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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