Sometimes I wish I had an easier job to explain. The question “what do you do?” would be much easier to answer if I was a high school science teacher, or a lawyer. But on the flip side, answering “I’m a dance scientist” starts up all sorts of conversations at a party.
My favourite example of this was when I was visiting a small town in the south of France where no one spoke English. Being the friendliest village I have ever visited, we were invited over to our neighbours house for dinner. Having French skills that would barely pass the 4th grade level I found it hard enough to say “pass the olives” so you can imagine my difficulty when they asked me what I was studying. ‘La science de la dance’ - “huh?”. Explaining what I do is hard enough in my native tongue, let alone another language. I muffled my way through a broken explanation of what I was studying wishing at that moment I was an engineer.
Sometimes I explain it like this. You know sports scientists? All those people that work with the Toronto Blue Jays to make sure that they are doing exactly the right amount of activity at exactly the right times. Scheduling in their training sessions and their rest days, making sure they are eating exactly the right food before and after a game, that the biomechanics of their pitch means that exactly the right amount of spin occurs in the ball to psyche out the batter. That they have the power to hit a home run, the speed to sprint to first base and the psychological skills to survive a bases loaded scenario. These are the scientists that investigate how these athletes can perform their absolute best. Now a dance scientist is similar, just without the multi-million dollar industry.
Simply put, as a dance scientist I look at ways to optimize all aspects of a dancers life and career. Whether it’s improving their performance, their wellbeing both physiologically and psychologically or keeping them dancing as healthy as possible for as long as possible. Sounds pretty rad right?
So why do dance scientists get our own completely different category? There isn’t anyone called a “Baseball Scientist” or a “Hockey Scientist”. To answer this, it’s important to understand that dance is a unique category of movement as it crosses over into the domains of both art and sport. As an angsty teenager I remember getting into viscous fights with my friends on whether dance was a sport or not. Suffice to say, there is no clear answer. Dancers need the athletic capabilities of an athlete, with the creativity and soul of an artist.
Sports Science vs. Dance Science
Sports science is a mature field of research. Most universities have a sports science department and there are numerous research journals expanding the field; therefore there is already a built up collection of research. A basic understanding of performance optimizing principles are now pretty much understood and research is now looking into much more specific details like very specific supplementation uses.
Dance science on the other hand is relatively new. At this point we are still trying to pinpoint the physiological demands of dance, and what “good performance” even means. I say relatively, as I believe recent years have crossed a threshold where Dance Science has really forged its own path. Yes, there is a crossover and research from the sport domain can be helpful - however, It’s simplistic to take the research being conducted in the sports science field and apply it directly to dancers. A creative and critical approach must be taken by dance scientists to apply research from other fields to a dance setting that is appropriate for the population.
An excellent example of this is the subjectivity of what ‘improved performance’ really looks like. For a marathon runner, an improvement in performance is an increase in speed or endurance resulting in faster splits, and ultimately a faster marathon time. There is very little subjectivity there, if your marathon time improves from 2:15 to 2:14 BAM, improved performance. With dancers however, it gets a bit more tricky. Is the dancer with the higher jump height better, or perhaps the one who can whip out 6 pirouettes in a row, or perhaps, is it the one that who has a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ but for whatever reason you can’t take your eyes off her as she moves across the stage. This is an added complexity that is unique to dance and other aesthetic sports.
How can a dance scientist help YOU?
When I was studying dance pre-professionally in university, I often got asked the same question “what are you going to do when you turn 30 and can’t dance anymore”. Yikes! Why should dancers careers stop in their mid thirties? Or 40s for that matter? Although my ultimate goal was never to become a professional dancer, the question stuck with me. I decided I would like to help those who want to fulfil that.
I would argue that research is only as relevant as its application. It’s all well and good if amazing research is being conducted in the field, but if it’s not being integrated back into the studio or performance setting what use is it? For example, current evidence suggests there are optimal ways to warm up and cool down the body for dance class or performance but how many teachers are actually integrating this into their classes? Is this information accessible by teachers who may not be in the research field?
I like to think that most teachers are open to helping their students become the best dancers that they can be in the safest way. There is no reason for them not to be - however the question becomes how accessible is this information and how is it being delivered?
My aim, as a dance science consultant is to break down that barrier! I remain up to date on the physiological and psychological research that is being conducted in the dance science field and apply it into a real dance setting. By working alongside teachers and dancers, I aim to help navigate how informed research can lead to the practical application of a safer dance environment.
Lastly, I want to stress that Dance Science is not about limiting what the dancer can do. It’s not about telling a ballerina they shouldn’t be going on Pointe, or that an Irish dancer shouldn’t land with straight legs. It’s about finding ways to best help these dancers thrive in their artistic discipline and give them the tools and skills to make safe and educated decisions. It’s about educating teachers on how to best lead dancers through their stages of development and reach artistic maturity. It’s about creating an environment where a dancer can thrive. It is here, as a dance scientist that I believe we combine the science of training with the art of movement.