The ballerinas who dance with danger

Deborah Bull, one of the principal dancers at the Royal Ballet, has confessed to an unhealthy lifestyle of intermittently starving herself, making excessive demands on her body and ignoring warning signs of early injury.

Ms Bull, 33, admitted that until three years ago she was ignorant of "simple but vital facts" about health and fitness. Only when she met her boyfriend, Torje Eike, 40, the physiotherapist responsible for keeping the Rolling Stones on the road, did she realise the damage she was doing.

"You may find it surprising that it is possible to reach such an elevated status without being an artist who is an athlete and an athlete who is an artist," Ms Bull said.

Speaking at the launch of Fit to Dance?, Ms Bull endorsed the conclusions of the book's five-year national inquiry into dancers' health and injury. The book describes how ballet dancers routinely abuse their bodies and hammers home the message that prevention is better than cure.

The inquiry, funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation, involved 658 professional dancers and dance students. It showed that British dancers are between 5 per cent and 7 per cent less aerobically fit than their US and Russian counterparts. Some female classical dancers are only marginally fitter than untrained people in the street.

Ms Bull said Mr Eike had been shocked by her fitness levels. "Initially I was not as fit as Mick Jagger," she said, "but now at last, I might give him a run for his money."

Much of today's choreography is aerobic, but, the report reveals, dancers are unprepared for these new demands. "There are people who say, 'we don't want to get into athletics, we don't want you to look like middle- distance runners', but the feats we're being asked to do are athletic," Ms Bull said. "We can't ask people to survive on art alone. It won't carry you through a demanding performance."

The research also showed that dancers' diets are not well-balanced. Ms Bull was, until recently, as guilty as the next dancer of having "a rather special relationship with food". "Personally, I never had the will-power to become anorexic, but if I had done I might have been, because I was so desperate to achieve the shape whatever the cost," she said.

Now that she has undergone her nutritional "metamorphosis", Ms Bull is anxious to spread the word. But students at the Royal Ballet School are taken aback by her message. "Many of them thought, or had been told, to eat a lot of protein and avoid those 'nasty, fattening potatoes'," she explained.

Kenneth Tharp, 36, who danced for the London Contemporary Dance Theatre, added: "Often people take more care of their cars than their bodies. We're under daily pressure and unlike the annual MOT, we have to make the grade night after night. It's heartbreaking to think of the number of dancers who are determined to achieve their roles whatever the cost and set off on a course of self-destruction."

Robert Cohan, the founder artistic director of London Contemporary Dance Theatre, admitted that dance companies were at fault, too. "With the best will in the world, when you're working for an opening performance and someone is injured you just don't want to know," he said. "I always used to feel coming back from tour with the London Contemporary Theatre was like Napoleon's return from Moscow. It was like coming back from a war campaign. How many injured? Could we get on stage?"

The inquiry revealed that 34 per cent of the contemporary dancers and 83 per cent of the ballet dancers and students had incurred an injury - predominantly muscular - in the previous 12 months. Of the injured professional dancers, 58 per cent had taken days off work because of injury, compared to 83 per cent of the injured students. Half of the professional ballet dancers and 75 per cent of the contemporary dancers had paid for their own treatment, consulting mostly physiotherapists or osteopaths.

Half the companies had paid less than pounds 100 for the dancers' treatments.The Director Laureate of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sir Peter Wright, made a plea for lottery funds. "To me, it's the right of all dancers to have proper medical care and the best possible working conditions, regardless of the wealth of the organisations they are employed by," he said. "I just hope that those who hold the national purse strings will read Fit to Dance? too."

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