Posted on December 17, 2013
Rachel Rist, director of Dance at Tring Park School, attended a dance medicine and science conference held recently in Seattle, Washington
The 23rd annual meeting of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) was held in Seattle, Washington, in October 2013. The conference opened with an impressive keynote address from Peter Boal (pictured left), artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. An ex-principal of New York City Ballet, he set the tone for the entire event by placing healthy dancing at the forefront of being a dancer. Boal began by saying that behind every great dancer is a great therapist. He confessed that his own great weakness as a dancer was not listening to his body and pushing through pain so as not to appear weak or disappoint people. When he was injured, he felt he had lost his identity, because his physicality as a dancer defined him as a person; “But I am the guy with the arabesque… who am I if I lose that?”
Boal also commented on the importance of therapy for the fragile emotional state that an injured dancer can be in. He applauded the improved attitude to dancers that companies have shown recently by providing better access to on-site therapy and improved touring schedules aiming to reduce the toll on a dancer’s body. Boal’s excellent remarks echo the vision of IADMS; the aim being to look after dancers in order to keep them healthy and dancing longer.
Over the duration of the three days of the main conference were lectures, presentations, movement sessions, clinical symposia, and poster presentations. It was impossible to see them all, choices had to be made according to what was most relevant or useful to learn about. In an interesting presentation by Dana Kotler, an investigation was done into how much dancers understand anatomy. A group were tested to see if their perceived knowledge was as good as their actual anatomical knowledge. The study found that dancers tend to over-estimate how much they really know, that those who had been injured knew more, that dancers aged 18 and over tended to have greater knowledge of anatomy and, finally, that jazz dancers tended to know more about the subject than other genres of dancers. Improved knowledge would help dancers listen to their bodies when they are tired, hopefully preventing injury. Better knowledge of anatomy could also help dancers in a dialogue with the practitioners who support them.
Many presentations were seen, but I will focus on the most relevant ones for dance teachers. A “Day for Teachers” on the final day of the conference commenced with Kitty Daniels, from Cornish College of the Arts, on “The language of the dance class; translating anatomy and kinesiology”. Daniels asked a series of fundamental questions: “Is the wisdom passed through generations of dance teachers, true? Can we validate it? Should we discard it having passed it through our knowledge of Dance Medicine?” She asked whether some of the “cues” dance teachers tended to use lacked anatomical accuracy; perhaps cues should be constructed so that they are based on anatomical reality. As dance teachers are keen to help students improve, there is sometimes a tendency to overwhelm with instruction and Daniels reminded teachers to prioritise – increase the specificity of verbal instruction and identify the cause of the issue not just by noticing the fault. In discussing the idea of global versus specific cueing, sometimes it is necessary to micro-manage in order to change deeply ingrained habits or retrain inhibited muscles. Teachers can then design exercises that activate specific muscles and then return to more global full body cues until the pattern of organising the body is efficient.
When discussing imagery and cueing, Daniels suggested that teachers should paint a verbal picture, then direct attention to a solution. The function of verbal cues could be to evoke the desired action, to analyse actions, elicit the desired reaction and perhaps allow students to consciously flow between fact and sensation or fact and imagery, finding sensations. If teachers create anatomically based cues, they should consider the lines of the pull of muscles and direct students’ attention to that, which might produce more efficient results and more proactive measures from the student. Daniels reminded teachers of the importance of gauging the level of sophistication of a student, and when they are ready for more information they should be allowed to have more specific and accurate feedback. So, instead of saying, “lift from the back of the leg” (which is anatomically impossible), say, “lengthen the back of the leg as it goes up” (which is anatomically accurate). As another example, instead of instructing a student to “open your knee to the side” during plié, say (depending on prior knowledge and age of the students) “horizontally abduct the knee” and use the image of pushing the hands out to the side. A teacher might instruct a student to keep the shoulders down when the arms are placed in fifth position, but the participation of the shoulder blade is essential to allow this movement to happen, so perhaps cueing a dancer to widen and rotate the shoulder blades might be more useful. The image of having powerful “wings” when the arms are in second position can activate the muscles under the arm (that originate in the back), thus allowing the dancer to think about the volume of air and mass under the arms that allows a more efficient use of the correct muscles.
A useful idea was to plan verbal instructions in this method; give the body part, direction and count of the exercise, then, before an exercise guide attention to a specific action (feel the pelvis, notice the movement); during an exercise aim to refrain from too much instruction to allow students to develop a relationship with the music, as over-talking from the teacher can harm natural musicality; and after an exercise provide feedback, suggest a change and allow time to embody the suggested change.
Teachers know the importance of creating a positive learning environment so that it becomes a learning-centred experience, with the focus is on what the students understand and not on how obedient they are. There is a deep history in dance training of the hierarchical system of handed down knowledge, but now we have moved towards a more somatic approach where the emphasis is on physical experience; not telling a student, but cueing them to be more proprioceptively aware by using words such as “pay attention to” and “notice”. In this latter system the teacher and the student collaborate together to move towards understanding. A useful question for teachers to ask a student might be, “What are you telling yourself to do?” Traditionally, students have been silent in class, and the only voice heard was that of the teacher. By bringing language and conversation into the studio, students are not mute and they interact with their teacher more.
Older teachers with experience of a more traditional but sometimes more intimidating approach to teaching might perhaps say that teaching by intimidation works! But praise also works, and it should not be the student’s goal to please the teacher. Teachers can motivate because they acknowledge progress and improvement; it does not have to be perfect, but better than before is an achievement. Teachers need to know their role in this new environment.
This theme was continued by Virginia Wilmerding, PhD (the newly appointed CEO of IADMS), who commented on commonly held misconceptions. If teachers teach the ritual they were taught, a ritual that sometimes is biomechanically impossible, it may injure a dancer and does not inform artistry. Resistance to change is often used as a defence of artistry, but it does not lead to better dancing. Wilmerding asked a fundamental question: “Does the barre translate into the centre?” It was found that the standing leg muscles work harder in the centre than they do at the barre, because there is much more to control in the centre, as the body has to learn to organise itself more efficiently. A recommendation was made that a dance class should be split into equal thirds; one third barre/floor work, one-third centre/standing work, and one-third travelling work. This plan can translate into most genres and will ensure a good proportion of time is spent on each section. To spend longer on one section of class will compromise the time spent on the other sections. To increase muscle efficiency, a dancer learns to use less muscle (recruit fewer muscles) to do the work, not less muscle power. This uses muscles better.
Donna Krasnow, PhD, joined Wilmerding in discussing their analysis of famous dancers performing actions in slow motion, frame by frame, to analyse the movements undertaken to perform the required action. They repeatedly found that the wind up for a turn takes at least half a turn to get the body into the correct shape, and to use this as a cueing method for thinking of the pirouette as a rising spiral, emphasising the push from the floor. They showed astonishing evidence that prior to the launch of a powerful large jump, even the most elite dancer took off from a parallel (not turned out) leg. They also found the idea that “the deeper the plié, the higher the jump” to be a myth. A “Day for Teachers” finished with a practical class led by Bill Evans embodying the theoretical learning from the previous sessions into practical application.
IADMS is an organisation of more than 1,000 people in 34 different countries. It is for students, dancers, teachers, physiotherapists, choreographers, directors, doctors, surgeons, scientists, psychologists, psychiatrists, somatics teachers and just about anyone who is interested in and committed to improving the longevity of dancers. Many useful resources for dance teachers can be gained freely from its website; teacher’s bulletins, resource papers and a beautifully created dance poster series can also be purchased. The resource papers are a wonderful addition to any dance studio. The next IADMS conference will be held in Basel, Switzerland. Visit iadms.org for further information.
Pictured below from left to right are Virginia Wilmerding, PhD CEO of IADMS, Kitty Daniels, Bill Evans, and Donna Krasnow, PhD. All photographs by Jake Pett.