Dance is a unique artistic activity. Dancers need to be more than artists; they need to be athletes, too. And yet, all too often, dancers’ careers are cut short by injuries that could have been rehabilitated or avoided entirely with a holistic approach to dance training.
At the School of Dance at Florida State University, Dance majors are physically active an average of 6-8 hours a day. We are lucky to have an approach to dancer wellness that is at the cutting edge of our field due in large part to foresight, dedication, and hard work by faculty member Tom Welsh and the dancers who have worked under his mentorship over the past 25 years. Before coming to FSU in 1991, Dr. Welsh earned a PhD in Learning Psychology and an MA in Dance Kinesiology. Applying the sciences to the challenges of training dancers was a fairly new endeavor at the time of his hire, and Dr. Welsh has proven to be an innovator in this rapidly developing field. He has created an injury risk management program and curricular infrastructure that has evolved to become exemplary among university dance training programs across the country.
The development of the Dance Science program at FSU started when Dr. Welsh identified the need to provide injury management consultations for dancers to address the stresses of the intensive physical training that comprise the core of the FSU dance curriculum. For more than twelve years, physical therapist Tyressa Judge (now on staff at the FSU Wellness Center) has been contracted to advise FSU dancers with respect to injury management. Each fall, she performs key elements of our injury-risk screening activities for first-year dancers to help our dance conditioning staff identify and assist dancers who have movement habits and muscular imbalances that put them at risk for injury. She also conducts weekly consultations with dancers who are experiencing problems that she can help them resolve before they become injuries. Her work with FSU dancers emphasizes prevention. Early detection and correction of muscular imbalances, misalignments, and faulty movement patterns are the top priorities. Over the years that Ms. Judge has been consulting with FSU dancers, she has become one of the most experienced and effective dance physical therapists in the southeastern United States.
As Dr. Welsh was building a working relationship with Tyressa, he and the dancers who have worked with him in the dance conditioning studio were also developing supplemental training practices tailored to meet the needs of FSU dancers. The FSU School of Dance boasts a studio dedicated specifically to dance conditioning that contains 16 major training apparatuses and an elaborate collection of smaller training devices used by FSU dancers to supplement their daily technique training. Dancers and faculty use the dance conditioning studio to prepare to perform the variety of roles they fulfill in the dance-making activities of the FSU School of Dance and to prepare for their professional careers after graduation. During the hour before most morning technique classes, the conditioning studio is filled with dancers physically and mentally preparing to dance. Later in the day, the equipment is used by dozens of dancers to cool-down following classes, to prepare for afternoon and evening rehearsals, and to work on individual training priorities. Moreover, a variety of dance conditioning and dancer wellness classes held in the conditioning studio are now integral components of the School of Dance curriculum. These courses are designed to help students become agents of their own bodies and their professional dance training. This work helps dancers make the transition from student dancer (where teachers assume major responsibility for bodily maintenance) to professional dancer (where the primary onus is on the dancer to maintain his/her own dance instrument). In several cases, the conditioning studio classes have facilitated dancers’ rehabilitation from injuries that have ended other dancers’ careers.
The final component in the uniquely integrated dance sciences program at FSU is research. When Dr. Welsh arrived at FSU, most research in the dance sciences was at the descriptive level or it involved simple translations of research in the sport sciences. Over the past 25 years, research in the dance sciences has evolved to include intervention research specifically focused on the challenges faced by dancers and those who train and treat them.
The development of the dance sciences has been reflected in the evolution of the International Association of Dance Medicine & Science (IADMS) and its flagship Journal of Dance Medicine & Science (JDMS). As research has become explicitly focused on the challenges that dancers face, dancers and teachers have become more interested in what can be learned from empirical research. FSU has played an important role in the development of the dance sciences with Dr. Welsh serving as chair of the IADMS Research Committee, participating frequently as a presenter at the annual conferences, serving as a member of the editorial board for the JDMS, and serving as president of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science.
Dr. Welsh has collaborated with a number of students over the years to conduct empirical research with dancers. Many of these student researchers have presented their research at the IADMS conference and continued on to publish their work in the Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, the preeminent journal in the field. One dancer’s study was awarded the IADMS student research award in Stockholm, Sweden.
Dancers, faculty and staff seem to agree that Dr. Welsh’s influence on FSU’s distinguished dancer training program has been beneficial and important. His classes are some of the most challenging in the curriculum, but also some of the most life-changing. He is highly regarded for his contributions to the dance sciences on an international and national scale, to the FSU School of Dance, and to the individual dance artists with whom he works.