Dance Health: The Science behind the Art

As published by Institute of the Arts Barcelona, Dec 2014.

We’ve all heard the mantra “No pain, no gain”, especially in the world of dance. Whilst it is important to push yourself, adopting this adage’s attitude can lead to unnecessarily high pain thresholds and injury tolerance. This isn’t healthy and as many as 80% of professional dancers are injured every year. The Institute knows how important it is for students to learn to balance the physical challenges of training and performance with maintaining a healthy body and knowing when to stop. It’s essential to address pain and get expert advice and support. That’s why the Institute of the Arts Barcelona has brought Performing Arts Medicine, Dance Science and Health Training to Spain via its on-site treatment clinic.

There are only a couple of places in the world to concentrate on the true science behind the art, even though it’s proven to optimise performance physicality, prevent injury and prepare students for the demands of the profession. Having an in-house health hub gives students and teachers confidence to push boundaries knowing there’s healthcare support next door. Dance Programme Leader Jen Blake knows communication is key to developing a healthier, yet intense, type of training. That’s why she designed a module for the first year BA Dance students called ‘The Healthier Dancer’, which includes lectures and investigation into injury prevention, nutrition for, anatomy, physiology, kinesiology and somatic practices. These studies are then supported by practical sessions at the IAB Health Clinic.

Providing one-to-one body diagnostics and fronting the ongoing physiotherapy is pioneering specialist Isabel Artigues. Having worked at London’s Trinity Laban, she is the first physiotherapist to receive an MSc in Performing Arts Medicine from University College London. Specialising in the assessment and treatment of injuries for performing arts professionals, Isabel has a strong understanding of the diverse demands that a career in dance, music and the arts place on the body, as she was formerly a flautist with the Barcelona Conservatoire of Music. Originally from the Catalan capital, the fact that this is the first – and only – integrated health centre specialising in performing arts in the Barcelona area is “a dream come true” for the passionate specialist whose name is academically suffixed with (deep breath!)… BSc MSc HCPC MCSP. We chatted with her about the importance of dance screenings, tailored profiling and her journey from flute to physio.

How does your background as a flautist give you an understanding of the demands that a career in dance, music and the arts place on the body? “Musicians’ hands are vital to their musical performance. Rapid, complex and coordinated movements are required and they frequently have to play in less than ideal postures and environments, usually without the support of a medical team and with poor facilities. Musicians and performing artists often have to perform to the limit of their abilities physically and emotionally and there is risk of acquiring injuries. I have danced all my life since a very early age (ballet, contemporary, folk), but it wasn’t until I reached Grade 8 of flute training that I started needing physiotherapy for playing-related pain and underperformance. I decided then to retrain as a physio and specialise in the Performing Arts Medicine field so I could help other colleagues prevent that ex and achieve their best. Best thing I’ve done in my life!”

Why is it important for young dancers to learn how their bodies work as early as possible? “Dancing is a very intense profession and it has a toll on the body. It’s proven that understanding how the body works and how to raise awareness and correct non-efficient strategies helps prevention, healing and enhances overall performance quality and career longevity. I use manual therapy and awareness combined with psychology and goal orientation. My particular method of assessing and treating the whole person though comes from the Thoracic Ring Approach training I had this year – a 7 month-long course that integrates all the body for a more efficient diagnostic and treatment.”

On your team you are joined by Nerea, an excellent physiotherapist and osteopath. Does she share your musical and performing arts background? “Nerea trained with me at Ramon Llull University before I moved to the UK. My passion for the performing arts was already visible then and we have continued sharing knowledge since then as she always expressed interest in this field I wanted to specialise in. Her background as a musician and gymnast also helps her understand the needs and demands of the performers, and her holistic approach to the body and movement makes her the perfect therapist for IAB Health.”

Physio exercises can seem punative. How do you make them more appealing? “Physiotherapy protocols and exercise worksheets can fall into patterns and generalisations. And that can be irrelevant to the patient. No one likes to do things that are not relevant to them. I tailor the exercises from the findings of the assessment and the treatment, so both myself and the patient see the positive result of performing them regularly.”

You do Dance Science Screenings at the Institute. Why are these one-one-one assessments so crucial? “Dance Screening and Profiling are very important tools in research and injury prevention as they allow us to track patterns and profiles that can be at risk of injury early on. Dance Screening involves the study of basic dance movements (plié, relevé, tendu) as well as fitness and endurance (press-up, jump) in order to identify asymmetries and body compensations at the point of fatigue. Dancer Profiling on the other hand looks at the body characteristics of our students (height, weight, body mass and range of movement of important joints) as well as lifestyle behaviours so that we can know our population and how much help they may need to cope the demands of the BA. We then plan the lectures and workshops. So far it’s been great!”

What other Wellness workshops do you offer? “I do workshops after the Screenings which cover a wide range of topics: nutrition, performance psychology and motivation, stretching, warming up/cooling down, hypermobility, fitness & supplementary training, as well as specific areas of the body (foot & ankle, knee and lower limb, lower back and spine and upper limb). These workshops are great as they give the knowledge and the tools for the students to self-manage and control their own bodies to enhance performance.”

Why is well-balanced and good quality nutrition key to achieving excellence in performance? “Fuelling the body properly to have enough energy and keep healthy is key. The IAB Nutrition lectures involve the description of all the essential macronutrients, as well as some tips in what to eat, how much and when. The students are invited to plan their own weekly diet and given tasks.”

Will you be expanding other therapies in the future? “My aim for IAB Health is to become an integrated health clinic, so within the next years I am looking at building an interdisciplinary team with a wide range of skills and knowledge, always relevant to the performing arts. Students’ feedback and suggestions are important and I keep an eye at what’s available locally for opportunities. Exciting times!” Read more about the IAB Health Clinic, Dance Science Screening, On-Site Services, Performing Arts Medicine and our team by downloading our PDF booklet.


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