Some Companies Are Actively Improving Dancers’ Health. Here’s How
Dancers’ health has long been a blind spot in the dance world – a matter of individual responsibility, to be dealt with behind the scenes. Still, some companies and choreographers are pushing for greater awareness and care. Ahead of the release of a new Health Guide for Dancers produced by the CN D, Alban Richard, Mélanie Perrier and the team of the CCN Malandain Ballet Biarritz share the methods they’ve developed to improve the physical well-being of performers.
Short careers, a precarious job market, fierce competition and limited rehearsal periods: under such difficult working conditions, performers will often sacrifice much just to dance. Pain is frequently brushed aside, or even valorized as proof of a job well done and a dancer’s commitment to their craft. The fear of not being cast or rehired also contributes to a sense of defiance towards health practitioners, even though injuries are common.
In 2010, a spike in their numbers led the CCN Malandain Ballet Biarritz to start investigating the matter. At the time, so many dancers were injured that the Basque company was at risk of cancelling performances, threatening the institution itself. Choreographer Thierry Malandain and his team decided to address the issue head-on, by creating an in-house medical center with a physician specializing in athlete care, a physiotherapist and an osteopath – then a unique setup in the French dance world.
“We had to work on changing mindsets, because the dancers didn’t necessarily agree to it at the start,” says CCN Malandain Ballet Biarritz administrator Georges Tran Du Phuoc. The power of habit and the fear of no longer being cast if they said they were in pain held the dancers back, Tran Du Phuoc says, as well as the fact that they were used to “dealing with health matters in their own way.” As a result, the company’s medical team initially focused on building trust with the company and healing existing injuries.
While dancers at the CCN Malandain Ballet Biarritz are lucky enough to have permanent contracts, healthcare is even more of a challenge for freelancers – the most common status in the arts world. Dancers often don’t know their rights. French choreographer Mélanie Perrier, who hires dancers on short-term contracts, stresses the necessity “to be very clear about sticking to the law. It’s a shame to have to say this as if it were some kind of victory.” For Perrier, who founded her own company, 2 minimum, in 2011, protecting dancers’ health “can be done by adjusting the way we create, improving overall work conditions, and managing teams in a healthier way,” she says. “Mental health is just as important, if not more.”
Alban Richard, the director of Caen’s National Choreographic Center (CCN), also works with dancers on short-term contracts. He concurs with Perrier: “creating favorable conditions for dancers’ health is a way of establishing a framework,” he says. Instead of objectifying the body, Richard and Perrier prefer to set up a transparent framework by detailing everyone’s roles and clarifying what is expected of each person, so people feel comfortable speaking up when necessary. Perrier’s work days start with an “assessment of how everyone is doing, to ground the work in reality” – which allows her to tailor the day’s goals based on the dancers’ feedback.
These precautions are a departure from what has usually been done in the dance world, and foster the development of prevention-based approaches. They allow companies and choreographers to “detect issues, understand dance as well as each person’s rhythm better,” says Jean-Baptiste Colombié, the physiotherapist of the CCN Malandain Ballet Biarritz, which introduced preventive care once the dancers’ initial resistance waned. Company members now get two annual check-ups to evaluate their needs and devise individual training programs, which combine physical goals, artistic goals, and each dancer’s personal goals. For Colombié, the point is to “have twenty-two dancers who are thriving, physically and psychologically. There’s also the question of social welfare: those are the three main points in the World Health Organization’s definition of health.”
Although Richard and Perrier share the same objective, their methods differ, just as very different approaches coexist in the dance world. Both choreographers stress the importance of daily class and proper warm-up, which are often neglected: “there’s a real change to be made there,” Richard says. “Many companies have neither the time nor the money to offer dancers a proper warm-up practice, so they have to do it themselves.” Yet classes and warm-up times are also the moment when dancers learn the tools “to find more organic ways to work with their bodies, without hurting themselves,” Perrier explains. To build these tools, Perrier and Richard have both worked with Nathalie Schulmann, who specializes in the analysis of movement for the dancing body. For Richard, this can “help create the right conditions to keep dancers healthy as we work on the piece that’s being created,” but also contribute to changing habits within the field over the long term.
The work being done in the studio, most agree, is key to improving dancers’ health. At the CCN Malandain Ballet Biarritz, the medical team observes it closely to understand dance movement and develop resources, “because that’s where everything happens, where everything begins, where habits are learned,” says Colombié, who even takes morning class with the dancers.
The experiences of Richard, Perrier and the CCN Malandain Ballet Biarritz attest to a change of mindset in France, where constant pain, injuries and an overall lack of regard for dancers’ well-being – long considered the price to pay to have a career – are increasingly seen as unacceptable. The companies and choreographers tackling these issues head-on signal a profound shift: dancers no longer have to bear responsibility for their health alone. Instead, protecting it is becoming a collective endeavor.
Many dancers say these changes make a significant difference: Laurie Giordano, who has performed with Richard and Perrier, says the conditions allowed her “to be more efficient and to hurt [herself] less.” While most French companies have yet to follow suit due to the financial investment required and some lingering doubts, existing efforts should be a stepping stone to rethinking how work is structured in the studio as well as the structural conditions of dance jobs – in order for health to take center stage, too, within the creative process.
Dancers’ health guide
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