Demands of Dance by Emma Porter

Watching the likes of Erina Takahashi or Jeff Cirio, principal dancers at the English National Ballet, effortlessly gliding across the stage and flying through the air with such poise and grace is something that I will always treasure from my time working at the Company. But it takes a phenomenal amount of training to make it look that easy. And with long hours of honing one’s skill comes the inevitable injuries, as I have experienced working with Dancers at all levels, from young aspiring dancers at the Royal Ballet School, all the way through to principal dancers with 20-year careers.

So, what are the demands of dance?

Well, to explain this, it’s important to understand the concept of training load, which is:

THE CUMULATIVE STRESS PLACED ON AN INDIVIDUAL FROM ONE OR MORE TRAINING SESSIONS OVER A PERIOD OF TIME (BMJ, 2016)

This training load can be both internal within the body, such as Psychological and Physiological load and external to the body, such as Mechanical load.

Psychological Load

Psychology is very important, because two dancers could do the exact same activity but perceive it very differently, even if they were physically in similar condition. Their mood, for example, would have a big impact on how they perceived the exertion during a ballet class.

Psychological variables include stressors such as negative life-events, daily hassles, as well as dance-related stress (eg, performance anxiety, rehearsal pressure, feelings of inadequate technique), but also personality variables, such as stress susceptibility, type A behaviors, and maladaptive coping strategies. (IOC Consensus Statement, How much is too much? Soligard et al 2016).

Stress is cumulative and therefore, like the musculo-skeletal system, the brain/emotions need offloading and if not then this could lead to burnout, illness or injury. Dancers of all ages should ensure that they are in tune with their emotional/mental state or how stressed or fatigued they feel and put things in place to address it, such as:

  • Take a break
  • Share your troubles with your teacher and/or family – a problem shared is a problem halved as the saying goes, it so true!
  • Practice meditation or breathing techniques, this can
  • Spend time doing other things that you enjoy

It can be hard for dancers to take a break and switch off but it will actually increase your enjoyment, and improve your performance as well as reduce your risk of injury or illness.

Physiological Load

Studies have looked at how hard the heart and lungs are working in classical ballet dancers in different environments such as class, rehearsal and performance (Twitchett et al, 2015) and have shown that even during performance, which is the most challenging thing a dancer can do, they will spend most of their time at rest. Therefore, dancers don’t spend enough time working at higher intensities that are going to stimulate improvements in their cardio-respiratory fitness – in short ballet dancers aren’t very fit!

Other studies have shown, not just in dance but across many other sports and performance-based activities, the fitter you are, the better able you are to recover from training and your overall performance also improves. Therefore, dancers should ensure that they include some form of cardio fitness training within their week. Some examples of this could be swimming, cycling, or High intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions.

Mechanical loads

Mechanical load are the things that we make our bodies do, such as number of steps, time spent doing training, how high we jump and how often we do it. Now this is where things get interesting when you are looking at dance, particularly classical ballet.

Did you know that when you are doing a Grand Jete (that is one of those spectacular split leaps for those of you not familiar with the ballet vernacular) you put 4-5 times your body weight through the ground, and if you remember back to your GCSE physics and Newton’s 3rd Law of motion: “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”, so for a 50kg dancer doing a grand jete, that is approximately 150-200kg of force being transmitted through the body when they land.

And they don’t just jump once, in the average ballet class there are over 200 jumps performed of varying sizes and intensity, so just think of the scale and volume of mechanical forces placed on a dancer’s body. If you add adolescence into the mix, for those young developing dancers, repetitive high forces are being placed upon a musculoskeletal system that is busy trying to grow and mature. As a result, it is very common for young dancers to suffer with overuse injuries to their bone growth plates (e.g. Severs, Osgood-schlatters, and Sinding-Larsen-Johnasson disease) or tendonopathies (e.g. Achillies, hip flexors, tibialis posterior, flexor hallucis longus).

Due to the complexity of ballet technique it is easy to see why dancers spend many hours perfecting their developpes and pirouettes, but this mechanical load is accumulative and without adequate rest, recovery and nutrition the body simply isn’t able to adapt quickly enough to cope with the demands placed upon it and this can result in more serious problems like:

  • Bone stress injuries
  • RED-S
  • Burnout

So my top tips for dancers with regards to managing the extremely high mechanical loads of dance are:

  1. Ensure they include regular strength training into their week, strength increases the bodies resilience to mechanical loading and injuries, it also improves performance
  2. Sufficient rest and recovery should be a priority, listen to your body, if it’s telling you it’s tired, it probably is! Ideally, they should be having at least 1 full rest day per week as well as extra rest days before AND after big shows/competitions. This is called periodization where you plan the ups and downs of the intensity of your training load and ensure that you get enough rest.
  3. And lastly fuel, fuel, fuel! Three meals a day plus snacks between meals and plenty of water. The nutritional demands of dancing are huge, so it is actually harder than you think to fulfill a dancers nutritional needs, so try to fuel throughout the day.
Lawton Gate House,
7 Hill Street, Richmond,
London, TW9 1SX

020 8332 1132

clinic@richmondphysio.co.uk