The data of dance: When science and art merge

By Mike MacKinnon
November 1, 2017

 

It's hard to imagine two disciplines less alike than dance and science. Dance is about movement, artistic expression, interpretation, flow. Science is about measurement, observation, data, controlling variables. Where dance is seen as fluid, science can be rigid. Yet increasingly, in the field of dance science, scientific methods are applied to dance and dancers in the same way that sports and athletes are studied to maximize performance, limit injuries and improve overall health and well-being.

The athleticism of dance

For Sarah Kenny, an assistant professor with a joint appointment in UCalgary's faculties of arts and kinesiology, the similarities between dancers and athletes are clear. "Dancers are physically active for the majority of their waking hours," she says, "whether it's training to perfect their skills and techniques or on-stage in a performance environment. The same can be said of athletes."

Kenny is the advisor for undergraduate students enrolled in UCalgary's combined Dance/Kinesiology degree, where they earn degrees in both disciplines over five years. Launched in 2014, the combined degree – the first of its kind in Canada – is intended to give students with a strong dance background a solid foundation in the science of their art. 

"They're all dancers themselves," says Kenny. "But they're getting strength and conditioning coaching, psychological skills training, as well as learning about scientific research methodology, physiology, psychology and biomechanics."

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Arguably, dancers train just as much as athletes.
Caption: 
Arguably, dancers train just as much as athletes.

Overall wellness includes creativity

Melissa Monteros, professor and chair of the dance division in UCalgary's School of Creative and Performing Arts, says the partnership between dance and kinesiology is a natural one. "When I arrived in 1989, there was a route in dance education in what was then the Faculty of Physical Education, and a minor in dance in Fine Arts," says Monteros. "The BA Dance actually began as a collaborative degree when we pooled those resources. This combined degree connects very well with kinesiology’s mandate of looking at overall wellness. In arts, we look at it in a similar way. Overall wellness demands a certain level of attention to the body, but also to creative expression."

Understanding their own bodies

Dancers are highly attuned to their bodies as it is, but with knowledge in kinesiology, they gain a whole new understanding of how best to train, how to improve their technical skill, and how to avoid injury, says Kenny. "For example, understanding the bone structure of the hip joint tells us how much turnout we might have, so we don't force the foot and tilt the pelvis to find the perfect turnout. It's knowing the safe ways around that, and experiencing them personally."

According to Monteros, having that anatomical knowledge and applying it to their own bodies can help students learn better than by simply relying on the instructor's feedback. "They have a much better knowledge of how to work," she says. "They can make adjustments to their performance when they start to fatigue and recruit all the big muscles. It puts more of their training in their hands, because they know their bodies better than anyone, so it empowers them to take more control."

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A background in kinesiology can open up career paths for dancers.
Caption: 
A background in kinesiology can open up career paths for dancers.

More career choices

Having expertise in both dance and kinesiology can also open up career opportunities for students. "A lot of dancers have goals to apply for physiotherapy or chiropractic degrees," says Kenny. "They're going into dance medicine, specializing in treating and rehabilitating dancers. For those interested in teaching, they become more knowledgeable. In the studio, they are passing on current, evidence-based, safe dance practice knowledge – how to incorporate warming up and cooling down, providing appropriate hydration/nutrition breaks, paying attention to any pain students might be feeling – which is not fully acknowledged in the local dance studio right now."

Monteros envisions a future where dance companies and studios hire graduates in roles much like professional sports teams hire nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches, and psychologists. "When we look at the kind of physical and psychological support that an athlete would get, we're looking at economics, as well," she says. "The dancer is not so well supported, economically. It's really rare for them to have access to these kinds of services, to that level of support. But with the enhancement and the development of this field, we hope to provide the kind of support that those movers really deserve and need to have."

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Dancers are increasingly seeing the importance of taking care of their bodies.
Caption: 
Dancers are increasingly seeing the importance of taking care of their bodies.

A shift in culture

While dance science is still an emerging field in Canada, Monteros says interest is growing, in academic institutions as well as in the dance community. "There had to be a shift in the culture," she says. "And the right people had to be in place. Dance companies are starting to reach out to us, looking for someone who can do assessments on their dancers. When I've been invited to go out and review classes in the community, I've run into graduates who are now physical therapists, doing assessments for these studios. The impact has been great."

"We're seeing an increase in requests to come and deliver workshops at local studios," says Kenny. "In topics around injury prevention, safe dance practice, fitness – that has increased astronomically. The word is getting out in the community that this is an area their students need to be aware of, that they, as studio owners, need to be aware of."

For Kenny, part of changing the culture is that dance science simply makes sense. "The research tells us that fitter dancers get injured less. Fitter dancers recover more quickly from their injuries. And while there's still some elitism in knowing that we are artists, if you don't understand how to keep your body healthy and free from injury, then you're not supporting the art form the best that you could be."

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About our experts

Sarah Kenny, PhD, is an assistant professor with a joint appointment in UCalgary's faculties of arts and kinesiology. Her primary research interests and objectives include reducing the prevalence and incidence of dance-related injury, thus optimizing dancer performance and mitigating the long-term consequences of musculoskeletal injury in the dance population. Through scientific inquiry, Sarah’s work strives for a paradigm shift – away from the ‘fear and avoidance’ culture of dance injury and towards preventing and/or delaying the onset of musculoskeletal injury through primary and secondary prevention strategies.​ View Sarah's publications
Melissa Monteros is a professor and the chair of the dance division in UCalgary's School of Creative and Performing Arts. Her primary research interests lie in performance and choreography, physical theatre, dance on film, and international collaborative partnerships in dance. Read more about Melissa
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