The dancer as athleteAuthor: Paul Bronkhorst
Quite often dancers are compared to athletes and righteously so. Dancers are the athletes among the performing artists. Of course, actors, musicians and other performing artists need their bodies to do their job, but the body of the dancer is his or her instrument. The standards that have to be met, both physically as artistically, are incredibly high. Like athletes dancers have to keep their body in shape.
But most dancers do not like to be compared to sportsman, because they feel that the nature of their work is different. Their way of performing has nothing to do with breaking records or defeating opponents, they are involved in arts, they are creative, they are in their profession for different reasons.
And of course the differences outnumber the similarities, but it is a valuable exercise to take a closer look at the similarities and differences.
Preparing this speech I realized that there is one big difference. Athletes dance, for instance when they celebrate a championship, when a serious rival is defeated or when they break a record, but most dancers do not play sport.
Although often compared the world of sports and the world of dance are two separate worlds. The relation between sports and dance has always been an awkward one, a kind of love hate affair. Now and then these worlds come somewhat closer; choreographers are inspired by the movements they see in sports and I think of Nijinsky who created Jeux and it not very long ago that Rudi van Dantzig, the former artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet made a choreography inspired by football and which was actually performed by dancers in a football stadium.
Sometimes dance is more or less an obvious part of sport like for instance in Pencak Silat, a form of Indonesian martial arts, or in gymnastics. The closest sports and dance can possibly get can be seen in ballroom dance or figure skating, but if you ask the practitioners of these kind of sports whether they consider themselves athletes or dancers you are most likely to hear that they see themselves as athletes.
And if you ask professional dancers how they look upon themselves the chance that they think of themselves as athletes is very small.
And let’s face it. The most important similarity between dance and sport is the physical one. The technical and physical standards that have to be met by dancers and athletes are high. A start at a very young age is necessary to prepare the body for the utmost achievement. Years of specialized and dedicated training are inevitable to achieve the goals these professionals have set for themselves. The goals are different, but the demands are equal. Also one has to be willing to make sacrifices. Both dancers as athletes have to deny themselves temptations of life to reach what they aim for. As a consequence of the physical demands the careers dancers and athletes is of short duration. Dancers and athletes will have to make a new career choice at some point in their lives and much sooner than an average worker.
Differences: Athletes reach for the fastest, strongest or the best; dancers reach for the highest.
The nature of the performance of dancers is different. Of course it depends on the type of sport that is practiced, but in general athletes have to peak, their achievements are of short duration and sometimes depends on seconds, even split seconds.
Apart from a couple of exceptions athletes are allowed to show how much strain and pain it costs to reach the finish or to punch the opponent knock out. Dancers are expected to perform as if it is effortless. Their shows have to be perfect en achievements of dancers must look as if it is all very easy.
Dance requires long muscles and most sports especially those that demand strength or speed (I do not talk about the professional snooker or dart player) requires a different muscle type. This is one of the reasons why dancers are not very fond of sport, because it affects directly their performance skills and, quite often, because of the risk of injury. However, dancers can practice sports, but they have to choose a suitable type of sport and will have to receive instructions on how to play it to avoid risks and effects that coincide with their dancing. For instance a dancer who would like to run to improve his condition should remember to use his feet parallel en not like he does when he performs a plié.
A rather surprising difference between dancers and athletes came out of a survey that was conducted a couple of years ago in Great Britain. The result of this survey showed that the state of physical fitness of dancers was not much greater than the average person in the street. This outcome is worrisome. Especially because being fit means a tremendous decrease in the risk of injury.
Also the number of dancers that smoke is worrisome. Although I am a heavy addict myself I notice that a lot of dancers smoke and this is quite a difference with the top athletes, who as a rule do not smoke. And we all know, myself included, what the effects are, that smoking has on the body. However, smoking has two advantages; it is a moment of rest and it takes away the appetite and we all know how important weight can be for a dancer. The question remains however whether these two so-called advantages weigh up against the risks. In general top athletes are more aware of their lifestyle and able to adapt it to the conditions their sport requires.
There is also a big difference between athletes and dancers when it comes to their place and status in society. Athletes are the peoples’ heroes and can acquire world fame, but the number of dancers that are world wide well known is very limited. In general the audience, the lay person, is not aware of the investments in time and energy that are made by dancers to perform at the high level they do. In general there is still a lack of understanding of what the profession of dancers is all about. It still happens that when a dancer introduces himself and talks about his profession, the other person in the conversation asks: ‘But if you are a dancer, what do you do during the day?’. My people do not know or realize that dancing is a full time job.
This lack of understanding and, as a consequence, recognition in society, is also reflected in salaries of dancers, quite often working conditions and the non existence of specialized medical care.
The bigger number of differences than similarities between dancers and athletes probably explains why these two worlds are segregated as they are. And this despite the major similarities: the physical performance and the devotion by both dancers as athletes put in their work to reach the physical level that is required.
But that is not the only explanation. The nature of the dancing profession and the dance world is best characterized as a highly specialized one. As a consequence it is also a very closed world.
Most teachers, ballet masters and choreographers are recruited from the pool of former dancers and most of them start working without proper education or training. Practically it means without proper knowledge of didactics, anatomy, exercise physiology, injuries or, more important, injury prevention. Former dancers in their role as teachers tend to reproduce what and how they have been taught.
Many teachers have serious difficulties dealing with injured dancers and do not know for instance how to guide dancers that recover from injuries and want to start working again.
In sports trainers and coaches need to have specialized training and education before they are allowed to work as a trainer or coach.
But, are teachers to blame for this? No, not for the full hundred percent. (Medical) care in the dance world has never been the highest priority. There was hardly any knowledge available. Even today there is not as much research done as would be necessary and/or beneficial to the dance world. Artistic and managing directors are mainly interested in the results produced by ballet masters and teachers and less how these results were reached. An injured or insulted dancer could easily be replaced.
In sports this is a completely different situation. Because of the great, primarily financial, interests that play a part in sports much research has been done. Not only in the field of performance enhancement or how to improve the athlete’s results, but also in the field of injury prevention, how to avoid or minimize the risk of an injury to occur.
And that is also one of the important differences between dance and sports. In dance there is a focus on curing and healing, whilst in sports there is a lot more attention for the question: ‘how to prevent injuries?’
Sports medicine is already a grown up science and dance medicine is relatively new. Sports physicans exist already for decades, but dance physicians cannot be found in the yellow pages.
There is definitely a need for the dance world to look into the knowledge and experience of sports science. In sports sciences there is a lot of information available for instance about Training methods, how to prepare for optimal performing. In the dance world there is still a strong belief that the more you train the better the dancer will become. Sports scientist have proven that this is not true. They know how to balance work and rest in order to improve performance.
Sport physicians have an understanding and knowledge of bio mechanical processes of top achievements, knowledge of rehabilitation programs, how to work on recovery and maintain the flexibility and strength in the body parts that are not injured. They have knowledge of diagnosis and guidance, not only from the individual dancer or athlete, but also the team or the company and its staff. They can give advice, again to individuals, but also companies and staff.. They are trained in chronic and acute injuries. Injury cure and care, injury prevention, sports medical screening, exercise, physiology and training are their main areas of work.
During the Holland Dance Festival the Dutch Health Care Foundation for Dancers organized an event, called Not Just Any Body. This was a global conference to advance health, well being and excellence in dance and dancers. I have two reasons for mentioning this event. First is that the book about the conference just came out and I would be a fool not to bring it to your attention. It is available for you to have a look in and instructions on how to order it is mentioned in the press release.
The second reason why I mention it is because for this event we deliberately invited sport physicians and sports scientists to introduce the value of sports science to the dance world. For some people it came as a shock, for some people it was an eye opener. Comments varied from: ‘But it sounds all so mechanical’ to a more encouraging remark from a British choreographer who said: ‘Knowing that knee joints can only do a certain number of grand pliés until they get worn out will change the dance teacher’s idea of what should be done in training’.
In general in sports they are very aware of the link between the care and well being of the individual, and I stress individual, athlete and the quality of the performance. A notion which is not yet accepted in the dance world.
Finally I would like to address an issue that is also common ground for dancers and athletes and that is the duration of their careers. Both professionals have to stop working at an age, where other careers are just getting off.
Many athletes have the possibility, either to make a lot of money out of their profession or their type of sports allows them to make money out of a regular job and practice their sport ‘on the side’. Dancers cannot. Dancers have to be fully committed and dedicated to their job and making money out of dance, and I mean real money, is not very likely.
Besides that, dancing is a profession in which emotions play an important role. Therefore making the transition from dancer to another career is a frightening and difficult phase in a dancer’s life.
Because the problem of transition is as old as the profession itself it is hard to understand that worldwide only four countries offer support to dancers that face this inevitable reality.
What kind of support is needed. At least two kinds. First is counseling and second is financial support. Counseling is needed to help the dancers through all the changes in life that come with transition. When a dancer stops dancing his life is turned completely upside down. Financial support is needed to enable the dancer to really make a career change and give the dancer a possibility to look into completely different directions.
Adequate support for dancers is not only a token of respect for dancers, but also in other ways beneficial to the dance world. Dancers who are able to make a real choice and weigh different options honestly will not become teachers, because they might feel they do not have another choice. Some dancers tend to stick in the dance world, because they are afraid of leaving it. Being a choreographer or teacher however is a completely different profession and requires different skills and abilities.
Ladies and gentlemen, because I am not an academic person I will not end my contribution to this symposium with firm conclusions, but three recommendations based upon common sense.
Firstly the dance world should establish a structure to improve the interaction with the world of sportssciences. A more structural exchange of ideas and experiences would benefit both of these worlds.
Secondly the dance world should develop minimum standards of the profile of dance teachers. What have to be the skills and knowledge that a dance teacher has to master in order to be considered qualified. On the long run it will improve the level of performance as well as the health and well-being of its practicioners.
Finally each country should develop a transition program for their professional dancers. It is not only a moral, but also professional obligation.
Thank you very much.