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How Tom Welsh Built a Dance Science Program from Scratch

FSU maintains a cutting-edge conditioning studio. Photo by Meagan Helman, courtesy of FSU

When Florida State University professor Tom Welsh arrived in Tallahassee in 1991, dance science was uncharted territory. "Mostly, it was technique teachers who were looking for ways to keep their dancers dancing," he says. "It was just a field people imagined could happen." He immediately set to work building the university's dance science program from the ground up. Over the course of his 26 years at FSU, Welsh has created a successful dance science model, based on four elements: collaboration with physical therapists, a state-of-the-art conditioning studio, injury prevention and management initiatives and devoting time to research.


"You can't really prevent injuries."

"I was hired to prevent injuries in the dancers," says Welsh, who studied gymnastics before discovering dance in college and going on to earn his master's in kinesiology and dance education. "What I realized is that you can't give them some type of lightsaber or shield that will prevent them from getting injured. All you can do is reduce the risk. You have to build the capacities they need to meet the challenges that dance is going to present to them."

To do that, Welsh works closely with a physical therapist to create individualized exercise programs for injured students during weekly PT consultations. The programs use FSU's cutting-edge conditioning studio, which he slowly pieced together over the past 25 years—acquiring each apparatus a few at a time via the department's modest equipment budget. Dancers have their pick of a Pilates Cadillac, ladder barrel, chair and three reformers; two Gyrotonic pulley towers; two ellipticals; a treadmill; and a marley floor with a barre across one wall. After working with Welsh and the PT to develop a personal exercise regimen, dancers work one-on-one—or even one-on-two with him and one of his graduate assistants—during one to four weekly conditioning sessions for as long as their injuries last. Once the grad assistants have been with him for three to four semesters, Welsh lets them design exercise programs on their own.

"How do you handle the dancers who are done with PT but aren't ready for class?"

One of the hardest parts of Welsh's role at FSU is bridging the gap between when a dancer is injured and when she can return to fully participating in dance class. He compares it to running a relay race: If a dancer requires surgery, that's step one. "Then, we pick up the dancer from step two, the physical therapist," he says. "We're the third leg of the relay, and the fourth leg is the dance technique teacher."

Being the third leg involves not only crafting individualized programs but also teaching a cross-training class that students can take instead of, or during part of, their morning technique class. In it, they perform rehabilitative exercises for their injuries and conditioning exercises for areas of weakness that they'd like to improve upon. "If you have a shoulder injury, then that's a great time to work on your demi-plié," says Welsh. "The dancers feel better about themselves by using that time productively. They don't feel like they're falling behind as much."

Welsh coaching a student. Photo by Meagan Helman, courtesy of FSU

"If we can do preventive work up front, we can keep them from getting injured."

After years spent learning to understand dancers' needs and injury management, Welsh has branched out into preventive work. For example, when student choreographers started incorporating inversions more frequently into their work, Welsh developed shoulder-strengthening exercise programs.

He's also seen an increasing number of dancers come to him with significant imbalances, after years of only doing combinations on one side in their training. Welsh counteracts this by focusing on core strength, muscular endurance, strength training (as opposed to relying on momentum) and maintaining a balance between mobility and stability in the regimens he creates.

"We can improve the training by studying it carefully."

The final component to Welsh's dance science model at FSU? Research. In his course, "Research in the Dance Sciences," students conduct studies, analyze the data and then seek to publish their findings in professional journals or present their work at conferences.

The department has made noticeable strides in the research realm in the past five years, studying improved pelvic alignment, turnout control, reducing hip snapping and optimizing développés, among others. Welsh has hopes that the momentum will continue. "It's a ripe moment for dance science," he says. "It's an opportunity to learn."

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Securing the correct music licensing for your studio is an important step in creating a financially sound business. "Music licensing is something studio owners seem to either embrace or ignore completely," says Clint Salter, CEO and founder of the Dance Studio Owners Association. While it may seem like it's a situation in which it's easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission—that is, to wait until you're approached by a music-rights organization before purchasing a license—Salter disagrees, citing Peloton, the exercise company that produces streaming at-home workouts. In February, Peloton settled a music-licensing suit with the National Music Publishers' Association out-of-court for an undisclosed amount. Originally, NMPA had sought $300 million in damages from Peloton. "It can get extremely expensive," says Salter. "It's not worth it for a studio to get caught up in that."

As you continue to explore a hybrid online/in-person version of your class schedule, it's crucial that your music licenses include coverage for livestreamed instruction—which comes with its own particular requirements. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about music licensing—in both normal times and COVID times—as well as some safe music bets that won't pose any issues.

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Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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