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Susan Elkin: Here comes the (dance) science bit

Dance science research being conducted at Trinity Laban. Photo: Chris Nash Dance science research being conducted at Trinity Laban. Photo: Chris Nash
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Dance science is a new discipline related to, but different from, sports science. I have to admit I hadn’t really heard of it until I visited Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance’s Deptford campus last week and met Emma Redding, the school’s head of dance science.

The idea is to conduct top-notch scientific research, often funded in collaboration with other comparable institutions, into how the body and mind work in relation to the demands of dance. Everything feeds back into the teaching and development of performers. The bottom line is to find ways of ensuring that every dancer is fit, healthy and well enough to sustain a long and successful career without succumbing to wear and tear, injury or mental health problems.

In the ‘conditioning room’ I watch two young women taking part in experiments. One is on a treadmill, pounding with rhythmic and apparently limitless energy. She is wearing apparatus across her chest and a face mask that measure her oxygen intake and carbon dioxide output, energy used and where in the body it is coming from. The results are plotted on a continuous graph on an electronic whiteboard at her side. Redding explains that the equipment is mobile, so it can also be used in dance classes.

On the other side of the room, another young woman demonstrates an electronic foot plate. As she stands or moves on different parts of her feet, the machine shows the shape and pressure on a computer screen. It’s a way of ascertaining where the pressure points are, how much the foot is pronating (tilting out of line) and matters of weight distribution. It’s fascinating stuff, and I’m a bit disappointed not to be invited to have a go on either machine.

On a more serious note, Redding tells me that, above all else, dancers need strength – and that doesn’t necessarily come from the long legs and tiny torso of the traditional female ballet dancer. “We talk a lot about health, and every student gets individual support, but we never brutally tell a student to lose weight in the way that conservatoires once did and maybe some schools still do.”

I’ve worried for years about the morality – yes, morality – of training dancers for public entertainment in a way that leads to damage and what is, effectively, self-harm. As I tell Redding, we’ve all read horrifying newspaper articles about hideously blistered feet wrapped in half a reel of sticking plaster or young dancers failing to menstruate because their body weight is too low. And we’re often told that many dancers, male and female, need hip replacements in their 40s or 50s, and that that’s just something one accepts as a sacrifice to the career.

Well, not in Redding’s department, it isn’t. She and her colleagues are working very hard to ensure that future performers get a much better deal. The more that is understood about how the body (and mind) of a dancer works, the more can be done to make sure he or she can live the dream without it turning into a nightmare.

Not that it’s easy. When Redding took me into a Trinity Laban dance class, I could see that not every body shape in the room conformed to the accepted stereotype. “Yes, there’s work to do to change public perceptions and expectations,” says Redding, adding that of course they want their graduates to get jobs so all considerations have to be balanced.

Personally I’m delighted that people like Redding and her colleagues are working at it, though. I shall feel much happier the next time I watch a dance performance in the knowledge that, unlike previous generations of dancers, the people I’m watching are more likely to be enabled to look after themselves.

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