Stepping up to the barre

Friday 28th February 2014
For dancers to dance at their best and also be happy dancing they must care for their bodies with a healthy diet, lots of sleep, a good medical team and a good floor. The responsibility for achieving a healthy regime and a safe working environment divides between the individual and the owners of the venues in which the dancers train, rehearse and perform. In this article we take a look at some health and safety issues relating to the work place, highlight the essential role of the ballet barre and the importance of a good dance floor. 

Heart and lungs:  When engaged in exercise, working muscles demand more oxygen, blood circulation increases and is routed to the muscles raising the core body and muscle temperature. Muscles, bones and nerves: During dance, large ranges of movement, flexibility and the ability to change direction and stop very quickly are required. The body properly prepared and working efficiently minimises the risk of strains and stress around joints, reducing the risk of injury.
Muscles, bones and nerves: During dance, large ranges of movement, flexibility and the ability to change direction and stop very quickly are required. The body properly prepared and working efficiently minimises the risk of strains and stress around joints, reducing the risk of injury.
Flexibility: Stretching can maintain and increase the flexibility of muscles and improve the mobility of joints. Stretching should be approached differently depending on whether it is part of a warm up or cool down.
During a warm up it is as important to prepare the mind as the body. Imagery is an integral part of warm up, especially before a performance, going over a difficult part in the choreography while singing the music and using cues to bring as much depth and detail to the process as possible.

A healthy approach to dance 

The old adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ is apt for dancers where preventing injury and maintaining a good level of physical fitness is now a vital part of a dancer’s career. As a result of rapidly developing and diversifying choreography within all dance genres, stresses experienced by today’s dancers are increasing. Traditionally technique, alignment, flexibility, and aesthetics were the main areas in which teaching and training was concentrated.  Now with advances in dance medicine and science research there are relatively easy-to-apply techniques to evaluate the individual body’s strengths and weaknesses and avoid some of the pitfalls of the past. Like wise research has determined the importance of the dance floor in helping reduce injuries from falls if the surface offers insufficient traction and longer-term injuries from accumulated landings on hard, unyielding floors. 

The notion that dance itself adequately prepares the body for dance activity is only true if the movement material is designed to include an effective warm up and cool down. Dance teachers need to ensure dancers have time to do their own warm up or cool down. Warming up prepares the body both physically and mentally to safely and effectively carry out the very first dance movements. The body’s core temperature is increased and muscles, nerves and joints prepared for demands to be placed on them. Movements should gradually take limbs and joints through their full range of motion, increase heart rate, engage the proprioceptors used in balancing and orienting the body and prepare the motor pathways for movement patterns to come. Effective cooling down prepares the body to cease physical activity, gradually reducing the intensity of the activity and returning the body to a state of rest, without stress. Movements should re-mobilise joints, gradually reduce heart rate and stretch muscles that have been used in the preceding activity.

How ballet barres offer a useful aid 

Ballet barres can provide a useful tool within the dance studio or rehearsal space. A comfortable sturdy barre is almost a prerequisite for dancers of both amateur and professional level and is essential for warming up and stretching exercises, allowing increased blood-flow to the muscles to improve flexibility and reduce injury risk before taking to the dance floor. 

Along with stretching and warming up, barre workouts are becoming increasingly popular for core strengthening and toning abdominal muscles, with some studios offering classes dedicated to this type of fitness. There are also pre and post natal classes as it has been demonstrated that exercising during pregnancy not only helps with birth, but helps regain pre-pregnancy body soon after birth.  

On the market now are a range of ballet barres to compliment any studio or rehearsal space.  Whether you need a freestanding barre for several students to work on, or something more permanent that is built into the floor or wall there is probably a solution available. One manufacturer, British Harlequin, has continued to develop and expand the range of ballet barres. Harlequin’s wall mounted ballet barres include both single and double barre versions and can be installed using a choice of various shaped mounting plates to suit the particular needs of a studio and include pillar-mounted brackets used in conjunction with floor-mounted brackets to reduce intrusion into studios that have pillars.  

… and make sure you have a good dance floor 

Two important flooring related health and safety issues could arise due to unsuitable floors. Dancing on a hard, unyielding surface can lead to a variety of ankle and shin stress related injuries that may also reduce a dancer’s career in the longer term. Medical specialists in dance injuries have established a link between the quality of the floor and injury. A floor with a consistent degree of spring is strongly recommended. The other factor is the dance surface itself which should offer a degree of ‘traction’ that allows dancers to be able to fully and artistically express their dance movements without the fear of slipping or falling due to a shiny or slippery surface. It is also important to dance consistently on the same type of floor so the transition from dance studio or rehearsal space to performance stage doesn't suddenly introduce new problems.   

Can dance injuries ever be avoidable? 

Dancers are continually referred to as being “artistic athletes”. A key aspect of the field of dance science is to investigate how elements of the exercise and sport sciences can be applied in the development of safe dance practices, that will hopefully optimize dance training and minimise injury incidence. The plethora of benefits associated with dance participation, for physical and mental health, certainly outweigh any inherent risk of injury. However the unfortunate fact is that injury in dance is common. A key step in the improvement of generalised dancer wellness may be a greater acceptance, particularly by elite level dancers as well as educators, of the fact that the risk of injury as a result of dance practice is unavoidable. That is, the act of physically performing dance movements places certain stresses to the body which are associated with a certain risk of injury. 

Acceptance of a dancer regarding the associated risks of dance practice immediately develops a more educated expectation of the capabilities of his/her body. I would hope that these expectations would be associated with the dancer adopting a more proactive approach; incorporating preventative measures, such as nutrition, supplemental training and adopting structured rest periods into his/her  training programs. Ideally this process would further promote inquiry by the dancer into the knowledge that is currently available regarding safe dance practice. Some fantastic resources are available at the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science website  If a dancer accepts that injury risk is often an unavoidable part of dance training, then perhaps their approach to rehabilitation and return to dance strategies would become more measured and responsible.