Emma Sandall discovers how ballet training has incorporated medical advances into its understanding of the body.
IN the 17th century, the King of France, Louis XIV, founded the Academie Royale de Danse, with the goal of establishing the “scientific principles” of ballet dancing and improving the quality of dance instruction. These early ballet masters, choreographers and dancers were some of the first dance scientists. They deconstructed steps and worked out what training was required to perform those steps – ballet technique.
By the 19th century, the science had become the tradition – the daily ballet class – which professional ballet dancers practise every day of their dance careers. The consensus is it serves its purpose as well today as it did 200 years ago.
But dancers’ bodies and skills are changing and choreographers and artistic directors are constantly pushing the boundaries for new physical metaphors to express their vision, so perhaps it is time to learn from the inquiring nature of those early dance scientists and revisit the class.
Thanks to dance and sports science and medicine, we know much more today about the bodies and minds of dancers, and about training and fitness. Although there is some resistance to bringing the findings of this new science with its evidence-based perspectives into the sacred space of the ballet studio, change is afoot in Australia.
The Calf Endurance Program
“Does ballet class condition dancers’ calf muscles (in particular, the medial gastrocnemius) enough to prevent injury?” That was the question the Australian Ballet’s principal physiotherapist, Sue Mayes, asked about 15 years ago.
Calf muscle endurance provides dancers with the ability to support the body’s weight in rises, pointing, demi pointe and pointe work over long periods of time without getting tired.
The question did not come out of thin air. At the time, foot and ankle injuries accounted for around 50% of all injuries at the Australian Ballet. The follow-up musculoskeletal screening of the company’s dancers revealed generally poor calf muscle endurance.
The dancers averaged between eight to 20 parallel single leg rises. A few could do more. Those with a history of foot and ankle injury in the previous six months showed generally low calf muscle endurance.
When Mayes watched the dancers closely in class, she found they tended to force their turnout at the barre which results in dropping the arch or pronation. This in turn switches off the gastrocnemius, one of the key muscles to prevent rolling in. So, even if dancers are performing a number of rises and relevés at the barre, they are not necessarily activating the gastrocnemius sufficiently.
Barre work itself is not the best at building muscle endurance. “In ballet, the body is asked for a huge amount of endurance but we don’t necessarily train for it,” says Mayes. “Barre is very stop and start. And even if teachers add rises, there is usually a plié which releases the tension.”
To switch on the medial gastrocnemius and reduce injuries, Mayes suggested adding a series of single leg calf rises in parallel at the end of barre each day. She proceeded carefully in making changes to the class because she is very aware that tiny alterations can have repercussions.
In the beginning the bar for the Calf Endurance Program was set relatively low – 16 calf rises on each leg at the end of barre by every dancer, every day. The dancers were given training sessions on the technical features of the rise and how to perform them, specifically they were instructed to.
The improvement in calf muscle endurance was rapid. The dancers were delighted with how much stronger their ankles felt. After a couple of months a few came to Mayes to ask if they could increase the exercise to 24 rises because 16 now felt too easy. “So, we gradually built up the number,” Mayes says. “Our rehabilitation goal now is a minimum of 25 calf rises before dancers can jump.”
She now has the dancers aiming for 30 to 35 calf rises outside class so that over the course of a season there is a buffer when they start to tire.
The benefits were apparent within a year or two. Injury rates, not only posterior impingements, were dramatically reduced. Before bringing in the program, the company had up to three ankles surgeries a year. Today they are a rare event.
How rehab shows up the barre
Findings show that most injuries occur when dancers are fatigued at the end of the day or the week, when they are simply not firing on all fronts. When a dancer is injured, it is not only awful for the dancer, it has a knock-on effect through the rest of the company – more rehearsals and a greater workload on the healthy dancers.
The Australian Ballet performs over 150 main stage performances a year. That is a huge schedule for a company of 80 dancers which tours Australia-wide. During rehearsal periods the company works from 10:30am– 6:30pm with an hour lunch break – seven hours of dancing five or six days a week.
Decreasing the dancers’ workload isn’t an option. Rehearsal and creation times are already extremely tight. Increasing company numbers is not an option either as budgets are extremely tight. The way forward is to keep dancers healthy and dancing well for all those hours on their feet.
Megan Connelly is the Australian Ballet’s rehabilitation coach. She gets injured dancers back on stage by looking intimately at steps and exercises, dissecting their function and performance on professional dancers as they return to studio after periods off dancing.
In her 10 years in this capacity she has learnt not to take a rehabilitating dancer straight to the barre. “To be able to do class you need a supporting leg and you need to be able to transfer your weight,” she says, “and those are two things the barre does not train well.” Connelly prefers to start rehabilitation in the centre to rediscover a dancer’s natural rhythm and mechanics before taking them to the barre where the support will let them work with more range and repetition.
It is universally agreed that, for healthy dancers, the barre is a wonderful place to begin. It provides a personal space, and allows dancers to gently and individually find their bodies and prepare themselves for centre work. However, dancers don’t tend towards “safe barre practices”. It is far too tempting to over turn out the feet, relying on the barre’s solidity to make the shapes and moves that have YouTube viewers gawking and “liking” for more. And all those likes and appreciative looks of wonderment affirm a sad and warped idea that many dancers hold about themselves from their early training – “I am only as virtuous and adequate as my turnout”. Connelly sighs. “Yes, sometimes our identity can be tied up in our external rotation!”
She thinks this problem is linked to assessing dancers at the barre from a young age. Although she’s not yet ready to suggest that we stop assessing the barre altogether, she points out that no great dancer works the centre like they do the barre, so perhaps we should stop placing such emphasis on a dancers’ worth at the barre? It’s a valid thought. By and large, too much time spent at the barre with a mirror encourages us to become “shape dancers” not “moving dancers”. It enables us to push to our extremes of rotation and extension and overstretch our muscles and ligaments, another factor recent scientific research has revealed is not as beneficial as we once supposed. Is it simply a question of how things are taught?
Body types and the customised class
Lisa Howell is a Sydney-based dance physiotherapist who spends a lot of her time educating teachers how to train movement from a scientist’s perspective. “With an intelligent and scientific approach to ballet you can make it accessible to a whole lot of people whose natural anatomy doesn’t look like it’s going to do it,” she says. She has a system for helping her dance student clients achieve a skill. First, she looks at whether the dancer has enough mobility to achieve the desired step or shape. Next she identifies subtle activations and deep stabilisers [at work in the body] in each part of the move. She encourages those parts to coordinate. Lastly, she looks at how it all comes together in the class. “You are looking at what is wrong; taking it out of context; retraining it and then bringing it back into context,” she says. “Students love it because it feels different straight away rather than just trying the step over and over and over again with no consistent outcome.”
A scientific approach can give teachers some practical tools to teach the diverse bodies in their classes. In recreational schools around Australia, where a lot of our great dancers begin, students come in all shapes and sizes, so the traditional draconian method of teaching can end up harming a young person’s sense of their body and physicality for years to come. “You’re crafting their psychological construct of their body,” says Howell. “Teachers need to be empowered to customise for all the different bodies in the class.”
The same applies at the professional level. “We’ve really moved towards student centred training approaches,” says Connelly. “There’s a lot more conversation and involvement from the dancers.” This shift makes it easier for teachers to help on an individual level. “You can use a line of questioning and get some feedback; then you can make the right choices in the moment,” Connelly says. When she is teaching she uses terms like, “Can we play for a moment?” or “Let’s go on a little journey with this,” to put the dancer in a questioning, positive frame of mind. “I like to think there’s no right or wrong. There’s only exploration,” says Connelly. Already in 1937 the revolutionary Russian choreographer, Fyodor Lopukhov, expressed concerns for training individual dancers with individual physiques in a dogmatic system.
How much can we teach?
The problem is that the more value placed on biomechanical components of movement in the class, the less value seems to be placed on dancers’ musicality and the interpretation of steps.
“I think if there’s anything that’s gone backwards, it is musicality,” says David McAllister, the Australian Ballet’s Artistic Director.
This is not only of artistic concern; musicality and rhythm help achieve certain technical ballet feats. Take the pirouette for example. At the start, the pirouette relies on co-ordination of many body parts and movements. Then, to sustain the turn, or end it precisely, it relies on a coordinated manipulation of momentum. The music governs that co-ordination.
“The classic example for me is that grand pirouette in La Fille Mal Gardee,” says McAllister. The turn he is talking about is a single grand pirouette in a la seconde followed by a double pirouette in retiré, eight or nine times through. “Yump da dalada daa da,” McAllister sings off the top of his head as one does when a melodic rhythm is completely ingrained. “I used to practise it in other combinations in class and it never worked. But with the rhythm of that particular piece of music, I was always able to do it.”
Also, a ballet step is supposed to marry to the music. When dancers pirouette outside the music, however exciting the number of turns, they weaken the choreography. It is the musicality of a step which touches us – but that’s another story!
It’s important to ask quite simply, “Are dancers dancing well today?” Lucas Jervies, choreographer of the Australian Ballet’s Spartacus, thinks that they are. “The only hurdle I have come up against when working with them is insecurity,” he says, “It would be wonderful to eliminate this from the studio.” He describes risk-taking as a necessary “act of failure” and one which is important for the art form to keep progressing creatively.
Jervies also thinks ballet dancers would benefit from more information about the meaning and history of the steps they practise. “I’d love to see a stronger focus on drama, improvisation and history,” he says.
“These ideas could be incorporated into holistic dance classes, similar to (Ohad) Naharin’s GAGA classes and (William) Forsythe’s improvisation modules where the dancers’ imaginations and intelligence are always empowered.”
Jervies thinks that this could increase the rate of choreographic discovery in tight rehearsal periods. “The class is a frame work that can be played with and massaged to suit the needs of the day’s work ahead without losing its ritualistic function and value,” he says.
Looking forward in time to where ballet is heading, McAllister imagines some contemporary class elements making their way into the ballet class because, he says, “That is what choreographers are going to expect in the rehearsals.”
Round up – the future
Amy Hollingsworth is the quintessential modern-day ballerina. After formal classical ballet training at the Australian Ballet School she led an acclaimed international career that spanned large-scale classical ballet to independent contemporary dance, excelling in every genre. Her level of versatility, which was once quite out of the ordinary, is today expected of almost all ballet dancers.
Hollingsworth is now Ballet Mistress and Creative Associate at the Queensland Ballet and mentor to the Jette Parker Young Artists Program. She uses her experience of the demands of widely diverse and strenuous repertoire and the psychological stress of high (sometimes unrealistically so) expectations to inform her teaching. One area she is particularly interested in, and advocates for, is psychosomatics – how the body is affected by mental states.
“I’ve come to an understanding of psychosomatics in the studio through my own experience as both a dancer and being at the front of the room, and observing the correlation between the emotional states of dancers and their rates of injury,” she says. While Dance Director at the Sydney Dance Company from 2009 to 2014, Hollingsworth worked closely with the physiotherapy team. “We tried a lot of preventative treatments by trying to pre-empt when certain things would happen. But we also started talking about psychological management,” she says.
Today Hollingsworth tries her best to keep a positive energy in the studio. She teaches breathing techniques to the dancers to activate their parasympathetic nervous systems, and to encourage phases of “rest and digest”. Dancers tend to be “on” at all times during the day, which doesn’t give their bodies time to recover and repair.
Hollingsworth also has a policy of better communication to alleviate anxiety. A lot of dancers’ stress is from being in the dark of what is required of them on a given day or in a given rehearsal. “It’s that stress of not knowing, like ‘I don’t know if I’m going to have to run things four times through or sit around on my butt all day’,” she says. “I think that kind of ‘no man’s land’, of having no idea what your day is going to entail, doesn’t empower you.”
The idea of empowering dancers is catching on. While much of the new information and scientific research in the studio is in the hands of the teacher to explore at their discretion, it is also in the hands of each individual dancer. “I am a firm believer in knowledge is power,” says Hollingsworth. “I think the more we understand physiology and anatomy and the more we understand how we handle ourselves physically the better.”
Lisa Howell’s goal for her dance student clients is self-care and self-assessment. She has an equation – for every five hours of dancing, one hour of body conditioning, half an hour of massage therapy or cupping and half an hour of cardio work. She believes if you are old enough for pointe work, you are old enough to look after your body.
“In order to preserve, to be conservationists of this art form, we need to be embracing knowledge so we don’t make ourselves obsolete,” says Hollingsworth. “We need to keep all the elements of the tradition which are important and still relevant but keep embracing new ways of using or thinking about those wonderful elements so that we are fully supporting, to the best of our ability, the next generation’s dancers.”
See Australian Ballet article "Strength beats stretch".
Pictured: Reika Sato (front) and dancers in West Australian Ballet company Class. Photo: Tony Currie.
This article was published in the December '18/January '19 issue of Dance Australia. For more articles like this one, buy Dance Australia from your favourite retailer, purchase an online copy via the Dance Australia app or subscribe here.