More Than Just An Art: Medicine and Science for Dancers
by Julie Ferrell-Olson
I promise we’ll get back to my cross-training series as soon as it feels like there’s a returned sense of normalcy in the world (and when we can all access a gym or studio again!). This month, I’d like to focus on the supporting roles for dancers, and the different options available for either professionals looking for a transition or for pre-professionals looking into their future. While there are multiple pathways available within the art form, I am highlighting a few of the medicine and science tracks, why they are critical, and how they are useful to the dance community.
First and foremost, we have our sports medicine doctors. They are the ones to go-to for any acute or chronic injury that is preventing you from performing to your full ability. A good sports medicine doctor understands dance culture and our specific needs. Instead of treating symptoms, you want a doctor that will treat the root of the problem and is willing to take the time to listen to all of your concerns regarding your busy dance schedule. If you aren’t sure if there is a doctor specializing in dancers in your area, look for one that works with similar athletes such as gymnasts and figure skaters. Finding the right doctor will help you return to dancing your fullest sooner than letting an injury fester and get progressively worse in the long run (Doctors for Dancers is another great resource for information on this!).
If you are seeking healthcare for a time-loss injury, you’re most likely going to spend more face-to-face time with a physical therapist. Most states require you to have a doctor’s referral for treatment from a PT, but some PT clinics offer a free triage or assessment to advise you on the best treatment course. A good place to start looking for a PT that works with dancers is any large dance companies in the area- often, clinics may sponsor or work closely with companies and will have therapists on-site during a show or rehearsal. If you live in a smaller community, look for a PT that works with other performing athletes. A PT that understands dancers may advise you on how to incorporate exercises into your classes understands the movement demands on dancers, and that aesthetics are just as important as the ability to execute. It is also not unusual for a dancer to transition to physical therapy after a performance career, as long as all the prerequisites are completed within a certain timeframe.
Now more than ever, we need dance psychologists. In normal dance life, they may assist with performance anxiety, coping mechanisms for the psychological tolls of injuries, and combating perfectionistic tendencies, to name a few. Dance psychologists may also work in academia and conduct research. Although they are not as commonplace in healthcare teams, more and more companies are bringing in psychologists to support dancers. Now, some dance psychologists are sharing information and coping mechanisms for COVID-19 through their personal pages (I’m lucky enough to know Dr. Lucy Clements behind The Dance Psychologist). Mental health is just as crucial as physical health, and I strongly suspect the field of dance psychology will grow very rapidly very soon.
Finally, I want to touch on dance scientists; I introduced the field in my first article. As a relatively young and broad field, a dance scientist may wear many hats to take on many roles. Often, they are researchers, teachers, and academics. They help expand our knowledge of the dancing body and mind, and a dance scientist may focus on one specific field such as physiology, biomechanics, psychology, or neuroscience. More schools are starting to offer dance science as an undergraduate major, which could be a great springboard for some of the above-listed professions.
I am a dancer first and a scientist second. I find both so incredibly enriching in different ways, and spent years trying to figure out how to integrate my passions—and to be honest, I still am. But I feel like I’m on the right track. Originally, I planned on majoring in dance and going on to physical therapy school, but soon after graduation, I realized that wasn’t the best option for me. I knew after dancing professionally for a few years I needed something more and had the incredible opportunity to study dance science at Trinity Laban. Now, during stay-at-home orders, I’ve felt frustrated that I can’t dance and I can’t pursue all the opportunities in my field. I get scared that my “aging” body won’t spring back the same way it used to and that this might be the end of my performance career—but that fear is all the more reason why the work of healthcare professionals and researchers is so essential to dancers. Dancers already have an incredibly early retirement age compared to other professions, but if we can merge science and dance into a cohesive, coherent unit, we might be able to push that age up for future generations.