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Leading Article: Not dancing can also be dangerous

THE BALLET dancer's lot is not an enviable one. The level of fitness and physical flexibility required is daunting, even cruel. Gymnasts and figure skaters are subject to some of the same stresses, perhaps even more extreme in the case of gymnasts. But they are called on to perform for only a few minutes at a stretch. Ballet dancers are liable to be on (and off) stage for two to three hours if performing a three-act ballet. Their dancing careers average a mere 12 to 15 years after emerging from ballet school and the level of injuries, temporary and permanent, is high.

If life is tough at the best of times, it is even more taxing when on tour. Staying in cheapish hotels or digs in one alien and hostile- seeming city after another and performing on unyielding stages with inadequate backstage facilities is an experience to test the dedication of the most committed dancer.

All the foregoing may help to explain the decision of the English National Ballet company to call off its performance of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker suite on a cold Monday night in Manchester. There seems to be a dispute not just over the actual temperature that resulted in the cancellation, but over the agreed minimum. Whether the latter is 65F or 66F, many dancers believe it should be 70F (21C). The call-off was thus, to them, over more than one or two degrees.

The question the dancers must ask themselves is whether the degree of risk they ran from performing in a low temperature was serious enough to justify the damage done by the cancellation. In the performing arts the tradition that 'the show must go on', virtually regardless of the odds, is very strong. To scrub a performance after it was due to begin was to anger and disappoint many people who had themselves braved both cold and expense to take their seats, and to risk the company's reputation.

The dancers' reasoning was clear enough. They can go on stage only after warming up for 45 minutes or so. Muscles contract when cold. To become pliant and flexible, they must be expanded - and kept loose between bouts of exertion. If the temperature is too low, they will start to contract, thus greatly increasing the risk of damage. As the demands for them to become ever more gymnastic increase, dancers have become increasingly conscious of the dangers they run. However, since their fears are - however understandable - not widely understood, they should think hard before repeating Monday's pas de zero.