Here’s What Happened When Dean College Brought an Athletic Trainer into Technique Classes

Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:


Dean College students in "Albedo Rondo" by professor Kristina Berger

Scott May, Courtesy Dean College

Performance Enhancement and Injury Reduction

"Normally, an athletic trainer in the collegiate dance setting would be in the athletic training clinic, where students could schedule an appointment for an injury evaluation or prevention assessment, or backstage during a performance run, where I manage acute injuries and emergency care," says Donahue. "But because I'm also in the classroom, I have the opportunity to see and understand exactly what their daily physical demands are." In the studio, she talks to dancers about the anatomy involved in executing a movement efficiently and equips them with exercises or warm-ups. Sometimes she helps to choreograph where students should inhale and exhale throughout the movement, and helps encourage a greater use of their core.

"Ours is a triple-track program in which students intensively study ballet, modern and jazz techniques, in addition to a number of related dance forms," says Marc Arentsen, dean of the Palladino School of Dance. "In a biomechanical sense, our dancers are not unlike elite athletes and we recognized that advanced dance training and injury prevention should go hand in hand. Now the integration of athletic training strategies with the outstanding technical preparation our dancers receive has become part of our culture."

Since Donahue joined the Dean College dance community as a full-time dedicated athletic trainer six years ago, the total percentage of students who sustain an injury each year has decreased from 65 percent to 35 percent. "When students understand what muscles they should be engaging and the basic biomechanics of the movement, it enhances their performance, too," says Donahue.

Donahue teaches a student how to apply athletic tape.

Courtesy Dean College

Better Communication Between Teachers and Athletic Trainers

"Having the ability to work with and not only for the dance faculty is really unique for an athletic trainer," says Donahue. "And I learn just as much from them as they do from me." She says watching the teachers give students external physical cues for movement or noting what warm-ups they use gives her information she can incorporate into rehab sessions. "I can say, 'Remember how you did this in class? Let's go back to where you're initiating that movement,' " says Donahue.

From working side by side with an athletic trainer, Berger has come to realize how much of Horton technique already incorporates cross-training. "Going from stag position to lateral T actually helps develop hip stabilization, and all the deep floor vocabulary can be directly connected to a lot of what you see in yoga, Pilates or strength training," she says. "Amanda will give the students an exercise and I think, 'That's just like Horton.' "

Kristina Berger infuses her Horton technique class with athletic training strategies.

Courtesy Dean College

More Fluent Dancers

Donahue says Dean students have a greater understanding of healthy warm-up techniques, the importance of cross-training and how to manage injuries. "They start to use the same language I use to describe exactly where their pain is. They'll say, 'It hurts more in the peroneal tendon,' instead of, 'It hurts on the outside of my leg.' This especially helps if they're off-campus and seeing a doctor who doesn't normally treat dancers," she says.

Courtesy Dean College

Ability to Personalize Training

Dean guides students through a process of addressing their strengths and weaknesses, which might be something dancers are left to figure out on their own at other schools. "They might be coming from a studio where, unfortunately, no one taught them how to support something as simple as standing on one leg," she says. But, from day one at Dean, dancers have a one-on-one evaluation with Donahue, who helps them set up a training program based on their history, what injuries they might have right now and what they're struggling with in class. "I'm also given that information so I can try to address what I can in the studio," says Berger. "I can't formulate the class around one dancer, but everyone can benefit from some corrections that address an issue several students are working on."

Courtesy Dean College

Graduates with a Career Edge

Berger believes that students leave Dean with the ability to set up their own training program tailored to what they'll face in the working world. "If they book a job on a cruise ship that's three shows a day, they have the tools to figure out that's X amount of leaps in each show and here's how I can prepare for that," she says. "These dancers know not only how to manage their time but also their bodies, even early in their careers."

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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