Art and science of dance

I started dancing later than many, at age 11. But it quickly became the only extra-curricular activity I did. An insightful careers teacher at secondary school suggested I pursue it full-time, so I enrolled in a dance foundation course at a further education college, which gave me the chance to dance every day alongside my academic studies.

The college was in Lewisham in London, which is a low socio-economic-status area. I met people from many backgrounds and attending that course opened my mind in several ways. I started to understand the possibilities for dance to turn people’s lives around.

I’m from a working-class background, and after college I became one of the first in my family to study a degree. I studied at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and found my love of contemporary dance there. I started to develop a practice that explored the physiological extensions and capacities of dancers from both artistic and scientific perspectives.

As far as I’m concerned, if you’re passionate about dance you are probably interested in its art and its science. We can use science to enhance dance training and performance, to help prevent injuries, for example, or to prepare psychologically for performing. But we can also measure the health benefits of dance, and generate scientific evidence to show the ways in which it can enhance the wellbeing of other populations.

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

After a period of dancing and teaching professionally around the world, another insightful mentor suggested I write a brand new masters degree in dance science. She was brave enough to invest in me and my passions. I had completed a master of sport science, so I brought together sports scientists and dancers to help me write the new degree. We started with the masters, and now Trinity Laban offers a BSc, an MSc, and MFA and a PhD in dance science.

Dance science can help boost elite dancers’ capacities to push boundaries – just as sport science does for athletes. Many leading dance companies have almost eradicated all chronic, long-lasting injuries as a result of proper healthcare and injury support.

We have evidence to show that dancers are less injured and are enjoying longer careers. We know more about the ideal amount of daily practice, and the importance of incorporating adequate rest and recovery for optimising performance. Companies such as The Australian Ballet are leading the way in this area by integrating science into training regimens. None of this has happened historically in dance.

Despite this success, there has been some resistance to dance science within the dance community. My colleagues and I have spent two decades trying to convince the sceptics in the dance world that it is about enhancing, improving, and supporting dance; not diluting the art form or making it so safe we lose its value.

Coming to the VCA seemed like a natural fit, both personally and professionally. The VCA not only has a proven track record of training artists but also a steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion. It’s not afraid to ask important questions and make permanent changes. Other institutions talk about it, but the VCA is actively embedding diversity in a genuine – not tokenistic – way.

I also had a strong sense that the VCA was somewhere I could be a director and a mum. The VCA and 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 particularly in dance – many of my dance peers didn’t know that having children and retaining a career was an option. Seeing female role models is an important part of that change.

The VCA also has amazing research scholarship. There are so many staff who are practising researchers here. So many are well known in their field, and that really drew me here, too. A lot of my work has been cross-disciplinary, I’ve worked with anthropologists, medics, and psychologists, for example as well as a range of artists.

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

– As told to Catriona May

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