It wasn’t so long ago that the idea of screening dance students evoked images of grim-faced instructors with tape measures weeding out the unacceptable. But as part of a dance wellness program, a screen using contemporary methods developed by the burgeoning dance medicine field can lead to more effective training, better overall levels of conditioning and health and, perhaps most importantly, the prevention of injury.
Screening has been common in sports for years, but with the rise of dance science, physical therapists have taken the concept into the dance studio. Currently, professional dance companies and some studios have begun instituting wellness programs and the screens that are part of them. And a dance screen can be particularly effective in higher ed, where demanding class loads and academic scheduling make the time available for conditioning and technique training particularly precious.
So what exactly is involved in a dance screen, and how can you start one at your school or studio? Take a look at how one college instituted a dance screen to find out what you’ll need, who to turn to for assistance and how to follow up on your results.
Why Do a Screen?
Karen Potter and Gary Galbraith started dance screens as part of the Dancer Wellness Program at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University six years ago with the idea of helping students develop and advance. “If we are going to push the technique and we are going to push [dancers] hard, we’ve got to implement a system to help support them,” says Galbraith, who is also an associate professor of dance and artistic director of Case’s Mather Dance Center. “[The dance screen] is just a means to make [their training] that much stronger, [more] protected and informed.”
A barebones dance screen often includes a medical history; a basic technique evaluation; a nutrition questionnaire; assessments of strength, flexibility, postural alignment and cardiovascular fitness. Case’s screen covers aerobic fitness, balance, body fat, general flexibility, flexibility and laxity, strength and structural analysis.
At Case, Potter, Galbraith, physical therapist Chad Fortun and a team of six volunteers hold the screen, which is mandatory for dance majors and graduate students and voluntary for dance minors, once at the beginning of each year. Approximately 20 students are screened. “Each dancer can get through it in about an hour,” says Potter.
The assessments can save both dancers and teachers time and energy by identifying technical issues—for example, a dancer’s inability to maintain turnout when coming down from a jump—and their possible causes, such as a specific muscular weakness. In the instance described above, by correlating data from the screen, it is possible to understand that a weakness in the external rotators, rather than inattention, may be behind the problem. Custom-tailored exercises can then be created to correct the imbalance. The same is true in terms of identifying weaknesses that can lead to injury. The screening process can thus give students perspective on how to better fulfill their goals—and teachers a baseline resource that can be referenced throughout the year to measure progress.
Who You’ll Need
Colleges and universities, with their often well-funded athletics departments, have a distinct advantage over even professional dance companies when it comes to the availability of potential expert volunteers.
Galbraith explains that Case’s “sports physical therapists were very interested in volunteering their time just for the opportunity of observing a highly specialized group (dancers) whom they would not necessarily have access to.” He adds that for physical therapists, doing a dance screen is one kind of professional development that can expand their credentials. “So if you present it that way,” he points out, “it makes participating a very positive growth experience for them.”
It also makes sense to turn to faculty members who are doing research in dance medicine, dance science or kinesiology and may be interested in expanding the applications of that knowledge. Of course, it can be hard to add anything to an already full teaching schedule. But one way to work around scheduling conflicts is to help potential volunteers petition the school administration for teaching credit for the time they spend on a dance screen.
Potter recalls that she and Marshall Hagins, with whom she developed a similar dance wellness program at New York’s Long Island University, were given a break for establishing the program. “Once [our project] was approved, we got a teaching reduction, meaning we taught one less class to run the dance wellness program,” she explains.
Where You Can Hold It
Another variable that can involve expense is location. When Potter was establishing the program at Case, she first looked for a clinic where the equipment for measurement and calibration was at hand. Since then, she’s found that this type of setting is no longer necessary. New models for field assessments—that is, testing done outside of a clinic—continue to be developed.
At the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science conference in Stockholm, Sweden, in November 2005, Mathew Wyon of the University of Wolverhampton and Emma Redding of Laban in London demonstrated an aerobic fitness test that uses simple dance movements at increasing levels of complexity and velocity. The movement sequence, which includes running, hopping, jumping and rapid shifts in direction and rhythm, is appropriate for beginners as well as advanced dancers.The test took place in a dance studio, and while heart rate monitors are suggested, participants in Stockholm self-tested their heart rates using the low-tech method of placing a finger on a pulse point. For an actual screen, however, accurate gathering and recording of data is imperative.
Once the testing is completed comes the hard part: analyzing the results and comparing them to norms drawn from established resesarch. “The way our program is written,” says Potter, “there is a correlation between what a dance teacher will see as a good demi plié and the maintenance of external rotation of the femur, as well as pronation or inversion.”
The analysis and correlation of the information is where the full value of the screen is gained. Data from a dance screen can be used not only for abstract research, but also as part of a wellness program, where the results can be put to use to enhance the well-being and performance of an individual student.
But Galbraith stresses that results must be kept in perspective. “Dancers can get into that perfectionist thing and really get upset about any one thing,” he says. “They have to look at the [whole] picture.” To help with that, each Case dancer meets with a member of the Dancer Wellness Program, who then helps to customize a cross-training regimen that reflects findings from the screen. Follow-ups are done on an as-needed basis throughout the year.
Using the Web
A significant part of the program at Case is its interactive web component. Once the testing is completed, the results are posted for each participant via a secure login that only the individual dancer and the dancer’s instructor can use.
The information is presented in a user-friendly form that enables the student to understand the results and, by using online resources, tackle any problems. For example, for the hypothetical student mentioned earlier whose technique screen revealed a problem holding turnout, links on the website will lead the student to an anatomical diagram of the muscle, the muscle’s action (by way of a biomechanical video) and suggestions for exercises that will help correct the imbalance.
The web aspect of Case’s wellness program is a perfect match for today’s computer-literate student body. “We recently added a feature where the students could collect ‘My Exercises,’” says Potter. “This new feature is wonderful, because it allows them to create their own regimen. It’s like shopping on the internet.”
To see how the program runs, go to http://dancewellness.case.edu and click on “Example tour” for a quick overview of the site’s features. The Case model is now also in place at Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo, and Galbraith is also working closely with other institutions interested in using the website.
In the end, both Potter and Galbraith acknowledge that it’s important to be vigilant about how dancers perceive the purposes of the screen. As part of an overall wellness program, it should be seen as something that helps dancers achieve their goals, not determine suitability. A dance screen is just a tool. “It is really about the dance,” says Galbraith. “As far as we’re concerned, it’s about the art.” DT
Virginia Johnson is the Editor of Pointe magazine.
Over the course of a remarkable teaching career that spanned more than half a century, 2005 Dance Teacher Lifetime Achievement Award winner Mary Day founded The Washington School of Ballet and its affiliated company, played mentor to several generations of dance stars—and changed more than a few ordinary lives along the way.
Among the many mementos on display in Mary Day’s elegant townhouse in Washington, DC, is a photo of her with Shirley MacLaine, one of her most famous alumni at The Washington School of Ballet. It’s a telling shot: Both women are in profile, but it’s MacLaine who is the student looking up to the master. The picture was taken around the time of the 1998 film Madame Sousatzka, in which MacLaine played a brilliant but temperamental piano teacher. It’s a characterization she based on Day, and despite some Hollywood-style exaggeration, MacLaine got her teacher’s passion for artistry over flash exactly right.
Day, however, is no mere film character. Although she no longer teaches, she’s one of America’s premier ballet pioneers who realized a dream of creating something for her hometown and took that dream to world-class heights. “My mission was to develop the audience for the arts in Washington, DC. It was the beginning of what we see now,” says Day, who turned 95 in January. “I’ve always felt that dance is for everyone, [even though] everyone is not for professional dance. Good dance training is an invaluable contribution to success in many walks of life.”
The list of famous WSB alumni is a lengthy one—including MacLaine, Lili Cockerille, Patrick Corbin, Kevin McKenzie, Amanda McKerrow, Mimi Paul, Jenifer Ringer and Georgia Engle (Georgette from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”). “She created a steady stream of not just really talented people that went on to dance professionally,” attests McKenzie, now artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, “but she nurtured so many people who grew up to be influential in the dance field.”
Day’s love of ballet was sparked early. “I was 3 or 4 and was taken to a performance at the Belasco Theater [in Washington, DC],” she recalls. “I remember all of these tiny children and a woman yelling at them. After that, I dreamed of dance.” It wasn’t long before she began recruiting neighborhood children so that she could make dances. “I was always the one putting it all together,” Day says. She began formal studies at 11 or 12. “I knew how to move, but I also knew from the beginning that I wasn’t a Swan Queen.”
Nevertheless, Day started dancing with Washington ballet maven Lisa Gardner’s group when she was in her 20s. To help make ends meet, she began teaching in Northwest Washington, DC, where her flair for putting together productions and knack for teaching produced a nickname: “the pied piper of Northwest.” She was so successful, in fact, that after Gardner’s school relocated, the two joined forces in 1944 under the name The Washington School of the Ballet, eventually moving to the school’s current site on Wisconsin Avenue in 1948. (Its name is now The Washington School of Ballet.) Day became sole director after Gardner’s death.
During that time, she and fellow Washingtonian Howard Mitchell, conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, whose daughters Day taught, decided to do something about their shared desire to raise the cultural level in DC. “We realized that there was something missing here that we had to do something about,” Day says. Agreeing that the place to start was educating children about the arts, Day worked with Mitchell to create three-act ballets based on children’s stories. What developed into a longtime partnership between Day’s students and the NSO got off to a memorable start with her Hansel and Gretel.
Ballets such as Cinderella and Rackety Packety House, based on the story by Frances Hodgson Burnett, were hugely successful, thanks to Day’s innovative ideas and the clever costumes that she designed and executed herself. Once the children’s stories had begun to catch on, Day turned her attention to adult performances, doing outdoor shows at Carter Baron Amphitheater and the National Cathedral.
WSB and the NSO really hit their stride with Day’s production of The Nutcracker, which debuted in 1961 and ran for more than 40 years. Though still technically a student performance, the orchestra billed the company as The Washington Ballet. However, it wasn’t until 1976 that the current company was formally established. Like everything that Day did, there was a clear goal in mind: The Washington Ballet was to be a place where students who had grown up in the school could have a career without having to leave home.
Behind the many successful productions lay Day’s real strength, her teaching. After all, it’s in the classroom that a dancer begins to understand not only how to dance, but what good dancing is. WSB was well-established as one of the country’s top schools when the success of The Nutcracker made it possible for Day to take the school to the next level.
In 1962, inspired by the training system in Russia, she founded the Academy of The Washington School of Ballet. At the Academy, which ran for 15 years, students received their high school education and their dance training all under one roof. The building on Wisconsin Avenue continued to expand to accommodate more dance classes and classrooms, while dormitories were created for boarding students.
Even with the addition of academics, however, movement remained at the heart of everything. “I tried to make [students] feel, from the very beginning, a quality of dance,” Day says. Along with a sense of reverence for the art, she wanted her students to understand that dance involved every part of them: “I was dealing with not just the body moving, but the opening of the eyes and ears.”
As time went by, students at WSB looked forward to earning the distinction of being known as a “Mary Day dancer.” The best of her students had a confidence born of the sense that, by virtue of an innate quality that Day had recognized, they were part of a select group. “Those of us who grew up under Mary Day’s tutelage were proud that in a crowded studio we could be easily picked out,” says McKenzie. “The characteristics that made us stick out were a fine musicality and sense of line, [and] heads and arms that worked through a harmony of breath and sensitivity.”
For Day, everything started from the breath. “To feel the breath: That is the basis of good training,” she says with the particular emphasis she uses for key points. “As you breathe, you feel the arms begin to move, and the armpits open up and the flow of air goes down through the arms to the hand, all the way to the fingertips. They don’t have to curl at the end, or all of those funny things; just shake your hands and feel the air go all the way to the fingertips.”
According to McKerrow, who first stunned the ballet world in 1981 when she won the gold medal at the Moscow International Ballet Competition and who danced her last performances as an ABT principal this summer, it was Day’s unerring eye that could always pick out what made an individual unique and what that dancer had to offer. The purity of the training McKerrow received from Day undoubtedly contributed to her success, but the ballerina recalls something more.
“It was more important that you express what it is that you are trying to say and use your technical vocabulary to do it,” says McKerrow. “She trained into me the notion that, rather than getting bogged down in it, technique is a means to an end.”
Day was an inspired teacher who often adjusted classes to get what she wanted. “I remember sometimes her coming in and we would [spend] a long time at the barre on pointe, but other times, we wouldn’t,” says McKerrow.
“She always was aware of where the class needed to go that day.” She was also well aware of all of the emotional baggage that can accompany ballet study, and did what she could to keep things in perspective for parents as well as students. “When a parent would come to me and say, ‘She wants to be a dancer,’” Day says, “to avoid the heartbreak that this child might have if she’s allowed to think something that doesn’t happen, I would say, ‘We won’t even talk about that. Let’s see if she can learn to dance. And when she’s old enough, then we’ll decide whether or not she has the potential to allow her to think that she might be a dancer.”
But no matter what her students’ talent level or professional prospects, she didn’t neglect to lay down a firm foundation for movement or expect anything less than hard work from all of them. “She was strict, but nurturing,” remembers McKenzie. “She demanded respect for the artform. She understood the power of setting the bar up another notch and led you to your best work.”
Day’s love of dance, and the pleasure she gets from passing on that feeling for movement, remain undiminished. However, she admits that the years since 1999, when WB’s board of directors decided to pass the reins of the company to current Artistic Director Septime Webre, have had their ups and downs.
For his part, Webre has the utmost respect for Day and what she has created. “Mary has contributed so significantly to this city and to the dance world,” he says. “I think she has dealt with the challenges of turning over her beloved school and company with much grace and elegance, despite how difficult it might be emotionally. What has won the day is her great love for dance, so whenever a dancer triumphs, she is inspired—and that is inspiring.”
Webre is continuing many of the guiding principles set by Day when she envisioned The Washington Ballet as a company of well-trained dancers doing high-quality, innovative works that have been created for them. Heading the school now is former American Ballet Theatre and Joffrey Ballet ballerina Rebecca Wright, who, as Webre says, “has renewed our commitment to Mary Day’s legacy of pure classical technique. The school is following Mary’s syllabus and her vision of pure, unaffected training as a basis for any professional dancer.”
Day wouldn’t necessarily put so much emphasis on the professional dancer, but times have changed. In her eyes, there seems to be less thinking about the value of learning to dance for such life skills as discipline, poise and self-assurance than a as a specific career choice.
"I wanted to make the children feel that this is part of their education. [Just because] you go to school to learn your ABCs and everything else, it doesn't mean you have to be a great professor in math. You [should] go to ballet school as part of your education. And you may turn out to be a super ballerina—we don't know—but it can help you in many walks of life, whatever you do, because you are going to walk differently and you are going to enjoy more what you see in the theater.
"I've had very good luck all of my life in having enough really good people to teach so they responded and progressed. But the others also gave me a great deal of satisfaction. Seeing that the directions that I gave were helping, that the back became stronger, and the knees were reshaped—just to sit there and watch them go out the front door, you could see the progress in the back, and in the walk. That was very gratifying. There was equal gratification in developing somebody to the higher level. I loved every one of them." DT
Virginia Johnson, the editor of Pointe magazine, is a former student of Mary Day's and a former principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Photography by Richard Greenhouse