Getting under a dancer’s skin - brutal regimes and unambiguous love
Dance may look effortless on the stage, but it requires a lot of strength, flexibility and stamina. It also comes with high risk injuries.
With the Malta International Arts Festival (MIAF) behind the corner, I had a chat with Francesca Tranter, MIAF programming team member, and Artistic Director of Contact Dance Company and Dance Hybrid Malta. We discussed one of the MIAF’s popular art forms - dance but my curiosity shifted towards what life is like for a dancer.
“Expressing oneself through movement may come easier than vocalising your feelings,” Francesca explained vividly. “So, engaging in dance can feel quite liberating, and this applies to all forms of dance, whether it’s being practiced professionally or not.”
However, Abela Tranter is also quick to highlight that the regime of a full-time dancer is, in fact, nothing short of “brutal”, and that only an unambiguous love of the discipline will help the dancer remain motivated in the long haul. “It is very demanding, and competitive. Success requires total focus and a dedication to perpetual learning. So, you really do have to love it, as it is a part of you 24 hours a day!” Abela Tranter is also careful to note that such a degree of necessary absorption is also necessary to the creative make-up of being a dancer.
“As dance artists, we feed off all that we see through observing people, places, cultures, events… it is the elements of all life that transcends into one’s work: the two are very rarely separate.”
But neither can we separate a dancer’s ambitions and creative inclinations from the undeniable realities of their very bodies, which the discipline will challenge on a daily basis. “Dance may look effortless on the stage, but it requires a lot of strength, flexibility and stamina. It also comes with high risk injuries,” Abela Tranter says, adding that “muscle soreness is second-nature to a dancer’s body: absolutely no doubt about that”.
Tranter explains that, whatever the genre or style of dance, some core health and safety habits remain paramount, given the repetitive movements that a dancer would be expected to perform.
“This is about regular training in other specific techniques, such as core and hip strengthening exercises like Pilates and stability-based yoga, both of which are great for dancers,” Tranter says, adding that aerobic and cardiovascular activities such as running, swimming or biking are also crucial, since they “get your heart rate up and help build stamina for long performances”.
“These combinations of techniques become a serious holistic part and lifestyle of a full time dancer, helping to build strength and endurance, almost becoming a religion as these sessions provide specific focus that strengthen the core muscles and sustain the flexibility of the joints,” Abela Tranter says, highlighting the fundamental principle that a dancer’s body “is their tool”, and so should be both pushed to excellence while also being treated with utmost care.
Which makes rest periods equally important, since, “we know that dancing five hours a day or longer is linked to an increased risk of injury”.
“Dancers work at their highest intensity per week, but it is important to take a day of complete rest. During the summer, a three- to four-week period of rest after a season is ideal for recovery, and it can also be an opportunity for them to pursue other areas of dance that might interest them, to continue developing their own artistic interests,” Abela Tranter says, while also acknowledging that full time dancers contracted to companies
and independent dance artists who work on project to project will have different day-to-day physical realities that they would need to contend with, and so should adjust their routines accordingly.
But neither can the psychological dimension of the experience be ignored. Dancers are more than just performative athletes - their bodies craft feelings and stories that express a wide range of human emotions and observations. The challenges here are various: meeting choreographers half-way, delivering a fresh take on inevitably ‘repetitive’ repertory work…
“It is not only physically demanding but also mentally exhausting. What does a professional actor do when playing a character? They try to move as close as possible to the character. Dancers are no different, and they may even be more taxed, as they use their body to create that narrative: a universal language. Dancers are tuned in to their senses deeply, because they tap into their imagination in their daily training, the mind and body working together…”
In fact, Abela Tranter bristles at the mere implication that dancers, like sports athletes, have a ‘shelf life’ due to the physical nature of their work.
“How can we even talk about human beings having a ‘shelf life’? If you are breathing, you are living,” Abela Tranter says, stressing that even dancers who retire from the stage tend to carry on contributing richly to the discipline, in the form of coaching, mentoring, producing or directing.
“In fact, because of their years of committed rigorous training, focus and a wealth of performances under their belt, the ageing dancers I know are the ones who are finding new ways of remaining relevant, all the while continuing to share their wide knowledge and experiences through their communities.”
The Malta International Arts Festival is happening between the 19th June and the 5th of July. For more information visit www.festivals.mt/miaf