Must Dancers Suffer to Make Art?

“Change is the only constant…No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”  ~Heraclitus

If only Heraclitus was a dance teacher- he would understand the dilemma the dance world faces, especially in ballet, where old-school philosophies reign supreme.

The dilemma I’m talking about is that dancers, with their high injury rate, suffer through very short careers. Yet we accept this. It’s just the way dance is! But does it have to be?

All things are changing around us. As Heraclitus said- Change is the only constant. The very nature of today’s dance choreography is changing! But the way dancers are training and being treated is not…

Dancers continue to be judged and selected based on the shape and size of their bodies.

The injury rate of dancers is between 60 and 80% (higher than many contact sports).

Dancers are not educated on the importance of strength training and on how to prevent injuries.

Dancers, who cannot even perform ONE proper push-up, are expected to perform feats of strength which should, considering their lack of strength, not even be physically possible. The mind finds a way…

Today’s new dance choreography is becoming more and more challenging and athletic. If you look at companies like La La La Humansteps, Australian Dance Theatre, Paul Taylor Dance Company, and Nederlands Dans Theater (to name a few), their dancers are expected to do athletic things, and must be strong beyond the ballet norms.

Unfortunately, the training dancers receive doesn’t always prepare them adequately, which leads to injury and suffering.

I have seen that there is a way to ease this suffering. That there is a way to help the dancer become stronger, to not get hurt, to not have to deal with the psychological trauma that comes with physical pain. But is this helping the art form?

I’ve been feeling conflicted lately. Seeing that strength training can ease a dancer’s suffering, but wondering, does dance need suffering? 

Is suffering important for the artist?

Van Goh who had low self-esteem and suffered from epilepsy and eventually committed suicide.

Bethoven who went deaf.

Dostoyevsky who went to prison, lived in poverty, and struggled with depression and an addiction to gambling.

Kurt Cobain who struggling with mental illness, anger, depression, and drug addiction.

Evelyn Hart who was anorexic, but danced beautifully, and ironically, until the “old” age of  50.

Is suffering necessary for artistic success?

In trying to ease the suffering of dancers, am I taking away from the inherent nature of what makes dancers artists?

Is the reason that dance is not changing due to the fact that it isn’t supposed to change?

In some ways, I think that dancers do need to suffer. Sacrifice is necessary for real art,  everyone knows what pain feels like. Art helps us relate to the pain of others. It unites us in our suffering. Makes us feel like we’re not alone with our negative feelings, and our combined recognition of this suffering lifts it from us, just enough.

On the other hand, when dancers suffer too much and can no longer perform, then there is no more of this wonderful sharing. Too much suffering can be career ending.

Perhaps the role of strength training for the dancer is to lift their suffering just enough. I shouldn’t be so naive as to think that strength training will make the dancer’s life so easy that they will never experience anything negative ever again. Even a strong body can become hurt. And even a strong mind can succumb to negativity.

There are of course, other ways to suffer than through physical injury, and to unburden the dancer from this one, lone form of suffering surely can’t devoid them of all artistic expression. Can it?

Much like there is a level of optimal cognitive arousal for athletic performance, perhaps, too, there is a level of optimal suffering for compelling artistry.

I guess I just worry sometimes that the change I want to see in the industry will take it to a place that some people in the industry might not like. There will be criticisms that strength development will affect the artistry of the dancer. The pleaser in me doesn’t like to make waves.

But I would like to see dance to go in a direction where the dancers don’t need to be waify and fragile looking. Where dancers are athletic and strong. Where dancers can dance long into their adult lives. Where the dancer is not judged on what their body looks like, but how they move it. Where the injury rate isn’t higher than in wrestling. Where 12 year olds don’t have hip pain exceeding that of of their grandparents.

Is that such a crazy thought?

What do you think?