Let in science, take away the magic?

by Misha Botting

About five years ago I came across a fascinating subject – sport science. When I started to learn a little more and get involved in it, I realised that by using sport science athletes could gain a competitive edge which put them head and  shoulders above the competitors. There was more to it than this though, comprehensive training programmes developed by sport scientists help to channel an individual’s or teams’ efforts towards consistently achieving their optimum performance. Reflecting on my own training and professional career in dance, I realised that we have a lot in common with athletes in terms of training, determination, objectives and even performance. After all dance is frequently called ‘an athletic art form’ (Botting & Collins 2005). So can dance inherit something useful from sport in terms of training and preparation for performance? Based on what I have learnt I believe we can. However, It is important to be careful about how we apply the knowledge and expertise developed for athletes. Of course dance and sport are different (Gurley et al., 1984 cited by Schnitt & Schnitt, 1988) and we need to question the practices and methods used in sport, but the ‘translation’ of knowledge from sport to dance should not stop the us from  learning, testing and implementing new ideas.

In fact the process of integration of sport science to dance started in the early 50’s when Zoia Mironova launched the ‘Central Institute of Sport and Dance Injury’ in Moscow. More recently a number of companies and schools in this country have started to employ physiotherapists and masseurs who have a particular expertise in sport and dance. Physiotherapists treat a lot of aches and pains, but they frequently do more than this by giving dancers useful recommendations on how to improve their physical strength and flexibility (Botting and Collins, 2005). This is particularly important since the physical demands of modern classical ballet cannot be met by only doing ballet classes and taking part in rehearsals (Wyon, 2004). Many artistic directors are highly enthusiastic about providing dancers with extra physiological training which can put them ‘on a level par’ with the choreography, rather than them having to constantly catch up on their strength, flexibility and stamina. An excellent example of this is the continuous work of physiotherapists at the Jerwood Centre and Birmingham Royal Ballet where dancers have access to highly qualified injury treatment and injury prevention training. Companies like English National Ballet and Northern Ballet invite sport physiologists for particularly challenging productions. Dancers are given specific training to meet the physical requirements of the choreography. These are very positive developments and one hopes that collaboration between physiologists and dance companies is going to continue. The picture is somewhat different though when we examine the mental training and work of performance psychologists in the dance profession.

The work of psychologists with companies is a relatively new development, for example within the UK Britt Tajet-Faxell works with Royal Ballet and ballet schools in London and I have recently started mental conditioning coaching in ballet schools in London and Birmingham, but our work is more of an exception than a rule. It is debatable why dance psychology training is not widely used. It may be that it is relatively new in sport and there are only few individuals in the world who have made the transition from dance to performance psychology, or it may be that there is not enough information about what performance psychologists actually do, or examples of successful interventions are not publicised (Gallagher, 1993). Or could it be that performance psychology does not fit well with the ‘athletic art’. After all training of ‘athletic artists’ has always focused on the body: technical ability, physique, lines, elegance etc. I often encounter the question: ‘we never did mental training in the past and we were fine, why do we have to do it now?’ For many sitting and talking about it instead of going to the studio and actually doing the hard work seems to be a profanation.

If we attempt to answer this question we must first ask ourselves ‘where is the art form going?’ (Rural Retreat 2004)

Do  we want to replicate what has been done since the end of 19th century? If we do then we don’t have to do much, just keep training precisely as we have done in the past and we will keep enjoying the same results. However, if we want the art form to grow and develop, it is important to take on board the new training possibilities available for dance students, professionals and teachers.

Another powerful argument for taking adopting new types of training, is competition. British students and professional dancers increasingly find themselves facing tough competition from dancers from all corners of the world (The Times, February 2005; Phillips, 2005). Taking into consideration the present political and economic climate this tendency is going to become more momentous. I believe that with time we will witness more international casts not only in principle and soloist positions but also in a lower ranks within national dance companies.

Figure 1

It is somewhat naïve to expect dancers who train and dance in this country to miraculously develop relevant skills which will enable them to successfully compete with dancers from around the world . I suggest that a purity of technique is only a part of the training, and we need to address the process holistically with a specific emphasis on every skill of a dancer (See figure).

The considerate and measured integration of sport science into the good old training tradition could help to develop professionals who are capable of a high level self-regulation in training, rehearsals and performance. Most certainly sport and dance are very different, they use metres, kilograms or seconds to measure success but in dance the outcome objectives are subjective and somewhat arbitrary. Yet I believe that dance can derive important lessons from sport in terms of using a multi-faceted approach to training, analysis and innovation. Simply teaching from the textbook and delivering a universal training programme to every dancer in the country will not equip them to face up to and match the international competition.

It is important to continue the debate about what can we learn from sport; what can we do to help dancers to be more effective in the transition between school and company? Within a company how can dancers achieve a consistently high level of performance? The search for answers to these questions will not damage the artistic side of dance; quite the opposite it could free more time to focus our efforts on the aesthetic side of a dance performance. If we apply the existing knowledge to develop each particular skill during training, then more of our dance professionals will have a better chance to make it to the very top of their profession.


Botting, M., Collins, D. (Spring 2005). Optimising support in dance performance. Dance UK Newsletter, Issue 56.

Gallagher, V. (1993). What Dance can Learn form Sport Psychology, Performance Preparation and Enhancement. Tomorrow’s Dancers Conference, London, Dance UK.

Phillips, K., (2005). Vanishing pointe. The Stage (World of Dance). March, 17.

Rural Retreat: Ballet into the 21st century. Dance East press release. January, 10, 2005.

Schnitt, J. M., Schnitt, D. (1988). “Psychological Aspects of Dance.” Human Kinetics.

The Times. “Why British ballet is on the point of fading away.” 03 February 2005, Pg: 17.

Wyon, M. (Spring 2004). Planning and Preparation – The Art of Periodisation. Dance UK Newsletter. Issue 54, 10-12.

Originally published in Dance UK  magazine, Issue 61 – Summer 2006