Why You Shouldn’t Dance Through The Pain

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Dancers are supposed to take pain, right? Wrong, writes Leila Lois.

Joel Aeby, photographed by Bjorn Ognibeni.

“I broke my hip on stage at 21…it took me six months to get over it, but I was back for the next season.” Ballet dancer Joëlle Aeby tells this story with unflappable charm, sipping her latte, peeling a layer of dough from a croissant.

We meet at a Northcote cafe in Melbourne’s arty north, down the street from the studio where she teaches ballet between rehearsals and performances with the Victorian State Ballet (VSB), where she is a company artist.

“I don’t think it was just the grueling dance routine I was put through,” she adds. “I think my bones were already fragile, because of osteoporosis, I wasn’t eating enough.”

At the time, Aeby was dancing full-time in a ballet company in Prague. Even before she left home at the age of 15 to pursue ballet full-time, she was winning prestigious competitions at European conservatories and attending summer schools with prominent ballet companies.

Aeby’s experience is not atypical of a ballet dancer even today. The stereotype of the extreme dedication demanded of young dancers of pre-professional age in the world of ballet persists. Although attitudes and teaching are changing, especially at the professional level, the idea persists that it is only through “sectarian devotion” and brutal training schedules that the best dancers can gain opportunities in their profession, as Rose Martin, professor of arts education with a focus on dance at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (and former dancer with the Royal New Zealand Ballet), puts it.

“I potentially tore a ligament in my knee a year before I was considering surgery and rehabilitation… by then a lot of damage had been done, Martin said of his time at Royal New Zealand. Ballet in the 2000s. “I did what a lot of other dancers were doing at the time and took anti-inflammatories, dancing through the discomfort for the whole season, until my knee eventually gave way and it was clear that I had to have reconstructive surgery. I was only twenty-five.”

Martin explored the cultural context of pain and injury in ballet in his 2009 master’s thesis: “Ballet is always going to hurt”: Attitudes surrounding ballet dancers who dance in pain. What she discovered was that many ballet dancers of her generation had grown up with the received “wisdom” that pain should be ignored and pushed through. It’s been ‘slow to change’, she says, “nothing happens in isolation… the culture of ballet training in the 90s, for example, came with the ‘heroine chic’ culture of the fashion industry. Then being ultra-thin was seen as an aesthetic desired and this infiltrated ballet that had always had a problematic and idealized relationship with the female body…there is still a tension between ballet as a form and as a historical or cultural practice”. progress in actual training programs for ballet dancers, cultural change is lagging behind.

“There are leaders in the ballet world who have gone through this trying training themselves and are inspired to change it, and others who are slower to change,” Martins said.

“Ballet has so many ‘isms’ that go with it: sexism, ageism, ableism, racism, body fascism, because of the very elite way it’s been developed, those things take time and the leaders in the world of ballet to unpack and challenge, set right.” Yet ballet “must confront these issues rather than hide from them – hiding on the darker side must be rebalanced”.

Martin “gave up” dancing following his injury. She mentions in our interview, the silence and confusion that surrounded her, as “nobody knew what to say. There was very little support to move from the ballet company to a new career – injuries and retirement were almost considered taboo subjects, a source of shame and fear.”

Interim psychologist and PhD candidate Inge Gnatt also suffered a career-ending injury due to overtraining and echoes the experiences of her former colleague, Professor Martin. Gnatt has since taken a professional interest in the psychological aspect of supporting dancers to thrive in their training and career, and be valued as whole persons. “Given the young age at which training becomes intensive, there is a risk that their world will focus so much on ballet, that they will miss out on so many wonderful life experiences,” she says. Recognizing this predicament, ballet schools and companies are beginning to prioritize physical and psychological support during a dancer’s training and career and to incorporate policies to enable transition out of dance after retirement.

Eating disorders are another potential danger when dancers are so intensely focused on perfection. “Dancers are elite athletes who endure an incredible workload, and the approach must be compassionate and holistic, so that everyone can reach their optimal level of functioning,” says Gnatt. “Empowerment can be achieved through evidence-based health information, delivered appropriately and responsive to the needs of the dancer, promoting independence and ultimately longevity in the profession. As we begin to hear more conversations about this and the engagement of many directors who embrace and value diversity, there is still a long way to go,” she adds.

One aspect of Gnatt’s work is how the dancer maintains motivation in what is a very difficult craft. This includes helping dancers come to terms with what’s beyond their control, like casting decisions, and instead focusing on things they can control, like showing up for classes and rehearsals. This approach can help counter negative self-talk, comparisons, and unnecessary perfectionism. Perfectionism can occur on a continuum from useful to useless, with the latter potentially extremely damaging and leading to mental and physical deterioration, Gnatt says.

Joel Aeby, photographed by Bjorn Ognibeni.
Joel Aeby, photographed by Bjorn Ognibeni.

“Ballet is a pressure cooker for perfectionism, but I encourage students to use their perfectionism in healthy ways, to lead them in their dancing, but not to punish their bodies or ignore their emotional experience by engaging in eating disorders or ignoring pain. Fortunately, emerging dancers and the best teachers and coaches are connected and knowledgeable, open and quick to respond to progressive ways of approaching their professional lives. I’m excited to see where the next generation take things…”.

Adds Professor Martin:It takes the support and leadership of ballet schools and companies themselves to create broader change in the industry, to ensure happier and healthier dancers.”

Pastoral leadership for dancers is “taken very seriously” by the Australian Ballet, says Fiona Tonkin, the company’s artistic associate and head coach.We try to make the dancers feel supported, cared for and cared for as individuals. “She referred me to a 25-page injury management and risk reduction program, which is freely available online. She also directed me to their maternity leave policy, which gradually prepares dancers to financial support and a break from full-time dancing and allows them to return to work after birth. “The positive impact of this policy for individuals and the sector cannot be overstated,” she says.

The Australian Ballet is a world leader in injury prevention and recovery, with a team of healthcare professionals working in collaboration with dancers and a multidisciplinary approach to wellness and rehabilitation. Injured dancers have time to properly recover from inevitable setbacks. Many company policies are in the public domain. It’s a real contrast to what ballet dancers like Aeby and Martin went through in their careers as professional dancers 10 to 20 years ago.

Aeby, as a soloist with the Victorian State Ballet and a ballet teacher, is another of the leaders of this new era. “I eventually want to run my own training academy for young dancers where I can prepare them for the world of ballet, the resilience they need, but also help them take care of themselves… We are not not machines,” she says, “we are people, and artists, who need to nurture our passion and abilities in ballet by taking care of our bodies, resting, eating well, staying healthy. ‘training sensibly, listening to their body if it’s in pain, getting the physical therapy they need…’ This is the change we need to see in the world of ballet and a balancing act for the next generation of directors and dance teachers.

‘Beauty and the Beast’ will be performed at St Kilda Palais Theater as part of the Victorian State Ballet 2022 tour on Saturday 6e August. To buy tickets: here.

Follow Joëlle Aeby here: here.

Follow Inge Gnatt’s research: here.

Follow Professor Rose Martin’s research: here.

Joel Aeby: We need to take care of our bodies.
Joel Aeby: We need to take care of our bodies.
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