Health Issues for Dancers
By Susan Simpson and Tania Kopytko
Earlier this year DANZ asked Susan Simpson to conduct research into dancers' health in preparation for a series of health and safety workshops targeting the freelance contemporary dance community. A survey was sent out to a cross section of contemporary dancers to see what they wanted to know more about, in order to structure and develop an effective workshop plan.
Freelance dancers can be difficult to access. They will often assemble for projects and then return to their other work commitments in between times. How does one best serve the needs of this fragmented community - what are their dance health concerns?
The research information was based on 40 responses to the survey from a cross section of the contemporary dance community. This included students, teachers, freelance professionals and choreographers. The information gathered from this survey was a fascinating and concerning insight into the NZ contemporary dance community.
Susan has just returned from the International Dance Medicine and Science Conference in San Francisco (an annual conference that attracts dance practitioners from around the world) and has seen similar issues experienced globally.
Research and evidence based practice ask us to question how we have always done things and how we would like the profession to develop.
Summary of the New Zealand findings:
Major cause of injury for contemporary dancers
The overwhelming response to this question was fatigue/overwork, followed by ignoring early warning signs and insufficient warm up. Much of the freelance work tends to be project based so often the dancer had an intense period of rehearsal/performance followed by periods of inactivity. Some dancers felt it was hard to maintain their body/technique between projects due to lack of motivation, financial difficulties and having other work commitments. Would the dancer continue to dance while carrying a significant injury if they felt loyal to the project or in need of the money. Nearly half the dancers said they would continue to dance on an injury. Those who said they would sometimes continue to dance said it would depend on the seriousness of the injury and the ability to adapt the movement safely. Continuing to dance on an injury was often related to the dancer's age and stage of their career. Older dancers were less likely than younger dancers to dance on an injury. Interestingly older dancers were more concerned with long term consequences of injury. Younger dancers focused more on the short term.
Physical and psychological problems
This question provoked a varied response - the main concern being a lack of career opportunity and structure, followed by financial stress. Sporadic work, no regular class, lack of rehearsal space and keeping motivated between projects, all contributed to general stress. Dancers said they often felt "burnt out" trying to maintain physical fitness, audition, and choreograph while maintaining other work commitments they needed to do, in order to stay financially afloat. Lack of company structure and lack of acknowledgement as an important, relevant art form where also cited. A number of dancers also felt that people worked as individuals rather than a collective community, citing the reason that dancers where competing against each other for work and funding opportunities.
Site of injury
The highest number of injuries occurred in the low back followed by the shoulder, knee and then foot/ankle.
Who paid for treatment?
Most commonly the dancer paid for treatment themselves. A large number also claimed ACC as part of the treatment cost. Only 2 dancers used private health insurance to pay for injury and only 1 dancer had their employer pay for treatment
What do you do between dance jobs to keep your body in shape?
The most popular physical activity used between projects was yoga followed by freelance classes and the Pilates. A few dancers did activity such as swimming, martial arts, running and bodywork eg Alexander Technique. The cost of the activity often determined what the dancer did. High cost or lack of classes limited this.
Type of professional sought when injured?
When injured the most common practitioner consulted was a physiotherapist, followed by an osteopath, masseur and then an acupuncturist. A number of dancers had also consulted a sports doctor, specialist and GP. Less commonly consulted where colour therapists, Chinese medicine practitioners, homeopaths and podiatrists.
Sex and age of the dancers?
Three quarters of the dancers that responded to the survey were female aged between 20-29 years. However it is encouraging to see that 4 dancers who responded were actively involved in teaching, choreographing and performing over 40 years.
Workshops topics of interest?
The areas that most interested dancers involved self management. In particular strapping, supplementary training, core stability training and common dance injuries. One dancer suggested it would be great if established companies and educational educational groups opened up opportunities for dancers to attend workshops, lectures that they were running for their dancers.
Which problems do you believe are the most frequent amongst contemporary dancers?
The overwhelming response to this question was general low self esteem. Nearly half those surveyed cited this as a major problem. In particular if they worked in isolation or within a non-supportive environment eg competitive, judgemental, hierarchical and sometimes abusive. Emotional pressure, performance anxiety and lack of motivation were also cited.
- Contemporary dance practitioners are prone to injury due to periodic work and difficulties in maintaining physical fitness and wellbeing
- Experience isolation and lack of support within a fragmented industry with no career pathway.
- Choreographic demand (due to the perceived physicality of NZ contemporary dance) along with periodic training, leads to increased risk of injury. Dancers are largely responsible for the cost (physical, mental and financial) of their own injury.
- Dancers use what is available at low cost to keep fit between projects.
- Low self-esteem emerged as a major issue.
This response came from across the practitioners - experienced as well as emerging. Some reasons cited were - Working in isolation and a non-supportive environment.
A cycle of dance work which was more judgemental than supportive - from the project development and funding application, to audience and peer response.
Perceived low esteem of the art form; competition for scarce opportunity and negative environments (from negative attitudes through to abusive behaviour) were cited as contributing to this.
Since the research was conducted DANZ has run Dance Health and Safety workshops in Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland, as well as Business and Tax skills and Marketing and Media for dance.
DANZ also has a small mentoring programme for contemporary dance, funded through Creative New Zealand. Responses to these workshops have been overwhelmly positive.
However, the research indicates that there is much more work to be done to make the dance industry strong, positive, safe and respected in this country.
DANZ welcomes reader responses and dialogue to this article. Please write or e-mail DANZ with your thoughts. Confidentiality will be respected.