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Dance Ready Project: prioritizing dancers’ health for long-term success

Young woman with foam roller in gym

If the COVID pandemic taught us anything, it was this: dancing in your bedroom is not an equal substitute for an in-studio rehearsal.

Most dancers and dance educators probably thought the same but, stuck with shutdowns and social distancing, understood that any dance was better than none. “Everyone swore up and down that they were exercising at home, taking free dance classes online in their 10-by-10 bedrooms,” says Dr. Sheyi Ojofeitimi, a 20-year licensed physical therapist and director of therapy services at Alvin Ailey American Dance Foundation.

As the pandemic threat eased, the Ailey dancers and pre-professional students were ready to pick up where they left off—but were their bodies ready?

During her pandemic “free time,” Sheyi had worked with Dr. Danelle Dickson, a 16-year licensed physical therapist based in Washington, D.C. who had worked with Ailey, other professional companies, and college dance departments, and another colleague to create a screening that would assess a dancer’s “baseline fitness.” This assessment score was an objective measurement of muscle strength, balance, flexibility, and other factors that could be used to determine whether a dancer was ready to return to dance after a long layoff or injury—or, as it turned out, after a pandemic lockdown.

Wary of what seven months away from the studio had wrought for Ailey dancers, the two doctors suggested company members undergo this fitness assessment virtually before classes ramped up. The result: while the pandemic had allowed time for dancers with injuries to heal, almost all were “extremely under-conditioned.”

“It was like ‘whoa’,” says Sheyi. “If we had these people walk into rehearsal and dance full out, we would have had a rash of injuries.”

With the support of the Ailey management, Sheyi and her colleague Dr. Marissa Schaeffer created a five-week return-to-dance schedule of ballet class, Gyrotonics, conditioning, strengthening, and yoga—and no choreography rehearsals—that prepared the Ailey dancers to safely get back in the studio. When Sheyi heard about a friend’s dance team daughter who tore her ACL on her first day back—and when other dance industry giants like Broadway’s “The Lion King” began calling—the doctors realized their “baseline fitness assessment” could spark a new business.

Today, under the name Dance Ready Project, Sheyi, Danelle, and their team of professional health and wellness experts seek to provide the same “ready” information for dancers that pro sports team coaches have for their athletes. Their Dance Ready Score provides an accurate assessment of where a dancer is today physically, and what areas require attention.

With this info, dance educators and directors—whether in a major pre-professional company or a private dance studio—can better guide dancers’ technical growth (are they ready for this skill?), place them properly in levels or performance pieces, and safeguard their present (and long-term) health and career longevity.

What does it take to get Dance Ready? For Sheyi and Danelle, it encompasses class plus strength and conditioning work (such as cross-training), proper sleep and nutrition, and good mental and emotional health. Dancers are ready when their bodies are prepared to dance at the level required in performance.

The Dance Ready Score shows each dancer’s strengths and “areas of opportunity” (a phrase for deficits or weaknesses). Working off scores collected to date, the most common trends the doctors see are extremely tight quads and weak hamstrings, weak and tight glutes, tight calves, excessive external rotation in the hip at the expense of internal rotation, and inadequate core strength.

Dancers can work further with Dance Ready staff to develop a plan for fitness training: a dancer with weak glutes and hamstrings, for example, might lack the necessary power for jumps, and is at risk for knee, hip, and back injuries until those deficiencies are addressed.

Individual dancers can bring their scores to a physical therapist post-injury to help guide treatment; educators or company directors can use the reports to note general areas of opportunity within groups of dancers and work with a local physical therapist or movement specialist to create studio-specific programs.

From the beginning, Sheyi realized the benefit of Dance Ready Project for studios that don’t have the resources that professional companies do. “There is a whole dance world in the middle of West Virginia and elsewhere,” she says, “How can we make this available for everyone?”

Dance Ready Project offers online conditioning programs, plus opportunities that train teachers to understand what the scores mean and how to use them to better understand their dancers’ physical strengths and weaknesses to guide curriculum or teaching methodologies.

Because it’s not part of a dance teacher’s job to medically diagnose or treat dancers, “we help studios establish protocols for injuries,” Sheyi says. “If students are saying their shins hurt, who do you refer them to? How do you safely get them the help they need? That’s the beginning.”

Working from a baseline assessment is not always an easy sell for teachers, especially veteran teachers who feel they already “know what’s best” for their students, Danelle says. The dance industry has traditionally been a place where dancers push through pain, frightened that sitting out might mean losing a role or an opportunity to advance. But, she says, there’s no sense in churning out great dancers whose bodies won’t last.

“If the pandemic didn’t show us that we need to elevate the level of what we provide these dancers, I don’t know what will,” Danelle says. “A lot of older dancers without any resources, who feel ‘I can’t do that anymore, it’s too hard on my body,’ are the ones teaching this generation.”

But the pandemic also gave dancers “an opportunity to begin thinking for themselves,” Danelle says. Dancers are starting to be more aware of their physical limitations and are looking for tools to aid their advancement—including better health.

“If you take care of your body—the only thing you have—it will thrive and all the skills you are trying to achieve will get easier,” Sheyi says.

At the community level, it’s up to educators to not only protect the present and future health of their dancers, but to educate parents about the importance of conditioning, adequate injury recovery time, and overall dancer health and wellness. Danelle has noted that some of the smaller companies in the D.C. area are starting to revamp their teaching methods with dance medicine and dancer wellness in mind. “It needs to become an integral part of training, otherwise dancers will always be falling out of rehearsals and performances,” she says.

Dance Ready Project not only provides help and resources for dance educators to make their dancers stronger and keep them safer but is sounding the call that dancers’ physical requirements are comparable to athletes—a truth often ignored by a medical community that sees all dance, even professional dance, as “recreational.”

“If I had a penny for every dancer who’s said to a doctor, ‘But I can’t do … (whatever)’ and the doctor replies, ‘So just don’t do that!” Danelle says. “Dancers just don’t see the same level of intensity or interest to get their [physical] issues resolved.”

Youth athletes are assessed for baseline fitness, often have additional resources like athletic trainers, coaches, and gym time, and aren’t thrown into games with no warm-up, Sheyi says. What about dancers? “It’s time to change the narrative” that dancers aren’t athletes, she says, and “get everyone on board to make sure we are serving dancers better.”

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