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Science in Dance

Professor Emma Redding, Head of Dance Science at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance visited Bryanston to give a talk to the Science Society on the Science in Dance.

Emma initially trained as a contemporary dancer and went on to take courses in sports science when she realised she wanted to know more about movement and how the body works, related to dance in particular. She was also interested in how dance can help with health, fitness and wellbeing at any age.  

As part of the talk, Emma showed excerpts from Wayne McGregor’s ballet Chroma and Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men by DV8. The society was asked to consider them from a physiological viewpoint. The intensity of the dances were clear, but dance training does not have a specific fitness element, unlike most sports. Dancers get fit on the job, but will likely be at their fittest half-way through a performance cycle.

Emma gave some considerations for professional dancers. 83% are injured in a given year, which is much more than many sports. The perceived causes would be dominated by fatigue and overwork, then matters such as bilateral difficulties, difficult choreography, body type and lack of fitness. Many of these are under our control or the effects can be limited.

The question of whether a dancer is an athlete or an artist was raised and it was decided that clearly they are both. The range of motion and flexibility is essential, dynamic movements are needed, but the movement must be expressive. Recall of complex moves is essential. Training has evolved traditionally and reflects the way it has been done for generations with little thought of scientific developments. Balance and awareness are developed and enhanced by a lot of work in low lighting conditions. This point was proven when Emma asked the audience to try balancing on one leg with eyes open and then with their eyes closed to see how much they rely on visual references to hold positions and move.

The audience was then asked if science could be usefully applied to dance in the way it has been applied to sport. Emma explained that it is a growing field and the Laban has a lab that can apply physiological and chemical tests, something rare in the dance world. They check hypermobility, analyse breathing during exercise and use many metrics to measure physiological performance.

Given the injury feedback, Emma raised the question of whether dancers are fit enough? How fit do they need to be for the job? What are the physical demands of dance? She explained that dance is an intermittent activity with stops and starts, but there is an endurance aspect too, with hour-long performances. There was a discrepancy identified between intensity of performance and intensity for training. More complex dances may need a lot of explanation and discussion and less time active. Dancers might need an oxygen uptake of 36 to 42 min which is comparable to professional footballers. So supplementary conditioning training is now a part of courses at the Laban. Measuring demands and performance for dancers is a challenge to take measurements while they are actually dancing, so they have created a version of a bleep test using dance specific moves.

On a different tack entirely, Emma asked if creativity can be taught? The Laban teaches choreography, but can the method be analysed? They assessed the effect of mental imagery, i.e. no visible stimulus, on creativity in dance. This has shown to be valuable to designers and architects. It is a work in progress, but a group of students trained using various methods showed a significant gain in creativity compared to a control group.

The Laban is now offering full degrees and post graduate qualifications in dance science. It is not a degree for performers, but those who want to work with dancers or in the fitness industry. Dance science is new and is showing a lot of promise for helping dancers in study and careers.