Funding the Future Dance Educational Paradigm: A Political Rant

Funding the Future Dance Educational Paradigm: A Political Rant

This is how the word “politics” makes me feel:

I’ve never been one to follow politics or express my political views publicly. One, because I honestly don’t understand how governments works, and two, because I am completely ignorant of the views any of the political parties in Canada hold (or anywhere for that matter).

Who. Are. These. People…?

Go ahead, judge me. I take full responsibility for my ignorance.

I told my parents about my political ignorance once:

“I just don’t care about politics. I’m sure one day something will happen and politics will become meaningful to me, but right now, I’m perfectly content to be ignorant and let people make the decisions for me.”

They were not impressed, and my father proceeded into a spiel about liberal vs. conservative vs. NDP party views and why I should care. Sorry pop, I zoned most of that out.

All I know right now is that Justin Trudeau can do peacock better than I can, and that makes me proud to be Canadian #Ivotedliberal

This photo makes me so very happy.

The reason I bring up politics today is that “that something” has happened to make politics start to seem meaningful. It’s about dang time, Monika!

I’ve been thinking about the role the government plays in dancers health, longevity, education, and performance.

KEY CONCEPT #1: A dance student’s education should go beyond technique and performance training to include how to take care of their bodies and minds to support their performance and longevity.

In my reflection, I’ve begun to appreciate how interdependent of a system it is that affects a dancer’s education and their potential, whether “success” means to perform professionally, or just enjoy dancing as long as desired without becoming a cripple.

If we are to truly give dancers a well-rounded education (ie one that goes beyond physical and technical training by also addressing their biopsychosocial needs to attain career longevity, even after they stop dancing) we need to more than just preach at them.

Preaching to dancers to take better care of themselves is like the King preaching to a peasant to be less peasanty:

“You need to eat more food so that you can be stronger and toil more efficiently.  And why can’t you get better tools so that you can farm more effectively? Figure out how on your own. I don’t have time to help.”

Foolish expectation to have, isn’t it?

I am somewhat guilty of preaching to the peasant and expecting it to work.

“You need to take better care of yourself, and I know you don’t have the resources- time and money- to learn how. You need to change what you’re doing if you want to succeed, but I can’t really help if you don’t have money.”

I’ve been a jerk, and I’m sorry.

KEY CONCEPT #2: Dancers are doing the best with what education they are given. It’s up to us to change their education, not them. 

Let me explain where this is coming from.

I was recently asked to write a resource paper for Healthy Dancer Canada, which was meant to be a short, two page document describing some strategies for dancers to unwind from the physical challenges of dance training and performance.

I apparently had a lot to say on the topic, as this document turned into a 13 page monster (which I’m quite happy with, by the way, and I can’t wait to share it with you all should the committee approve of my word-vomitry).

The wonderful thing about being a writer is how the writing itself can take on a life of its own and take you to places you didn’t expect, forcing you to think critically about things you might not have otherwise considered.

And writing this resource for HDC was the thing that finally made me think about starting to care about politics.

How so?

My beast of a resource describes a number of ways dancers require support in their training beyond technique classes and artistic development, such as:

  • How to cope with and unwind from the physical duress of dance training
  • The need for accessible support systems and mentorship
  • Why we should address fundamental movement quality before adding more hours of training
  • Breathing. Just do it.
  • The importance of educating dancers on what proper cross-training is and integrating it into their training.


But then I got to the “how” part- How do we fit this information into the current dance training frame-work so that it actually reaches the dancers. I had trouble writing this part.

Who is responsible for implementing these strategies with dancers?

Of course, it’s the dance teachers, isn’t it? Dance teachers have the most influence on the dancers through direct training, education, and mentorship (for better or for worse).

And their ability to do simple geometry…

But many dance teachers only know dance. And while this may be the norm, I think it’s time for that to change. If we want dancers to have the well-rounded training that helps them become their best, dance teachers need continuing education, which is not standard. Yet.

Many teachers have gaps to fill in their knowledge of functional anatomy, biomechanics, and cross-training principles, and should develop an appreciation of the roles the nervous system and movement quality play in their students’ training.

I’m not saying they need to be experts at everything because that is unrealistic, but having a general appreciation is the minimum. A weekend course, or a few books is a good place to start.

So not only do we need to educate and support dancers, we need to educate dance teachers to support the formation of more successful dancers.

KEY CONCEPT #3: Dance teachers need accessible continuing education on how to provide a more well-rounded experience for their dance students, beyond technique.

To educate dance teachers, we need to make teacher training programs accessible to them that go beyond conveying technique.

Not only that, we need to deliberately make space for this in their lives, because a dance teacher rarely makes enough money to take this type of training, or has the time in their curriculum to fit supplemental training into their already packed rehearsal and class schedule, or is even aware that this type of training will be an asset for their dancers.

They don’t see the value, and they don’t see it as a priority. How do we get dance teachers to value their education? To see that they can make a difference in their students’ lives if they did something different?

And hell if RAD has room in it’s syllabus to include “unwinding strategies” as part of their ballet education. Prove me wrong, RAD. Prove me wrong.

So the teacher him/herself lacks the power to elicit change in the system, because teachers can’t teach what they’ve never experienced. I suppose this will be up to the next generation of teachers. Teachers-to-be reading this blog post…

And while it’s great to put the onus on the dance teachers to teach all the things we want them to teach, they need support as much as the dancers do! And I don’t think it’s just as simple as needing better educated dance teachers, but a team of support staff with the requisite expertise.

Kind of like GJUUM is doing for professional ballet in Europe.

KEY CONCEPT #4: Dance teachers can’t be and know everything for their students. A support staff with multiple expertise, or a trusted network working together, would provide the best experience for a dance school/program.

And I kept thinking like this: Going further and further back to find, if not the dance teacherswho could most influence the current dance training paradigm?

Who do we need to speak with who can help teachers see the value in continuing education, and make it accessible to them so they can provide a better experience for their students?

I thought in terms of a university dance program, because that’s the system I have the most experience with.

Got my bike helmet and my BFA, what more could a girl need?

The hierarchy I came up with went something like this.

  • Teaching staff (directly providing education)–> dancers
  • Dance program director (scheduling and influencing what is taught)–>Teaching staff
  • Faculty of arts chair (makes decisions on what can be included in the curriculum)–> dance program director
  • University chair (in charge of budget distribution for all faculties)–> faculty of arts chair
  • Government (decides how much funding universities receive)–> University chair
  • Voting citizens (decide who will make the decisions on university funding)–> Government
  • Advocates for arts education (parents, dancers, dance educators, etc)–>Voting citizens
  • Scientists/evidence (who study the importance of support for dancers and arts education) –> advocates for arts education
  • Bodies who fund research–> Scientists

And that’s as far as I got, but I’m sure it could go on, and I’m sure I’ve missed some important people in between, like where do the parents fit in?

But we can see that to reach the dancer we must look farther back, to a government level to identify the point at which, in this hierarchy, we can make the most impact on the content of a dancer’s education.

And the government level is where the money is.

Dolla dolla bill y’all

Yes, unfortunately it comes down partially to dat ca$h money…

Question: Why do professional ballet dancers have such a short off-season?

Answer: Money.

Ballet dancers don’t make mad money, and so they can’t afford to take that much time off working. If the companies were to receive more funding it would allow the dancers take more time off without worrying about losing money while not performing.

For example,The National Ballet in Toronto gets only 5 weeks off per year. They are left to their own devices to cross-train or hire a personal trainer, and the only time of day they have to cross-train is lunch hour. Compare that to other professional athletes who often get 3 or 4 months off and have an integrated training/medical staff working closely with them. Their strength training is considered crucial and is built into their schedules.

Dance may not be a sport, but dancers are athletes who need a similar, integrated system to support them.

KEY CONCEPT #5: Dancers deserve the care, appreciation, and funding other elite professional athletes receive.

Dance science to the rescue.

A Volkmar original masterpiece

#1 from the “Dancing test tube” series. A Volkmar original.

I now see much more clearly the role the dance-sciences play in supporting dancers.

I am not an academic. I think research and evidence is great, but I prefer the real-life “doing”.  Academics sometimes (not always!) have a poor grasp on how their work fits into real life and, as important as their findings are, they mean little if they can’t be applied.

We all have a role to play, and I’d be remiss not to appreciate that scientific evidence has huge potential to shape the future of how dancers are trained. And it is the government who ultimately decides who gets funding to research what.

How much funding does dance science research get?

My guess is not much. Funding the arts in general is often under appreciated because we don’t see how it helps give us more scientific evidence: The facts and stuff that drive us to make important decisions and “advance” as a species towards enlightenment.

Why did the world decide fat-free food was good? Science told us so (and science was wrong about that).

Science is great and all, but what if I told you that…

…arts education makes the world a better, more compassionate place to live, and helps people innovate better

Read: The arts help people do science better.

This leads me to share my recent fascination with George Lakoff and his teachings in cognitive linguistics and neuroscience. Please watch this video:

Arts education is a big deal:

“Need more innovation? Big ideas come from neural simulation: Reading, thinking, putting things together. Not just doing math and science. These don’t train the imagination in that way. Training people to innovate requires reading and learning about the arts”

What does this mean?

Lakoff explains that to understand why arts education is important, we need to understand how the brain works.

The same part of the brain is used when you imagine something as when you are actually doing it, which can be explained by mirror neurons.

This is called simulation: Engaging mirror neurons to understand and connect with other people and the world and becoming a part of those things. Imagining things that don’t exist in the world but that you could experience through reading poetry, understanding language, seeing a play, visual art, or dance, for example.

Simulation is how we innovate by putting ideas together (ideas being physical circuits in our brain). And innovation is only possible by engaging mirror neurons allowing us to connect with other people and the world around us empathetically, through exposure to the arts.


KEY CONCEPT #6: Exposure to the arts helps us become better at innovation and allows us to connect with other people and world around us- Things we don’t learn from math and science. 

Innovation, new ideas, collaboration and getting along with other people, requires exposure to the arts, and it is sad to see things being cut from schools that provide this experience of simulation: Recess, arts, gym class, things that allow us to embody information and empathize with each other.

Politicians need to understand this.

Some schools want to cut recess, because BEARS!

And maybe dance scientists are so badass because they have the killer combination of arts and science together. Dance scientists may be the innovators we need to change the dance educational paradigm.

I wasn’t expecting to come to these conclusions.

Sometimes I surprise myself.

It appears that to make space in a dancer’s training for supplemental strategies to support their well-being, we need to speak with the governing bodies who dictate who can research and provide evidence on these matters.

This information then needs to be distributed to parents, and advocates of dancers and the arts, who need to express themselves effectively to their communities, convincing the government to allot more funds to allow dance schools and programs the space within their budget and schedule to educate and train dance teachers on how to convey these important ideas, who will then be able to reach the dancers.

And the resources can finally reach the peasants.

To support the dancer is a mission requiring the interdependent cooperation of many, all of whom have an important role to play.

I’m caught in a paradox, and I don’t know how to get out.

I believe that dancers must understand how to take care of themselves and be self-efficacious. No one can fix them and care for them but themselves.

I learned this the hard way.

But self-efficacy must be learned, as with any other skill, and unless we create a pathway to get the information to dancers and teach them how to care and advocate for themselves, it will be impossible for them to learn unless through injury.

Case in point: My life. And the reason this blog exists.

KEY CONCEPT #7: Self-efficacy, self-care, and self-advocacy are skills dancers should be able to learn with the proper educational paradigm, before injury, which is often too late. 

So I guess to wrap this up, please, if you are voting age, let’s support dancers and their needs, and arts education in general, by electing a government that funds the arts, and the sciences that support the arts.

We can start by doing something about this guy:



Healthy Dancer Canada 2014 Conference Review

Sorry I’ve been so quiet lately, but if you happen to receive emails from me then you already know that I’M IN THAILAND, and not putting a priority on writing blog posts. But after a week of travelling I feel a bit in writing withdrawal, so I want to take a few moments to review the Healthy Dancer Canada annual conference that I spoke at last Sunday in beautiful Vancouver.

For those of you who inquired whether I could get a video/audio recording of my presentation, I regret to inform you that although I did get part of it recorded (camera ran out of film), the audio quality is terrible, just west of useless. If I figure out how, I will attempt to present it online, webinar style or something, though my knowledge of how to do so is limited. And that’s putting it nicely…

So anyway, this post is brought to you from Bangkok, Thailand, where the weather is hot, the streets are smelly, and the ever-present Tuk Tuk drivers will rip you off and take you to buy clothes at the Armani factory, when all you really wanted was to go see the Grand Palace… Ohhh, Bangkok.

So back to the conference. What a great day of talking mad dancer wellness with people who truly care about the future and health of dancers. Because many of you probably weren’t able to make it to Vancouver, please enjoy this brief recap of what you missed:

Do We Wear Dance as a Noun or a Verb? Mental Health Implications of Dancers’ Creative Identies- Chantale Lussier

This was one of my favourite presentations of the day, and was a synopsis of Chantale’s PHD research (for which she also won the HDC research award. GO Chantale).

Chantale, of Elysian Insight– a mental performance consulting company based in Ottawa- spoke about the potential danger of getting too attached to the “I am a dancer” identity. We all love to flaunt the fact that we’re dancers. We walk with our feet pointed out, take every opportunity to show off our flexibility, and wear our buns with pride. This was both a psychological and philosophical discussion of what it means to call yourself a dancer, and why that should matter to you.

Some important points Chantale brought up presentation:

  • “If I don’t dance on Sundays, am I still a dancer that day?”,
  • “If I become injured and can’t dance, who am I?”
  • The difference between saying “I am a dancer” and the French way, “Je danse” (I dance). What does it mean to describe yourself using a noun versus a verb, and which is healthier in the long run?
  • The fluid nature of identity and the need for dancers to embrace this for optimal wellness and longevity

Interview With Ballet BC Artist in Residence Dario Dinuzzi- A Dancer’s Perspective on Health and Wellness

It was a nice change to hear things from a dancer’s perspective, which was something we didn’t get at last year’s conference. It’s great and all to hear what the health pros have to say, but it’s arguably more meaningful to hear recanted the first hand experiences in a dancer’s own words. By listening carefully to what dancers are saying, we are better able to help  improve their quality of life and help them do what they do best.

Dario told us about his experiences dealing with injuries, building relationships with choreographers, and what to do when they ask you to perform physical stunts that you know deep down to be unsafe.

I took a video of a portion of his interview, and again, the volume is unfortunately low so if you can open it in another player like VLC to boost the sound maybe you’ll get more out of it. Dario is a really entertaining guy to hear talk, which I’m sure is partly due to his Italian heritage.


The Missing Link in the Foundations of Dance Training: Movement Workshop- Mariah-Jane Thies

This was  a fascinating presentation. I had never heard of Brain Gym prior to Mariah-Janes Thies’ movement workshop. The concepts she presented are one’s that I definitely dig learning more about, and I can see how they would benefit dancers of all levels, especially young ones or dancers who have reached plateaus and need help at the brain level to push through it.

Mariah-Jane spoke about the importance of using a neuro-developmental model to enhance the brain’s function, to make movements more reflexive, rather than have to use a high-threshold, high stress, bracing technique to achieve them. A huge part, she explained, is the ability of the right and left brains to communicate, or bridge, effectively.

An interesting dance-specific idea she brought up was that foot sickling is something that brain gym can help with, as she believes this inability to control rolling over the outside of the foot is a result of the left and right brains not bridging, which can be traced back to a human developmental phase and then corrected through Brain Gym techniques. As a dancer who has trouble with sickling, I want to know more. Very interesting stuff, indeed.

Scoliosis In Ballet- Susie Higgins, Erika Mayall, Astrid Sherman

Guess what: If you have scoliosis and you dance, you don’t need to feel like you’re at a disadvantage. Susie, Erika and Astrid work with dancers with scoliosis and help them to learn how to work with their bodies and dance to the best of their abilities.

These three ladies run what sounds like the most integrated ballet school I have ever heard of. It combines high quality ballet instruction with physical therapy and cross training, with outstanding communication and compassion.

The biggest take-aways from this presentations that you should know:

  • Quite a few professional ballet dancers have scoliosis (something I didn’t know)
  • Scoliosis IS manageable with exercise intervention, and it is important for dancers to understand how to take ownership of their homework exercises and understand their bodies to avoid plateau-ing and becoming injured.
  • Curvature of the lumbar spine is often more manageable for dancers that in the thoracic spine.
  • It’s important for the dance teacher to understand ways to tweak technique, such as arabesque line, to allow the dancer to work WITH their curve and not fight against it. You lines don’t need to look the same as everyone else’s, and this should be embraced.

Integrating Long-Term Athletic Development into Dance- ME

While I really don’t feel like getting into the details of my presentation (because remember, I’m hoping to post the slideshow somehow), I will offer an oversimplified synopsis:

  1.  Dancers are athletes (a point upon which the entire basis of my presentation rests).
  2.  Dancers should have some form of long term athletic development model to give them a system that helps them achieve success and longevity. Like nearly every other athlete does.
  3.  We should pay attention to the developmental stages children and adolescents progress through and not push dancers into competition too soon, before they’re ready.
  4. We should realize that dance is an early specializing activity (or sport, if you’d rather) and, because of this and the highly complex nature of dance, we must emphasize movement literacy, screening, and maintenance to support it.
  5. To create and implement an LTAD for dancers, we need to be able to communicate effectively- teachers, dancers, parents, dance educators, health care providers- because together we have so much more to offer than working alone (much like the three lovely ladies from the scoliosis presentation demonstrate).

Addressing Dancers’ Glute Medius Weakness and Fear of Hip Internal Rotation with In Class Exercise- Marla Eist

Funny story. Marla Eist teaches dance at Simon Fraser University, and actually taught one of my dance teachers while she was once a student at SFU back in the day. Crazy small world sometimes.

But anywho, Marla’s presentation  addressed some exercises dance teachers can use in class to help their students to own the use of parallel (requiring them to use internal rotation at the hip- yes, blasphemous, I know), and optimize glute med function for improved hip stability, injury prevention, and all that fun sexy stuff.

The exercises she showed were great because they mimicked some common dance moves, but in a way that will help balance muscle development, and help dancers realize that working in parallel is actually a good thing sometimes.Maybe it’s as simple as making sure to include parallel glissades as well as turned out… For any dance teachers who want to learn more about this, you might want to contact Marla directly.

And that’s a wrap, I think. Overall, it was an excellent day spent learning with people much smarter than me. As said once by Julien Smith, “Aim to be the dumbest person in the room every once in a while”, and while I didn’t necessarily feel dumb, nothing inspires one to learn more and become better quite like being surrounded by folks much smarter than you.

If you have any questions about my presentation, the conference, or if you just want to say hello, also please feel free to email me anytime. Cheers from Thailand.