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Matt Wyon’s Report on the Hot Topic of the Conference “Periodisation in Training”

by Prof. Matthew Wyon

Dance UK members may be well used to the Healthier Dancer Programme delivering talks, workshops and stand-alone conferences on a wide range of topics with the specific aim of sharing knowledge and best practice to improve the health, well-being and performance of dancers. For the first time this year, however, we were hugely excited to have finally been able to take what some might have thought to be a risky step, and programme a significant thread of dance medicine and science , health and well-being throughout a major mainstream conference, Dance UK’s ‘The Future: New Ideas, New Inspirations’, on 10th April at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

The Saturday brought some 530 delegates together with nationally and internationally recognised presenters – choreographers, dancers, researchers, teachers and healthcare practitioners – to discuss the ideas that will revolutionise training and performance in years to come.  Sessions included training the hypermobile dancer, physiological preparation for choreography, psychology of injury, periodisation and rest for dancers. One particular session proved to be hotly talked about and even influenced the focus of Professor Christopher Bannerman’s key-note speech on the final day of the conference. He had sat in on Professor Matthew Wyon’s Presentation on ‘periodisation’ and recognised that what had been discussed there was a major development for dance training, resulting from over 20 years of work in the dance medicine and science field, and finally addressing in a practical way issues that were raised at another ground-breaking Dance UK conference in 1993, ‘Training Tomorrow’s Dancers’.

Towards a new training methodology

Five years ago, Professor Matthew Wyon was invited by Gaby Allard and the staff at ArEZ Conservatoire, Institute of the Arts, Arnhem, Netherlands (www.artez.nl/dance) to work with them to radically change their approach to training and implement a four-year periodisation programme into their dancer/choreographer degree. Periodisation applies scientific methods to optimise training schedules with the aim of enhancing performance. At ArEZ this resulted in a reduction in injuries and drop-out, improved employment for the graduates and a governmental reward in recognition of innovative approaches to dance training. Here Prof. Wyon summarises what ‘periodisation’ is all about.

Elite dance and sport attract highly motivated people to competitive and physically demanding environments; similarities also exist within training, where long hours of practice from an early age, traditional methods and the coach/teacher/guru play fundamental roles. However, while dance training is nearly totally focused on skill development to the detriment of physical fitness, sport has errred in the opposite direction. Through exceptions exist, these different approaches manifest themselves at the elite level with dancers demonstrating excellent economy of movement due to their high skill level, though this means that the long daily dance schedules have no beneficial effect on their underlying fitness levels. Elite sportspeople, in comparison, have highly developed physical fitness levels accompanied by comparably less development skill levels.

The organisation and planning of training is also different. Over the last 20 years there has been a change in focus in sport toward a very structured training paradigm (periodisation) that emphasizes quality over quantity, resulting in improved performance and lower injury incidence. Dance’s model is very different with multiple classes, often back to back, resulting in high levels of self-reported fatigue and higher injury incidence against comparable non-contact sports.

The solution is a focus on “quality” rather than “quantity” within training.

It is always easier to add other complementary sessions to the time table, but this leads to overtraining and increased risk of injury. Periodisation focuses on programming rest and/or reduced training load days into the weekly schedule and monitoring  overall daily, weekly and monthly training loads. Implementing periodisation in dance is complex; both in planning the timetable according to dancers’/teachers’/rehearsal directors’ availability, but also deciding on the work intensity of each class and rehearsal against the overall goals of that term.

The hardest aspect of this system is getting all the teachers and rehearsal directors to adhere to it. It does not matter whether it is dance or sport, each teacher or coach wants to give the best session they can, frequently resulting in a hard class or rehearsal irrespective of the other activities the dancers are doing that day. As dance is a high skill activity, fatigues has an enormous detrimental effect on skill acquisition when the dancer is exposed to numerous classes a day, each at maximum workload (high intensity and time), the dancer nor teacher will get the optimum learning experience in the latter classes.

Therefore the intensities of the classes need to vary throughout the day, with high and low workloads, to allow the dancer to rest and recover so that in the last class of the day the dancer is in a state to learn without being overly fatigued. Workload variation isn’t there to stifle artistry, but to enhance the dancer’s overall global skill acquisition in multiple genres. It does not mean that low workload/intensity classes are forgotten, but each will take precedent in turn depending on the goals of that day/week/month/term.

For this training method to work, communication and team work is vital, and the plan has to be responsive to the dancers’ ability to cope and achieve the goals set out by the artistic director.

Since the April Dance UK conference at least 9 institutions have been in touch wanting to find out more about periodisation for their training programmes.

If you would like to find out more about periodisation, contact m.wyon@wlv.ac.uk

Matthew Wyon is Professor in Dance Science at the University of Wolverhampton, and course leader for their MSc Dance Science. He is the incoming President of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science and a founding partner in the National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science, UK.

Originally published in Dance UK  magazine, Issue 90 – Autumn 2015