Why you should not dance through pain
Dancers are supposed to put up with pain, right? Wrong, writes Leila Lois.
"I broke my hip on stage at 21 … it took me six months to recover, but I was back for the next season." Ballet dancer Joëlle Aeby relates this story with an unruffled charm, as she sips her latte, peeling a layer of pastry from a croissant.
We meet in a Northcote coffee shop in Melbourne’s arty inner north, down the road from the studio where she teaches ballet between rehearsing and performing with Victorian State Ballet (VSB), where she is a company artist.
"I don’t think it was just the gruelling dance schedule I was under," she adds. "I think my bones were already brittle, from osteoporosis, I wasn’t eating enough."
At the time, Aeby was dancing full time in a ballet company in Prague. Even before she left home at the tender age of 15 to pursue ballet full-time, she was winning prestigious competitions in European conservatoires and attending summer schools with eminent ballet companies.
Aeby's experience is not untypical of a ballet dancer, even today. The stereotype of the extreme dedication required of young, pre-professional age dancers in the ballet world persists. Although attitudes and teaching are changing, especially at the professional level, the idea lingers that only through "cult-like devotion" and brutal training schedules can the best dancers win opportunities in their profession, as Rose Martin, Professor of Arts Education with a focus on Dance at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (and former dancer with the Royal New Zealand Ballet), puts it.
"I potentially tore a ligament in my knee a year before I considered surgery and rehab… by then much damage had been done," Martin says, on her time in the Royal New Zealand Ballet in the 2000s. "I did what many other dancers did at the time and took anti-inflammatories, dancing through the discomfort for the whole season, until my knee eventually gave way and it was clear I had to get reconstructive surgery. I was only twenty-five."
Martin explored the cultural context of pain and injury in ballet in her 2009 master’s thesis: "Ballet is always going to hurt": Attitudes surrounding female ballet dancers dancing in pain. What she found was that many ballet dancers of her generation had grown up with the received "wisdom" that pain was to be ignored and pushed through. This has been "slow to change", she says, "nothing happens in isolation … the culture of ballet training through the 90s, for example, came with the 'heroin chic' culture of the fashion industry. Then, to be ultra-thin was seen as a desired aesthetic and that infiltrated ballet which had always had a problematic, idealised relationship with the female body … there is a tension still between ballet as a form and as a historic or cultural practice". While there has been progress in the actual training programs for ballet dancers, the cultural shift is lagging behind.
"There are some leaders in the ballet world who went through that punishing training themselves and are inspired to change it, and some who are more slow to change," Martins says.
"Ballet has so many 'isms' that come with it: sexism, ageism, ableism, racism, body fascism, due to the very elite way it was developed, these things take time and leaders in the world of ballet to unpack and challenge, to redress." Yet ballet "must deal with these problems rather than hide from them – hiding from the darker side needs to be rebalanced".
Martin "gave up" dancing following her injury. She mentions in our interview,the silence and confusion that surrounded her, as "no one knew what to say. There was very little support to transition out of the ballet company and into a new career – injury and retirement were almost seen as taboo subjects, a source of shame and fear."
Provisional psychologist and PhD candidate Inge Gnatt also experienced a career-ending injury due to overtraining and echoes the experiences of her former colleague Professor Martin. Gnatt has since taken a professional interest in the psychological aspect of supporting dancers to thrive in their training and career, and be valued as whole people. "Given the young age at which training becomes intensive, there is a risk their world becomes so focused on ballet, that they miss out on so many wonderful life experiences," she says. In recognition of this predicament, ballet schools and companies are beginning to prioritise physical and psychological support during a dancer’s training and career and embed policies to enable transition out of dance following retirement.
Eating disorders are another potential hazard when dancers are so intently focussed on perfection. "Dancers are elite athletes who endure an incredible workload, and the approach has to be compassionate and holistic, so that everyone can reach their optimal level of functioning," Gnatt says. "Empowerment can be achieved through evidence-based health information, which is provided in an appropriate way, and meets the needs of the dancer, promoting autonomy, and ultimately longevity in the profession. While we’re starting to hear more conversations around this and commitment from many directors who embrace and value diversity, there is still a long way to go," she adds.
One aspect of Gnatt’s work is how the dancer maintains their motivation in what is a very tough profession. This includes helping dancers to accept what is out of their control, such as decisions around casting, and focussing instead on elements they can control, such as showing up to class and rehearsals. This approach can help counteract negative self-talk, comparisons and unhelpful perfectionism. Perfectionism can occur along a continuum from helpful to unhelpful, with the latter potentially being extremely damaging and leading to mental and physical deterioration, Gnatt says.
"Ballet is a pressure cooker for perfectionism, but I encourage students to use their perfectionism in healthy ways, to drive them in their dancing, but not punish their bodies or ignore their emotional experience through engaging in disordered eating or ignoring pain. Thankfully, emerging dancers and the top teachers and coaches are connected and savvy, they are open to, and respond quickly to, progressive ways of approaching their professional lives. I am excited to see where the next generation takes things . . .".
Adds Professor Martin: "It takes support and leadership from ballet schools and companies themselves to create wider change in the industry, to ensure happier and healthier dancers."
Leadership in pastoral care for dancers is "taken very seriously" by the Australian Ballet, says Fiona Tonkin, the company's Artistic Associate and Principal Coach. "We try to ensure the dancers feel supported, cared for, and are managed as individuals." She referred me to a 25-page injury management and risk reduction program, which can be viewed online freely. She also directs me to their maternity leave policy, which gradually prepares dancers for financial support and a break from full-time dancing and allows them to return to work after the birth. "The positive impact of this policy for individuals and the sector cannot be overstated," she says.
The Australian Ballet is a world leader in injury prevention and recovery, with a team of medical and allied health professionals working collaboratively with the dancers, and a multidisciplinary approach to wellbeing and rehabilitation. Injured dancers are allowed the time to recover properly from inevitable setbacks. Many of the company's policies are in the public domain. This is a real contrast to what ballet dancers like Aeby and Martin went through in their professional dancing careers 10 to 20 years ago.
Aeby, as a soloist for Victorian State Ballet and ballet educator, is another of the leaders of this new era. "I want to run my own training academy eventually for young dancers where I can prepare them for the ballet world, the resilience they need, but also support them to take care of themselves … We are not machines,'' she says, "we are people, and artists, who need to sustain our passion and ability in ballet by taking care of the body, resting, eating well, training sensibly, listening to your body if it’s in pain, getting the physiotherapy you need…" This is the change we need to see in the ballet world and a balancing act for the next generation of dance directors and teachers.
'Beauty and the Beast' will be performed at St Kilda Palais Theatre as part of the Victorian State Ballet 2022 tour, Saturday 6th August. Buy tickets: here.
Follow Joëlle Aeby here: here.
Follow the research of Inge Gnatt: here.
Follow the research of Professor Rose Martin: here.