the company has introduced supplemental training and educational interventions. They also appear more confident and have a greater understanding of hydration and nutrition for performance week.

Trying to find the ideal preparation and injury to prevention tools for the ENB dancers is a long-term process of informed experimentation. Rachel and Jackie have been pioneers in their process within the company and are making slow but steady progress.

As in any company, the physiotherapist’s time is precious, and they have to carefully juggle preventative work with treatment of the inevitable and unavoidable injuries that occur. However, the aim is to move towards a greater proportion of time being spend on preventing injuries, resulting in less treatment being needed. The physiotherapist’s initial orthopaedic assessment of each dancer at audition, and at regular intervals once they have joined the company, is important in informing all involved of particular areas of strength, flexibility or technique that may require work. Jackie has very much an educational role as well as a clinical one. She provides all the dancers with a lecture on injury prevention and how to look after themselves on tour. When the company is at their South Kensington base, she gives ‘technical correction’ sessions alongside a teacher once a week. With Dominic Hickie, the company massage therapist, Jackie observes the dancers in class or rehearsal, and encourages quality communication between the ballet staff and medical team to help identify areas of weakness or overuse early on, in order to set measures to prevent injuries developing.

Creating an environment where dancers can achieve their performance potential involves vision, education and commitment, not only from the dancers but from everyone around them. ENB is achieving a huge amount with a relatively small team of in-house health professionals, bringing other people in as and when they need them, for specialist input, a fresh perspective or support. What they are working towards is the ideal: dancers, artistic and medical staff, and company management, all informed with a shared understanding of their roles which pieced together result in a great dancer performance, from an artistic, scientific, technical, physical, emotional and psychological perspective.

Originally published in Dance UK  magazine, Issue 52 – Spring 2004