The nation’s most exceptional athletes reside in football-devout Melbourne, although they don’t perform in stadiums, nor do they feature on the nightly news.
They’re the dancers of The Australian Ballet.
Measuring physical feats of repertoires against professional sports is difficult because dancers cannot wear GPS devices on stage and who else does a grand jeté en manége?
Observers can only wonder.
An American in Paris audiences have recently been marvelling of the performers’ superior athleticism and endurance.
How many sportspeople could do four shows — or games — in one weekend?
Some former athletes and health professionals understand both disciplines.
“Having been on the other side of the fence, it’s incredible the amount of work they put in just to get out onto the stage,” former North Melbourne footballer Sam Wright says.
As an injured player, Wright spent time rehabilitating with dancers. He has since been employed at the ballet as a welfare boss.
“My initial thought coming in here to rehab was embarrassment,” he says.
“I thought I was working hard [in football].
Ballet mistress and rehabilitation specialist Megan Connelly agrees.
“They’re way ahead of most because in sport you don’t have the diversity of movement, and you also, in dancing, have the expectation that it’s got to be pretty seamless, and you can’t show the effort,” she says.
“Footballers show their strength, and you can hear it and you can see it on their faces, and we’ve got to produce all sorts of movement without necessarily showing how it might feel.
“It’s body, mind, and soul — it encompasses all of that and so much more, or I should say, in a very different way than sport does.”
World-renowned physiotherapist, Dr Sue Mayes, has spent decades treating professional sportspeople in her directorship of artistic health at The Australian Ballet.
“I like to think of them as athletic artists. They’re artists first and foremost, but they’re incredible athletes,” she says.
“They can jump higher than anyone, they spend hours working … there’s no other athlete who spends as many hours training.”
Most people don’t realise dancers who perform in the evenings have already spent a whole day doing their exercises and often rehearsing for the next production. On long days, they can punch in for work at 9.30am and clock off at 11pm.
The company performs 180 nights annually.
Dr Mayes did not discount the excellence and work ethic of sportspeople.
“We do see other elite athletes in here as well,” she says.
“They’ve got their own skills. Luckily these guys don’t get any body contact, because I think that’s a known cause of injury. Obviously, the athletes are better runners generally.
“[But] I think the dancers’ precision can’t be matched. Their balance, their strength through full range of movement. I bring in athletes … they are usually blown away with the hours [dancers] spend, the dedication to their injury prevention exercises, and the sorts of exercises they do before their training and also after their training. And it’s quite holistic.”
Changing the way ballet dancers are treated
The Australian Ballet’s training base is a modern office block behind The Arts Centre.
Dr Mayes, head physiotherapist since 1997, works on the sixth-floor studios treating her dancers.
When ABC Sport visited, she was helping principal dancer Joey Romancewicz with his rehabilitation.
“Bringing Joey back,” she says.
“We’ll be really closely monitoring what he’s doing. Not only in each section of the day but within a class.”
Romancewicz, built like an Olympic decathlete, is making a comeback from a foot injury known as Lisfranc for his lead role in Anna Karenina in Sydney.
Injuries to Australian ballet dancers are rare [one anterior cruciate ligament injury in 15 years], although they were more common during pandemic lockdowns.
“That comes from doing classes at home,” Romancewicz says.
“Jumping off tiles instead of wood sprung floors.”
It’s a problem that will see lingering effects.
Dr Mayes leads a team of specialists, including Connelly, who manage athletes to prevent and minimise injury.
This is where art and professional sport view performance through the same binoculars: recovery is everything.
“I’m the ballet part of the rehab,” Connelly says.
“We have our physios, our myos [myotherapists] and our rehab physios that do the conditioning. We have a strength and conditioning person as well. My role is to bring the dancer back into the studio.”
Connelly said this side of the business had excelled since she performed in the 1990s.
“I was a dancer with the company,” she says.
“I’ve broken both fifth metatarsals. I’ve been through that process. We didn’t have the same set up as we have now. We’ve got a whole team of people the dancers can lean on — at that stage we just had a physio.”
Extra resources have coincided with more open communication.
“There was probably a reticence for dancers to report pain or to report injury,” Connelly says.
“We had in the 90s and in the 80s that old fashioned idea of just soldier on and push through it.”
Dancers used to ignore stress fractures, painful joints, and sore backs.
Connelly says cultural change came under the stewardship of former artistic director David McAlister.
“We needed someone at the head who could say, hey, it’s OK if there’s something wrong, because we are building a team that can help you get better,” she says.
“By that happening we were able to intervene much earlier and injuries didn’t become as exacerbated.
“So that’s why our [low] injury rates are just phenomenal because we have the early reporting.”
How the Aussies busted ballet myths
The Australian Ballet also busted two big physiological myths.
Twenty years ago, Dr Mayes introduced resistance training, notably calf strengthening exercise.
“Dancers traditionally spent a whole of time doing lots of stretching,” she explains.
“We had all these calf stretches in each studios. So, we educated them years ago on not stretching and just getting the strength up.
“And that’s really had an incredible impact on our injury rates. We’ve rarely had to operate on an ankle since. And we rarely lose dancers to availabilities — it’s rare for us to have a dancer that is off.”
Ballet companies all around the world have since adopted this practice, which improves muscle strength and endurance.
Connelly says colleagues in the northern hemisphere pay homage to the breakthrough from Down Under.
“I know that American Ballet Theatre are doing the calf rise program, The Royal Ballet [England] are doing their calf rises,” she says.
“Lower leg, foot strength and endurance – that’s what we’re known for.”
Then came the shake-up in hips.
Four years ago, Dr Mayes, who is also an Adjunct Research Fellow at La Trobe University, published her PhD: ‘Hip joint health in professional ballet dancers.’
This would disprove the long-held belief that all dancers would end up with arthritic hips.
“We looked over five years to see the impact of the hip joint and we found that dancers’ hips tolerated five years of really extreme loading really well,” Dr Mayes says.
“We were also able to demonstrate that they’ve got strong hip muscles. It supports the concept that if you’ve got strong muscles around the joint, it can be protective against developing arthritis.”
Dancing careers have been lengthened by this finding.
“They’re leaving now without injury,” Dr Mayes says.
“They used to leave because of injury and that’s rare now.”
Connelly said her boss’ relatively recent breakthrough was “going to blow everything out of the water.”
“We don’t get hip injuries anymore,” she says.
“It’s really interesting, when I started doing this role [in 2009], I remember those first couple of years rehabbing hips. I remember being down in the dungeon – there’s a little room at the bottom of the Sydney Opera House – and I remember being there with these beautiful, tall, open-hipped dancers, really loose, rehabbing all these hips. And I just don’t do it anymore.”
The hip pain associated with dancing is a sign of weakness.
The Australian Ballet has introduced exercises to strengthen muscles behind the hip: hip rotators, glutes, and hamstrings.
“You can see it straight away,” Connelly says.
“Some of the exercises, if you do them yourself – you do your adductor side lie or you do some bridging or you do a four-point-kneel deep hip rotator and you stand up. You can already feel like you’re on a cloud.
“That’s the beauty of the program. There’s a couple of exercises that the dancers can plug in before class. In class, they don’t have to think muscular skeletally, they can just move and breathe and rely on their coordination and physicality, which is what we want.”
Banishing the dancers’ anxieties
Resistance training might seem obvious for non-artistic athletes, but dance has a different history.
Previously, ballet dancers were told strength workouts increased body mass.
“The dancers were really fearful,” Dr Mayes says.
“Joey doesn’t want to bulk up – because it is harder to get those movements and not jump high but what we’ve been able to demonstrate is with the exercises, especially the endurance ones, is that you don’t get bulky.
“It’s really hard to significantly change the shape of a person. And, so, we’re constantly trying to reduce that fear. We’ve been doing it for so long, and they’ve recognised that our strongest dancers, our most resilient, are our best performing dancers. They’ve seen it for themselves.”
Body image is still a constant topic of discussion in ballet.
The most recent edition of Dance Australia magazine ran an instructional story posing the rhetorical question: “Can you talk about weight to your students?”
“Most dancers, and especially dance students, are hyper aware of their appearance and their weight,” the article read.
Dance Australia pointed out that teachers were the “number one influencer”.
The Australian Ballet is leading by example. The company’s world class dancers are happy and eye-catchingly diverse.
“We really celebrate that,” Dr Mayes says.
“We’ve always celebrated that individuality. They’re first and foremost an artist, and that’s what’s important and they’re so strong. The things they can do are incredible. And you can’t do that without that strength.
“I feel like it’s been [that way] for at least the last ten years.”
It’s a phenomenon that’s unique to Australia.
“I can only speak from my experience here in Australia,” Ms Connelly added.
“The Australian Ballet has always had different kinds of body shapes and sizes and heights and all that sort of thing. And I think that’s made us really unique in that it gives us a real texture when you see the whole company on stage.
“We should represent the community that we live in as well. And I think you need to see varying body types to be able to do our repertoire. Our repertoire is really broad, it’s pure classical, it’s state of the art, cutting edge modern dance, so these dancers have to able to move in such a broad range of ways that we need that choice through the company to be able to deliver.”
Welfare improvements coming from football
Former Kangaroos player Wright’s role in ballet has been another welcome change.
Recruited to play in the AFL from the Victorian country town of Katamatite, Wright wore a North Melbourne jumper in 136 games over eleven seasons.
The last few years of his career were troubled by injury.
In one traumatic fortnight, he tore all the ligaments in an ankle, got a pain killing injection to play the next week and hurt the other leg.
“I spent a year and half, two years out of the game,” he says.
After several surgeries, the spring-loaded backman was confined to a wheelchair.
Wright went to the ballet to seek Dr Mayes’ help.
“We heard about the things Sue was doing with other elite athletes around the world and especially in ankles,” he says.
“We sought her out and I remember walking in here. My toes were sticking up in the air because I didn’t have tendons, couldn’t wear shoes.”
Dr Mayes told Wright: “We can get you can back playing.”
He did eight months of successful rehab surrounded by dancers.
“My first game was 701 days [after the injury] against Sydney,” he says.
He played for another two seasons.
During this period, Wright started to value education and work experience in welfare development, and when he finished playing footy, he went back to the ballet.
“We’d been working on a well-being program for the ballet and from there we did a pilot program around well-being, career and personal development, and by the end of the year I was full time,” he says.
He was astonished by the emotional strain of first class dancing.
“I’d rehabbed with the likes of [principal artists] Benedict Bemet for some time so I knew the challenges that they faced in terms of — they’re six days a week, they don’t get recovery, the mental aspect of it his huge, a lot bigger than footy — a lot more demanding.
“The day-to-day pressure that they’re put under from a critique point of view from class to rehearsal to everybody competing for a spot, the amount of reviews and criticisms and feedback that they get is huge.”
Wright knew what it was like to be judged by coaches, but not like this.
“And they’re ranked as well,” he says.
“From principals down to core dancers, so there’s that side of it as well.
“But it’s been really great. We’ve set up support structures around the dancers. We have a psych [psychologist] in Melbourne, a psych in Sydney, we’ve got the support stuff – the GP, we’ve got external consultants, dieticians, and other specialists, so that’s been huge to get that support around the dancers.
“For me, it’s about concentrating on creating those support structures but also their career and personal development.”
When Wright first started his professional development program there were nine of 78 dancers studying for life beyond the stage. There are now more than 50.
“All of a sudden we’ve created a culture where the stress is taken away for life after dance and they can concentrate on performing,” he says.
He recalled the “daunting feeling” of having no planned future, an anxiety common to professional sport.
“So that’s my main focus,” he says.
“Trying to get dancers to reach their potential on and off stage.”
Wright’s admiration for the dancers’ physical prowess has only been enhanced during his time at the Southbank studios.
He cannot believe the dancers recover so quickly between shows.
“In AFL we have a 20 minute light run in the morning and then play the next day, yet these guys are flat out all day and then perform at seven o’clock at night,” Wright says.
“That was biggest thing that struck me – the lack of time to recover, but they’re still expected to go out there and put on world class performances.
“And you’ve seen how athletic and powerful and brilliant these dancers are. I love AFL. But I’ve found a new love in this world.”
Mums on tour: The greatest balancing act in dance
Another advancement taken by the ballet in the past 20 years is the support program for young mothers.
Three of the current dancers have children, with principal artists Ako Kondo about to have her first child.
“I’m really excited for this journey but also knowing that the medical team will be there for me to support the recovery,” Kondo says before one her daily classes.
“I feel very safe to go through this progress even while dancing, so very lucky to be here.
“I’ve been doing class and a bit of Pilates to just keep the muscles going but not overdoing stuff. I’ve seen so many previous mums who’ve done it so I think it’s possible.”
In the past, female dancers who wanted to start families had to quit.
“The ladies had to retire at about 30,” Dr Mayes says.
A new policy was brought in to move pregnant dancers onto “safe duties” and back to full fitness after maternal leave.
“And they’re amazing when they get fit again. They’re fitter than ever,” she says.
Return-to-work conditioning was not as difficult as arranging childcare while on tour, Dr Mayes says.
The company now offers payments for nannies or families to go on tour.
New mothers are impeccable in their performance on and off stage.
“They come in, get their businesses done, they’ve got a bit of balance in their life,” Dr Mayes says.
“And they’re really efficient. Do all their rehearsals. Got a great attitude. They know what sleep deprivation is and they’ve got the strategies to counteract it.”
She also benefited from this family-first practice.
“I’ve had two child that toured with me,” she says.
“They had a fantastic life of being amongst all the dancers. It was really nurturing, and you can’t do it if you can’t travel with your children.”
What’s next for the myth-busting Australian ballet?
For many years, Dr Mayes has fielded request to teach her methods overseas.
Days after speaking to ABC Sport she travelled to France to address workshops for physiotherapists on feet and ankles.
Her partnership will continue with La Trobe University.
Researchers are looking to better track artistic athlete workload.
“Because we don’t have the GPS, we’re looking at other technologies to do that,” she says.
Another research study is examining the impact of cognitive fatigue on performers.
“Physically they get fatigued but mentally they get fatigue and that’s when we see injuries,” Dr Mayes said.
Such research would benefit sports coaching.
“Quick coordination of your muscle … we often see the injury at the end of the session, where they start to switch off,” she says.
Audiences might assume big jumps are the most dangerous, but that’s another myth.
“It’s actually the rate of forced development, so it’s the speed of which they do it that is the problem, the fast change of direction – not necessarily the big jumps – and that’s a really hard thing to measure: moving, changing direction,” she says.
Meanwhile, professional sports clubs will continue to send their athletes to the ballet for treatment.
There is no hubris in any of this, rather a mutual respect.
“It’s great to bring the athletes in,” Dr Mayes says.
“Not only for their sake so they can see how hard the dancers work and get some insight into how the foot can function, but it’s also great for our dancers to see [other athletes].
“Because we do work in a bit of a bubble. So it’s really great to open up those boundaries and get them to appreciate what the other athletes are doing.”
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