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Sports Massage Therapy at Starlight Express

“Even if I’m not busy, it can be full-on as I’m on edge for the next call down to the stage or knock on the door – I’ve got to be ready to go”

Healthier Dancer Programme Manager Niamh Morrin speaks to Ashley Wilson, who completed a Sports Massage diploma with the London School of Sports Massage in 2010. He is now Massage Therapist with the UK tour of Starlight Express, which was choreographed by Dance UK poster champion, Arlene Phillips.

Amanda Coutts and Kristofer Harding in Starlight Express. Photo: Eric Richmond

What does a Sports Massage Therapist do?

A Sports Massage Therapist is someone who treats athletes and performers to aid with their vigorous schedules. As a therapist, I observe the patient in action to get an understanding of their movement and also of what muscles will predominantly come under stress. A Sports Massage Therapist not only treats injuries but has a specific role in injury prevention.

Do you have a sport or dance background?

I don’t have a dance background, but I am a competitive hurdler. When I was training regularly, I used to get a sports massage every week. I didn’t realise its benefits at the time. Now that I don’t have it regularly, I can see how important it was. It was like that final part of training.

How did you get involved with Starlight Express? Is this the first time you have ever worked with dancers?

I’ve treated a few dancers privately but not in an organisation before. I got involved with Starlight Express through a recommendation. Someone recommended me to one of their contacts and I got asked to go for an interview. I never even knew that anything like this existed.

You are now touring with the show. What do you do on a typical day?

I’m pretty much at the venue when the cast are there. I’m on call all day so if the dancers need me when they are not rehearsing or performing, they can come for treatment. Even if I’m at the venue and not busy, it can be full-on as you are constantly thinking and on edge for the next call down to the stage or knock on the door – I’ve got to be ready to go. If there are any sudden injuries on the stage I would be called down to treat and give the best possible advice for the remainder of the show.

Who decides whether a dancer is capable of performing?

It is usually up to me and the dancer. The dancers need to be careful because they are on roller-skates. Usually the dancer makes the right call – they are finely-tuned athletes who know their bodies. However, sometimes the dancers will try and push through the pain because they want to stay in the show. They push away the pain and say “I’m fine”. That’s where I come in to suggest alternatives or recommend that they shouldn’t carry on.

If someone has a really bad problem on the night of the show and they have to go on, what recommendations do you make?

I can talk to the Director or Assistant Director. For example, if someone has a bad hamstring and they usually kick on the left leg but that kick will aggravate the muscle, I ask if we can change the kick to the other leg. This is just temporary, but it avoids exposing the injury to specific stressors. My suggestions are OK most of the time as long as there aren’t too many changes being made. I also suggest to the dancers not to push their bodies too hard.

Dancer: Louise Lenihan. Massage Therapist: Ashley Wilson. Photo: Niamh Morrin

Are there many injuries amongst the Starlight Express cast?

Everyone is carrying something. We are late into the tour and it gets to a point where everyone is just aching. It is such a full schedule, with eight shows a week. For a show like this, that’s quite demanding. I just keep treating and try to prevent further problems and relieve bits of pain. It can be quite tough as a Massage Therapist; I can’t go too deep in my massage because the dancers have a show to do but I have to go deep enough to ensure that I am influencing the muscle tissue. It is about finding the right balance. It’s useful when the show changes venues because the cast get a few days rest.

Are there any common injuries?

Surprisingly, there isn’t anything too common; there isn’t a back injury that you see all the time. As all the dancers have different parts of the show, the injuries are quite varied.

What do you think is the main cause of injury with the Starlight cast?

It’s definitely fatigue. The schedule is so intense – they do so many shows with little recovery time – and for this kind of high-energy show, fatigue can be a real problem. This can make it really difficult for the cast to perform at their optimal level.

Are there any supplementary fitness training programmes for cast members?

We’ve tried, but it’s not easy. We finish the show at 10pm and then the dancers want to recover and relax the next day. I would rather that there was some time for training. For example, if there were six shows per week it would be better, but to fit in extra training with eight is very tough. A strengthening programme during the rehearsal period would be good. This would help people perform the show safely and healthily. That way the dancers can give 100% each time rather than go into the show in pain.

Do you have any advice for a Massage Therapist who would like to get involved with treating dancers?

It’s literally about getting yourself out there and making contacts. Even doing a couple of days a week to help out gets your foot in the door. You will get turned away all the time but it’s really all about being likeable. If someone likes you they will help you out. You also need to work hard, be willing to learn and then be willing to learn some more!

Originally published in Dance UK  magazine, Issue 86 – Spring 2013