The art and science of dance

I started dancing later than many people, at the age of 11. But it quickly became the only extracurricular activity I did. An astute career teacher in high school offered me to do this full-time, so I enrolled in a basic dance course at a college for further education, which gave me the opportunity to dance every day along with my academic training.

The college was located in Louisham, London, a low socio-economic district. I met people from many backgrounds and attending this course opened my mind in several ways. I began to understand the possibilities of dance to change people’s lives.

Dance attracts people of all backgrounds. Photo: Dancers from VCA Dance Season 2020 / Gregory Lorenzutti

I am from the working class and after college I became one of the first in my family to study a diploma. I studied at the Trinity Laban Conservatory of Music and Dance and there I discovered my love for contemporary dance. I began to develop a practice that explored the physiological extensions and abilities of dancers from both an artistic and a scientific point of view.

As for me, if you’re passionate about dance, you’re probably interested in its art and its science. We can use science to improve dance training and performance, to help prevent injuries, for example, or to prepare psychologically for performance. But we can also measure the health benefits of dance and generate scientific evidence to show ways it can improve the well-being of other populations.

Dance Science is about understanding dance from many angles – physiological, biomechanical, social and psychological. The discipline is really evolving now – the research base is growing and there are so many unanswered questions.

After a period of dancing and professional teaching around the world, another astute mentor suggested that I write a brand new master’s degree in dance science. She was brave enough to invest in me and my passions. I had a master’s degree in sports science, so I gathered sports scientists and dancers to help me write the new degree. We started with the masters, and now Trinity Laban offers bachelor’s, master’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in dance sciences.

The science of dance can help increase the capacity of elite dancers to push the boundaries – just as sports science does for athletes. Many leading dance companies have almost eradicated all chronic, long-term injuries as a result of proper health care and injury support.

We have evidence that dancers are less injured and enjoy a longer career. We know more about the ideal amount of daily practice and the importance of including adequate rest and recovery to optimize work. Companies like The Australian Ballet are leaders in this field, integrating science into learning modes. None of this has happened historically in dance.

The science of dance is a growing discipline, ranging from the physical fitness of dancers to how dance can promote well-being. Photo: Testing the Dance Science Lab at the Trinity Laban Conservatory of Music and Dance / Chris Nash

Despite this success, there was some resistance in the dance community against the science of dance. My colleagues and I have spent two decades trying to convince skeptics in the world of dance that it is about improving, enhancing and supporting dance; without diluting the art form or making it so safe, we lose its value.

Coming to the VCA seemed natural, both personally and professionally. VCA not only has proven experience in training artists, but also a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion. He is not afraid to ask important questions and make constant changes. Other institutions talk about it, but the VCA is actively embedding diversity in a real – not symbolic – way.

I also had the strong feeling that VCA was somewhere where I could be a director and a mother. The VCA and the University of Melbourne celebrate women leaders, and I see this as an opportunity to be a role model for other women. We still have a long way to go in the arts, and especially in dance – many of my dance peers did not know that having children and maintaining a career was an option. Seeing female role models is an important part of this change.

The VCA also has an incredible research fellowship. There are so many practicing researchers here. They are so well known in their field and that really attracted me here. Much of my work has been interdisciplinary, I have worked with anthropologists, physicians and psychologists, for example, as well as with a number of artists.

Being part of the University of Melbourne, with its amazing faculties and collaborative potential, offers so many new research opportunities. I’m excited about my time here.

“As Catriona May was told.”

Banner: Dancers from VCA Dance Season 2020 / Gregory Lorenzutti

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