British dancers at the bottom of the fitness pile

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Some of Britain's 25,000 professional dancers are so unfit that they are sustaining more injuries than players of contact sports such as rugby and boxing, according to a report to be published next month.

Fit to Dance?, the culmination of a five-year inquiry into dancers' health and injuries, explodes the myth of the superfit figure exercising at the barre. Some dancers are only marginally fitter than the untrained person on the street, it reveals.

Many smoke far too much, do not eat properly and, compared to athletes, have very poor aerobic fitness (stamina of the heart and lungs).

The study looked at all kinds of professional dancers, from classical ballet, contemporary dance, South Asian, African and Caribbean dance, to tap and jazz. Preliminary results revealed that of the 658 dancers questioned, 82 per cent had suffered an injury in the previous 12 months and 54 per cent of these had had to take time off work.

Dr Yiannis Koutedakis, a senior lecturer in sports science at Wolverhampton University, who was involved in the inquiry since the outset, was shocked by the poor levels of fitness among dancers.

The study suggests that this may be due to lack of leisure time, overwork and/or training traditions, and emphasises that dancers' traditional barre and centre floor exercises are not in themselves sufficiently aerobic to improve fitness.

"Dancing is the victim of its own success," said Dr Koutedakis. "In the Sixties and Seventies, when people like Nureyev and Fonteyn were around, there was no reason for dancers to look around for new ideas. Since then sports science has changed. But very little of this information has gone through to dancers."

Dr Koutedakis is calling on ballet schools and dancers alike to adopt a more "open-minded" attitude to fitness. At present, just two schools in the UK have taken on board the lessons of sports science. The English National Ballet School in London and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds introduced sports science-style dancing into their curriculum earlier this year. "They do strength and endurance training along the same lines as runners and other athletes," said Dr Koutedakis approvingly. "The key word is prevention. Dancers are only dealing with treatment at the moment."

General Practitioners, the report concludes, are ill-informed about dance stresses and slow to offer referrals. But it highlights how dancers need re-educating as well.

"Too many professional dancers and students regard food as the enemy," said Professor Christopher Bannerman, chair of Dance UK, the national dancers' organisation, head of dance at Middlesex University, and one of the report's editorial team. "They use cigarettes and coffee to keep their weight down. They could maintain the right weight by eating sensibly and have more energy to dance better.

"Really, it's the equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. If you exercise, you open up your lungs. The thesis is that dancers are drawing nicotine deep into their lungs where it could be doing irreparable damage."

Professor Bannerman, a former dancer with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre, who once suffered a serious back injury which laid him off for months, said: "I learnt the value of working in the gym on specific exercises for specific problems. Before, I had thought it was tedious, boring and repetitive.Eventually, I realised there was a satisfaction in it - and it allowed me to dance like I had never danced before."