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Dancer Well-Being

One of our Senior Therapists, Jesse Jacobs treating Phebe Sleeman at the West Australian Ballet.

Jenny Woods had a double reason to be delighted as dancers took their curtain call on the Opening Night of Zip Zap Zoom, the Company’s 2015 Quarry season. Her composer daughter, UK-based Caitlin, had created linking music for Daniel Robert’s Hold the Fourth; it was her first gig at the Quarry. And the Company had only one dancer sidelined with injury.

Jesse Jacobs was on cloud nine – but for another reason. His wife, Principal Dancer Brooke WiddisonJacobs, had just given birth to their daughter Emilia. Would she become a dancer like her parents? It did not cross Jesse’s mind as he critically analysed what he saw on stage.

Jenny and Jesse had made their way independently to the Quarry just as they had journeyed separately to the double doors at WAB’s Maylands headquarters to take up their positions; Jenny as musculoskeletal physiotherapist, Jesse as remedial massage therapist.

Jenny and Jesse together with Pilates Coordinator, Chael Hilton, Chief Medical Officer, Dr Mark de Cruz, Associate Sports Physiotherapist, Victoria Simpson, Medical Consultant, Dr Scott Isbel and Cardio Instructor, Michael Makossa, make up the Company’s Dancer Well-being team. The physical and mental demands are such that there is a real risk of dancers sustaining performance-related injuries. This is not only an emotional and mental anguish for the dancer whose career may be at stake but also an economic and artistic burden for a company with obligations to an artistic programme, its audiences and its sponsors.

Dance companies around the world, from Birmingham Royal Ballet to New York City Ballet, are now realising that a dancer wellness programme underwrites injury prevention, effective and efficient training, productivity and career longevity. West Australian Ballet is one of the leaders in the field. That this Quarry season, despite its physical intensity, recorded one of the lowest injury lists in recent times is a cautious measure of the team’s success.

Jenny came from a sporting family – her father was a lacrosse referee, her brother an international player – and combined sport with piano and ballet classes to achieve Solo Seal under Joan Stacey. She is a post-graduate in Physiotherapy from Curtin University – a course then under the watchful eye of the late Robert Elvey. In the early 1980s she treated members of The Australian Ballet while in Sydney. Jenny then joined the Body Logic Physiotherapy practice with Dr Peter O’Sullivan. Some five years ago she began helping out at WAB when staff were on holidays or injury lists required outside assistance.

Jenny is a professional member of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. Attending conferences in Singapore, Seattle and Basel has enabled her to establish a network of like-minded professionals with whom she stays in touch.

Raising a family of five children, many of whom match the ages of the dancers, has given Jenny a maturity and a wealth of life experience. This has equipped her for the position of Head of the Well-being program. ‘I like being with young people,’ she says with a generous smile of satisfaction.

Jesse’s father was a pianist, his mother, a jazz singer. He was a hyperactive child but at an early age his parents noticed the calming effect that music had on him. ‘It made me quiet,’ he said. They enrolled him in the school of the Royal Ballet of Flanders when he was ‘about six or seven’. The result was amazing.

The relationship between music and intellectual development is well known and in Jesse’s case, the disciplined programme of movement, music and education saw him leap from the bottom to the top of the academic class, where he stayed until graduation.

After a 13-year professional career, mostly with the Royal Ballet of Flanders, he sensed he ‘was on top of what I could physically achieve and I realised I couldn’t get any better.’ So he retired. But he had discovered something that shaped his future.

Jesse had discovered that he had some magic in his fingers. Dancers in his company – there were 44 of them – would complain about a pain here or an ache there, or perhaps a tear somewhere else. He found that he had a hands-on gift to identify a problem and fix it.

Jesse graduated from the University of Leiden – he is Dutch by nationality – in sports massage therapy. After immigrating to Australia with Brooke, he gained professional recognition with the Melbourne-based Australian College of Sports Therapy with a Diploma of Remedial Massage. He then applied to Chief Executive, Steven Roth, for a position with the Company. The WA Institute of Sport has also given Jesse its tick of approval. This enables him to treat Olympic athletes at the Subiaco Sports Massage Clinic. ‘This keeps my knowledge and treatment of sports injuries up to date,’ he says.

‘Injury can make you a better dancer,’ Jesse believes. ‘It’s a chance, an obligation perhaps, to change something. And this can be better for you.’

Over ten million Australians spend an average of eight hours a day in the workplace, according to the Heart Foundation. Effective workforce health programmes improve the health and wellbeing of employees and benefit the organisation through reduced absenteeism and increased productivity.

Dancers are elite athletes with a dedicated focus on their performance and their careers. Anxiety and perfectionism go hand in hand. Dancers usually give short shrift to those who are not 100 per cent committed to their endeavour. This works in Jesse’s favour: he was a dancer; he understands their drive and their needs, and shares their total commitment.

The Company’s Well-being programme has a number of components that revolve around screening – the gaining of important information that assists in the education of the dancer, the guidance of artistic staff and the management and rehabilitation by the Well-being team.

Injury prevention is a key focus of the programme. From the screenings, personalised exercise schedules are prepared. Referral to appropriate practitioners is arranged if required – whether the counselling be medical, musculoskeletal, technical and fitness, nutritional or psychological.

Each dancer is unique, and there are significant differences in the physique, musculature, psychological makeup and response to training of male and female dancers. Jenny and Jesse are sensitive to these differences. Videotaping provides a record, visual feedback and a baseline from which to measure progress.

An absolute essential is mutual trust and respect and here both Jenny and Jesse have been most successful. ‘We try to make the dancers feel safe,’ says Jenny. It isn’t easy. Of the Company’s 31 dancers, 17 are Australian (seven from WA), but the remaining 14 come from Russia, Europe and the United Kingdom, as well as Central and South America, Japan, Hong Kong and Malaysia. In this cultural mix the social health is extraordinary – more than one dancer has told me that it is like one huge family – but there are sensitivities nevertheless.

While the Well-being programme concentrates on the dancers, the organisational value to the Company of having its own home should not be under-estimated. It has been inspirational for the professional and support staff as much as for the dancers. A happy company is a productive company whether behind Reception or in front of an audience. The Well-being programme ensures that the Company maintains its artistic excellence – with a longer shelf life for its most important asset, its dancers.

Article from the West Australian Ballet News August 2015

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