Artists who work with their bodies have been particularly constrained throughout the many iterations of the lockdown. The arts, in general, are almost on their knees financially. But when you are a dancer, you have to dance. Having to work in your bedroom, living room, or kitchen, week after week, has huge impacts on your body, mind, and artistry.
A particularly vulnerable group of dancers are elite young teenagers who are in full-time training at a crucial stage in their development, hoping to make dance a living. How do long breaks in training affect the chances of these dancers? Will they have an impact on the progress of their technique or on the development and maintenance of their strength? Can long training breaks end a career?
This global pandemic is an unprecedented event; there are no scientific studies that show the impact of pandemic lockdowns on the development of a healthy dancer. We can, however, learn from our experience with dancers whose training has been interrupted for other reasons, such as injury. For this article, I approached physiotherapist Gabby Davidson, a former Australian Ballet dancer and physiotherapist at the Australian Ballet School and in private practice, who in her role has guided many dancers back to fitness after injury. . I asked him if taking a complete break from training could stop strength and flexibility or if these could be recovered.
“These are things they can recover, it will just take longer,” she says. “And the time of adolescence is the important time.
So where exactly are the age limits for having free time without losing important opportunities?
“At the age of 12 or 13, students have time to regain their strength, although they are likely to face psychological frustrations from wanting to dance and progress,” says Davidson.
“If you’re 15 and you need to take time off, you’ll be a bit behind your peers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t – if you have the natural facility to do so.
“The only problem is whether [the break] is around that critical moment when you transition from being a student to being a professional. Unless you have someone supporting you during this time and taking the time with you, it wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be really difficult. At 18, a dancer should be ready to audition for a company. If an elite dancer should take a year off [at that stage in their development]we make sure they do everything they can [around the injury]. This is where practices such as Pilates and Gyrotonic can make a huge difference.
What is the impact of a lack of performance experience?
Part of the problem is psychological – “what do they have to work for?” says Davidson. As she puts it, while performance is “the icing on the cake — a big part of performance is the work that goes into it.” Working on a role and getting the stamina is very important.
Has she seen more injuries as a result of the confinements?
For starters, she replies, 2020 and 2021 have seen different lockdown patterns, and obviously various geographies have experienced more or less “hard” lockdowns where students are banned from the studio. Anecdotally, Davidson says, “The biggest leap we’ve seen is in bone injuries – mostly because bones like constant load and tendons like constant load. So for those going up and down ([in load] it gets tricky.
For elite dancers, there were actually fewer injuries than for non-elite students. “The injury rate stayed about the same this year and last year it went down because they weren’t doing as much as usual,” she said. “The only thing that spiked was certain stress reactions.”
At ABS, the health team notified teachers when a student’s workload needed to be changed. “It doesn’t stop injuries, but it can prevent them from getting really serious. There is a silver lining to that,” she adds. “Some of the pressures are removed. Some of the wounds then have the time they need to heal.
One danger Davidson saw during the shutdowns was that students were accessing classes through the internet. This was initially a problem because it could not be monitored and students could overtrain. “We had to ask them not to access the courses from outside.”
“Some of the content online was a bit scary. Even things like someone manifesting with 180 degree turnout or extreme reach can inspire young perfectionists to emulate.
Many injuries were caused by changes to the surfaces on which the dancers worked. This applies especially outside the elite realm. “It’s okay if they dance on concrete, but what they had to do was give themselves time to get used to it. Bones can jump on concrete, but we need to give them time to react to those forces and build up the strength to deal with them,” Davidson reports.
The other challenge is when the students return to their studio. “The bones just can’t keep up with the change in surface and we’ve started to see an increase in stress reactions and stress fractures – not traumatic fractures but ones that build up gradually.”
This year, it was tricky because the confinements were repeated, the students had to adapt frequently to the differences in load, surfaces and duration of the sessions.
All in all, while injuries are a potential hazard, time spent dancing isn’t necessarily the end of a promising career. With a willingness to step back and be patient and focus on alternative forms of strengthening and conditioning, it is entirely possible to get back on track and closer to the stage.
This article first appeared in the October/November/December issue of ‘Dance Australia’. Shop at your favorite dance store or head here and never miss a number!