£1m step to put the kick back into Britain's unfit dancers

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The Independent Online

Britain's ballet dancers, notorious for low fitness levels and appalling injuries, are to get their first specialist treatment centre to help prolong their careers. The £1m Birmingham centre will help make their treatment as sophisticated as the care for footballers and other athletes, which experts claim is 20 years more advanced.

The fitness experts will also monitor senior and junior ballet schools to prevent youngsters developing crippling conditions that ruin the lives of many dancers.

Research by the Gulbenkian Foundation shows dancers suffer far more injuries than players of contact sports, such as rugby. The experts will analyse which roles produce which injuries and require strengthening exercises.

David Bintley, artistic director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, said: "What's unique is that the centre will have every medical discipline which relates to dance under one umbrella. The combination will be remarkable."

Birmingham has already incorporated the advice of physiotherapists and doctors into its programme of rehearsals and performances and the research will enable more focused help.

Mr Bintley said: "Dancers are our biggest resource so their well-being is paramount. Classical dancers are now having to work in a much broader range of styles and it puts a greater strain on the body than Margot Fonteyn had to face. Rather than push people to continue performing, we try to get them off as soon as possible, get them treated and get them back quicker."

Advances made in understanding the human body have led to changes in teaching and rehearsing. Thirty years ago children used to begin point work - dancing on their toes - at eight. Now they would not start until at least 10.

Sharon Morrison, the company's head physiotherapist, said she had been shocked when she moved from sports medicine to working with dancers two years ago.

"Dance medicine was so far behind. A sedentary person off the street and a dancer of equivalent age would have been the same for cardiovascular fitness. But the dancers here have realised they have got to be fit to do their job."

Intensive monitoring in the human performance laboratories would provide the scientific data they needed to improve dance medicine. Scientists from Birmingham's universities will help with the research.

The centre, which will be named the Jerwood Centre after the charitable Jerwood Foundation which has given £200,000 towards the cost, will be used initially by dancers from the Birmingham Royal Ballet, from DanceXchange, the dance network for the West Midlands, and from the Birmingham Royal Ballet School. But they expect dancers from across the country to benefit.

Alan Grieve, chairman of the foundation, said they were delighted to support the project. "It's something that has never been done before which appeals to Jerwood, because we like to innovate."

The centre is part of a £28.8m re-development of the Hippodrome, which has had £20m of lottery money, the largest lottery project in the west Midlands.