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Developing Talent in Young Dancers: Using dance science to help us understand best practice

by Imogen Walker

Photograph: Belinda Lawley

A team of dance science researchers has begun an exciting nationwide research project with the Centres for Advanced Training (CATs) in dance. Like the CATs, the research has financial backing from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, but is additionally funded by the Leverhulme Trust. While high-quality dance training continues to grow in the UK, many questions about the characteristics of talent in dance still exist. It is hoped that the project will help to answer some of those questions.

The research team will track over 400 young dancers aged 10-18 within the CATs for 2.5 years, identifying physical and psychological characteristics of dance talent. This unique study should help shed light on the impact of dance training in the adolescent population and help us scientifically understand relationships between the physical and psychological factors essential in dance, while additionally investigating creativity and its associations with health factors. The project aims to understand what constitutes dance talent and how best to develop talent, thereby enhancing training methods. Profiling young dancers will allow us to understand the optimal characteristics of talented dancers and how they interrelate to produce successful performance outcomes. In order to do that, we must obtain information on the following variables.

Physiology

The role of fitness in dance is not fully understood: while initial participation in dance may elicit improvements in aerobic fitness1, regular intense training appears to have a limited impact2. We will explore the role of fitness in young dancers, and whether this is associated with favourable dance outcomes. For example, are high levels of aerobic fitness associated with successful completion of the CAT training? Additionally, we will investigate strength, an essential component of dance, especially for the contact and floor work of contemporary dance.

Biomechanics

Biomechanical measures include flexibility and balance. Flexibility is a key requirement in dance; however, dance training may cause muscular imbalances. Therefore, we aim to assess the role of flexibility, and whether muscular imbalances or hypermobility are significant injury risk factors.

Like flexibility, balance is an essential part of most dance genres. We know that dance improves balance ability, but to what extent? This question will be addressed using a series of tests which may also be used to assess proprioception (body awareness).

Growth and injury

A key consideration when studying adolescent dancers, growth often occurs asymmetrically and in spurts, leaving the young dancer potentially vulnerable to injury3. Research has also shown that growth can be delayed in young people who partake in intensive physical activity, including dance4. We will track growth patterns and examine these in relation to injury occurrence and existing delayed growth data.

Injury prevalence in dance is high5. We aim to observe how injury relates to dance training, and how it affects the dancers both physically and psychologically. For example, will injury be related to self-esteem? It is important to monitor injuries in adolescents due to their increased susceptibility to long-term damage.

Psychology

A range of psychological variables will also be investigated. Research suggests that dance can enhance self-esteem1, yet evidence that dancers have low self-esteem also exists5. Therefore, we will explore which aspects of dance training promote positive self-attitudes. As a related variable, performance anxiety will be studied. Dancers have been cited as frequently suffering from performance anxiety5 but their experiences are far from understood. For instance, do the dancers perceive their anxiety as being helpful or harmful towards performance?

Dancers are often claimed to have perfectionistic tendencies, but a difference exists between healthy striving towards high goals, and a perfectionist attitude6. Because perfectionist dancers suffer from more injuries7 and eating disorders symptoms8, both perfectionism and eating attitudes are important to track.

A new area of psychology research is passion9. We hope to capture whether dancers are harmoniously passionate (enjoy dance but don’t let it take over their lives) or obsessively passionate (obsessively engage with dance so that it conflicts with other areas in their lives).

While individual psychological characteristics are important, dancers interact closely with teachers during training. Thus we will study the motivational climate; the teacher-created training atmosphere. Two types exist: task-involving climates which emphasise cooperation, effort and self-referenced learning; and ego-involving climates which encourage success and rivalry10. We will explore which is the optimal climate for young dancers.

Conclusion

Ultimately, we hope to present data describing what talented young dancers are like, and how they change and develop over time. It is hoped that dance science can help pedagogy to continuously evolve so that we are training our young dancers in an optimal way, ensuring they are best prepared for the exciting future awaiting them.

The CAT research team consist of:

Imogen Walker – PhD Student (i.walker@trinitylaban.ac.uk)

Sanna Nordin – Research Fellow (s.nordin@laban.org)

Emma Redding – Principal Investigator (e.redding@laban.org)

We are grateful for the support and input of the staff and students at the Centres for Advanced Training, and to a number of volunteers and experts who are supporting the research.

References:

  1. Quin, E., Redding, E., and Frazer, L. (2006). Dance science report: The effects of an eight week creative dance programme on the physiological and psychological status of 11-14 year old adolescents: An experimental study. London: Laban
  2. Redding, E., Correa, R., Curtis, P. Irvine, S., Lefebvre Sell, N., Quested, E., Rafferty, S., Theodorou, I., Watkins, K. and Wyon, M. (2005). The development of a longitudinal interdisciplinary screening programme for full time dance students. Presented at the 15th annual meeting of the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science Conference, Stockholm, Sweden, October 2005.
  3. Stacey, J. (1999). The physiological development of the adolescent dancer. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, 7 (3), 59-65.
  4. Rogol, A., Clark, P., and Roemmich, J. (2000). Growth and pubertal development in children and adolescents: Effects of diet and physical activity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 72 (2), 521S-528S.
  5. Laws, H. (2005). Fit to Dance 2: Findings from the second national survey into UK dancers’ health and injury. London: Dance UK
  6. Cumming, J. and Duda, J. (2005). Demanding perfection vs striving for excellence. Dance UK News, 59, 16-17.
  7. Hamilton, L. (2002). Advice for Dancers: Emotional Counsel and Practical Strategies. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  8. Thomas, J., Keel, P. and Heatherton, T. (2005). Disordered eating attitudes and behaviours in ballet students: Examination of environmental and individual risk factors. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 38, 263-268. 
  9. Vallerand, R. J., Blanchard, C., Mageau, G. A., Koestner, R., Ratelle, C., Leonard, M., Gagne, M., & Marsolais, J. (2003). Les Passions de l’Ame: On Obsessive and Harmonious Passion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85 (4), 756-767.
  10. Ames, C. (1992). Achievement goals, motivational climate, and motivational processes. In G. C. Roberts (Ed.), Motivation in sports and exercise (pp. 161–176). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Originally published in Dance UK  magazine, Issue 71 – 2008