Dance: Keeping Dancers Dancing

Dance UK, the national dance advocacy body, announced a second major donation towards its National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science this week at its AGM, held at the Royal Society of Medicine on Monday 29 November.

The dance floor manufacturer Harlequin has donated £30,000 to become the project’s first commercial sponsor. The Institute will be the UK’s first, ensuring all dancers stay fit and healthy enough to perform – especially independent dancers without access to specialist care from company therapists.

Dance UK’s two major surveys of professional dancers, undertaken in 1996 (Fit to Dance?) and 2005 (Fit to Dance 2) both found that in any given year, over 80% of dancers have at least one injury that affects their ability to perform. ‘This is too high’ says Helen Laws, Programme Manager of the Healthier Dancer Programme. ‘Despite all the work that we’ve done throughout the Healthier Dancer Programme over the years, that number didn’t change between those two surveys. Only the very largest ballet companies have anything like the medical care they need.’

Part of Dance UK’s ongoing Healthier Dancer project, the Institute will be made up of a consortium of partners across the country including the Jerwood Centre for the Treatment and Prevention of Dance Injuries at Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Dance Science department at Trinity Laban, the British Olympic Medical Institute and the University of Wolverhampton. These institutions will now collaborate on a two-year research project looking at the prevention and treatment of dance injuries.

The approach of the new Institute of Dance Medicine and Science is very much about partner institutions working together, sharing resources, and enabling all dancers to access their facilities.  Dr Emma Redding, programme leader of the MSc Dance Science course at Trinity Laban, explains: ‘This is significant because it’s about partners who have existing infrastructure opening that out to independent dancers; and about working together, collaborating together, joining research questions up so that we can really understand the demands of dance and the provision that’s needed for dancers in this country.’

Over the next two years, a group of 100 professional dancers will work with the Institute at hubs based in London and Birmingham, using the facilities of the four partner organisations. The dancers will visit their hub twice a year for fitness testing and screening, and their injuries, treatment and rehabilitation will be recorded in a central database to build up an accurate picture of the causes and most effective treatments of dance-related injury. ‘By the end of the two years we’ll have evidence that shows what the causes of injuries are, and how best we can provide services to the most dancers across the UK’ says Helen Laws. The aim is for the project to be rolled out across the whole of the UK following this period of detailed initial research.

Almost every professional dancer in the UK has some experience of injury. Rambert dancer Angela Towler explains how a serious hip injury last year nearly ended her career: ‘Last April I tore the labrum [fibrocartilage] in my hip and I didn’t quite know what to do. I didn’t want to stop, I love it so much, I performed on it at Sadler’s Wells because I wanted to perform. I kept going – and that was it, I couldn’t walk.’ Although Towler has now completed treatment and rehabilitation, the injury is still a big part of her life: ‘I still have to work through it.  My way of walking, sitting, sleeping, moving has changed because of this injury. It’s changed my life so dramatically.’

Top ballroom dancer Camilla Dallerup grew up in Denmark before moving to the UK to work, and describes the difference between the approach to bodycare in the two countries. ‘Even as a junior at 12 years old we were treated as athletes -we had a facility with a dietician, nutritionist, physios, any kind of exercise scheme you can ask for.’ Dallerup feels her early education in how to treat her body well has contributed to her own longevity as a performer (she’s now 36), and adds that Denmark has a lot of ballroom world champions who were able to remain in the profession long enough to succeed because of this level of care. ‘When I started dancing in England, it was very different’ she adds. ‘There was no support – you were on your own.’

‘Dancers need what sports athletes get’ says Emma Redding. ‘Athletes get a lot in terms of psychological support, specialist treatment, injury treatment, injury therapists. Dancers, if they’re lucky, get eventually to see their physio after waiting on a long list having seen their GP. So this is about getting the kind of specialist care that sports athletes get.’

The aim for the Institute in the longer term is for more partner organisations to get involved, and for more specialist hubs to be made available to dancers. ‘All of the partner organisations felt passionately that dancers outside their institution should have access to their facilities,’ says Helen Laws. Harlequin’s donation follows the Jerwood Foundation’s initial grant of £80,000 in 2008 and £1,500 donation from the Theatrical Management Association and the Society of London Theatres.  Dance UK are now fundraising for the project in earnest. The organisation is taking part in the Big Give challenge this December ( and if it can raise £4,000 in individual donations, the Big Give will double the sum to £8,000.

‘Ultimately, we want to see a decrease in the injury rates of dancers in this country’ adds Emma Redding. ‘At the moment it’s quite high, so if we see that go down then something’s working.’

Find out more about the Healthier Dancer Programme on Dance UK’s website.
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Photo left to right: Angela Towler, Camilla Dallerup, Sarah Temlett (for Harlequin), Kate Prince &  Emma Redding at Dance UK’s AGM 2010.
By Rick Senley