The physiology of dancing

What happens to our bodies when we dance?
29 October 2018

Interview with 

Prof Emma Redding, Trinity Laban Conservatory


What actually goes on the body when we’re dancing? How easy is it? It’s probably a pretty uncontroversial statement to say that dancers are fit, but how fit are they? To find out more, Adam Murphy and Izzie Clarke put themselves to the test with Emma Redding, Professor of Dance Science at Trinity Laban Conservatory of Music and Dance…

Emma - There are huge demands placed on dancers in terms of physiological demands. If you just look at how they take their bodies to huge extremes so in terms of joint range of motion they really do need to get their legs up. I mean they probably, I would say, dancers need to be more flexible than pretty much any other athlete. But, if you look at their upper body strength, and some of their cardiorespiratory fitness sort of areas, then dancers are less fit than many of their counterparts. Many sports athletes are actually fitter than dancers but that’s not because they don’t need to be fit, that’s just because the training needs to really support that fitness for the way in which choreographic demands are changing all the time.

Adam - So do dancers experience injuries at roughly the same rate as other athletes?

Emma - Dancers get injured a lot. Research has shown that 80 percent of dancers get injured in any 12 month period of time. That’s an injury that takes them out of participation. 80 percent of dancers, that’s a lot of dancers. And if you apply the same definition of injury and the same type of research to sports athletes, you’ll find that dancers actually get injured more than many other sports athletes, including rugby players, you know, and they’re killing each other. But actually, they get injured less, perhaps more catastrophic, but they get injured less than dancers. So it’s interesting and I think that one of the biggest causes of injury is fatigue and overwork, so that means we can do something about all those injuries in dance. Look at the training programmes, apply some science, and actually try and prevent those injuries.

Adam - But what does this application of science look like?

Scott - Well, this is the hand grip dynamometer. This is an isometric measure of strength. So we’re looking at particularly the forearm here, and the wrist.

Adam - That’s Scott Sinclair. Lab technician for Trinity Laban’s Dance Science Dept. Who had a test of strength for fellow Naked Scientist Izzie Clarke.

Scott - This is important, particularly within music and dance. One for musicians because they’re holding an instrument for quite a long period of time so if they’ve got an imbalance in their muscle weakness they’re more susceptible to injuries. The exact same principle as dancers; they’re working with the floor, they’re working with partners, so if they have a weakness or an instability, again, that could lead to injury as well.

Izzie - Okay. I’m so weak. I already know. I’m going to be so bad.

Scott - You just want to hold it in this position and squeeze as hard as you can for three seconds.

Izzie - Okay, right. Deep breath.

Scott - Ready… three, two, one, squeeze. Go go… one, two. three, and relax.

Izzie - Oh gosh. I wouldn't even know what that was.

Scott - That’s a three zero. So that’s measured in kgs. The most important bit really is just keeping it individual to you rather than comparing you to populations, for example.

Adam - That is all very helpful for dancers. But what about those of us who still struggle to clap in time? Back to Emma Redding…

Emma - One of the big things we’re trying to do here at Trinity Laban in dance science is to measure the impact of dance on the health and wellbeing of other populations. And there’s been a lot of anecdotal evidence really in the press and magazines and on TV about what dance can do, and dance is certainly more popular than ever before. More people are doing dance and watching dance, funnily enough. And why is that, what is it doing for them? And that’s we’re trying to sort of measure.

We know that dance can get you fitter. So if it’s seen as a physical activity just like any sport then it can potentially conquer various diseases like obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc.

What else can dance do? We measure the psychological impact of dance, and we’ve found with some of the research projects we’ve done, we’ve found that, for example, older people can increase their self-esteem, their sense of identity and purpose and meaning in life through dance participation.

Adam - Do you have any theories as to why it does that?

Emma - Yes. Dance is not just a physical activity, it’s a social activity whereby people are touching each other, they are interacting with each other. Trying physically and cognitively to solve those problems together. So I think it’s the social, the cognitive, and the physical aspects of dance that makes dance a very unique activity and can produce the benefits that go way beyond sports.

Adam - We decided to put this to the test and went for a dance class with Emma who was more than happy to put us through our paces with a simple contemporary routine…

Although how simple it actually was is up for some debate…

Izzie - I obviously can’t tell my left from my right apart. One left, one right... got it. Change direction… I don’t got it.

Adam - And at the end of the somewhat successful class, had Emma proved us right? Were there real psychological benefits?

Emma - Well, I can see you’re smiling. So I think it’s fair to say that yes, there are lots of psychological benefits. I can see them now. And what's happening essentially is those exercise endorphins that are released when you do any physical activity, they are being released right now. So you’re feeling good about yourself, you’re feeling happy. Everyone seems to walk out of dance class with a smile on their face.

Adam - Are there any particular groups of people who benefit most from getting involved in dance?

Emma - No. I would say all types of people, no matter who you are, what you come with, you can benefit from dance. Every individual that has participated in dance, at least at Trinity Laban, has benefitted in some way. And we do work with older people; we do work with people who have acquired brain injury; younger people with learning differences; people with physical difficulties; we have people in wheelchairs coming in with their carers. And it’s really important for us as well to not only work with the people who have those differences but their carers, their physiotherapists, occupational therapists so that they can go out of the building and actually continue to be creative physically with the people looking after them as well.


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