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What do ballet dancers, bar tenders and paramedics have in common?

Posted By Luke Hopper, PhD, Friday, April 3, 2015

Lifting is an important technique across dance styles. With diverse modern choreography, lifting is an increasingly common technique not only for males but for female dancers as well. The act of lifting is often described as giving the partner grace and the impression weightlessness as they float through the air. But what about the lifter below? What about their technique? And more importantly what about their health?

In industry, lifting is the focus of a wealth of attention in the interests of occupational safety and health. This is because so many workers injure themselves performing lifting tasks. And the injuries they experience are commonly to the lower back

Dancers experience lots of leg injuries, but backs, particularly lower back injuries are also way too common in dance. A serious back injury can be a disastrous career ending experience for a dancer. Therefore should lifting in dance be considered from an occupational safety and health perspective and how could it prevent injury? In the US, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have released a safe lifting equation which lists six key variables (in addition to the weight being lifted) that affect risk of injury to the back:

  1. Horizontal location of the object relative to the body
  2. Vertical location of the object relative to the floor/li>
  3. Distance the object is moved vertically
  4. Asymmetry angle or twisting requirement
  5. Frequency and duration of lifting activity
  6. Coupling or quality of the workers grip on the object

Swap the term ‘object’ in the list for ‘partner’ and I’m sure that you can think of a whole lot of examples where dance breaks most if not all of the rules. But should lifting be banned from all choreography? Certainly not. Should dancers question their partner’s weight? Definitely not. Should dancers be aware of the risks of lifting so they can perform safe dance practices? Absolutely.

Alderson et al. (2009) estimated the lumbar forces in male dancers performing two lifts:

  1. Arabesque or presage: where the female stands in arabesque and is lifted in the arabesque posture by the male above his head into straight arms
  2. Full press: where the female stands in front of the male, jumps into the lift and is lifted above the male’s head

Surprisingly, every male dancer, for every lift examined, experienced the largest forces in the back before his partner had even left the ground in the posture shown below (Figure 1). The forces are likely the highest at is point because the male is generating momentum into the lift which requires more force. Think of pushing a piano across the studio, it requires a more effort at the first push compared to after the piano is moving.


                Figure 1: The position of greatest force in the lift.

In addition, despite the female jumping into the lift and ‘helping’ the male, the maximum back forces in the full press lift (Figure 2) were larger than in the arabesque (Figure 3). The full press was likely to have higher forces because of the dynamic jumping like movements of the lift. The explosive movement at the start of the lift may make the lift feel easier but it is because of the increased forces at the start of the lift.

 
           Figure 2: Full press lift.                                 Figure 3: Arabesque Lift.

Dancers should be careful of their posture right at the start of the lift as the discs of the spine are particularly susceptible to injury during these kind of intense movements and flexed body positions. Maintaining good posture throughout the whole lift is really important but male dancers should be particularly aware of the posture they start the lift with considering the high forces they experience at that point.

The forces measured in Alderson et al. were above the NIOSH recommended safe limits. To add a bit of perspective, the forces measured were more than a paramedic lifting a stretchered patient, but less than a bar tender lifting a beer keg. Lifting remains an important component of modern day choreography, but so do the risks to the dancer. Technique is of course important, but approaching lifting in dance from an occupational safety and health perspective can only serve to make dancers more aware of their bodies, closely consider their lifting technique and the forces they put through their bodies.

Recommended reading and images sourced from:

Alderson J, Hopper L, Elliott B, Ackland T. Risk factors for lower back injury in male dancers performing ballet lifts. J Dance Med Sci. 2009;13(3):83-89.

Full text articles from the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science are available to IADMS members!

Luke Hopper, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University.
Email: l.hopper@ecu.edu.au

Tags:  biomechanics  dancers  lifting 

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Matthew A. Wyon says...
Posted Saturday, April 4, 2015
Thanks for this Luke it is a very good analogy, though kegs don't complain if you grip them too hard and certainly don't mind being dropped. I also thought that the forces were greater on the way down, especially as it has to be so controlled in dance - any words of wisdom on this?

From a practical point of view I always believed it is easier and safer to get the lifters stronger than the liftees lighter. At ENB we always had good fun with the men lifting the men (starting with the lightest and gradually working up the weight (mass) categories - this had two benefits, firstly all the men weighed more than the women so there weren't any partnering issues and secondly the men felt what it was like to be lifted.
With ballet dancers I have noted the amazing technique but this is often not backed up with sufficient basic strength and therefore it becomes fatigue sensitive. At this point I have to say that the changing attitudes and promotion of supplemental training, especially strength training, beyond Pilates and Gyrotonics has proven to be beneficial.

Contemporary/modern dance raises another interesting issue with there being less of a gender divide on who is doing the lifting. I have noted that there is little strength preparation before lifting is attempted whether it is legs, core or upper body - actually lifting is a prime example for whole body functional training. All dancers but especially women need to engage in supplemental strength training prior to laying hands on actual bodes to reduce the risk of potential injury not only to themselves but also to those being lifted.

Occupational health and safety and choreography could prove to be interesting bedfellows - I can just see choreographers filling in risk assessment forms prior to working with dancers and who would they submit them to? Arts funding bodies?

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