Building Healthy Boundaries in Creative Processes

This article by Stuart Waters, covers some important questions that are being posed about the safeguarding of the dance artist, most specifically within the pressures and demands of the creative process. The article was originally commissioned by Disability Arts Online,  www.disabilityarts.online.

Stuart Waters is a UK based performer, choreographer and teacher who recently presented at the Once Dance UK Healthier Dancer Conference held at TrinityLaban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (November 2017). His session “Mental Health and Issue-based Work” proposed the development of support mechanisms for dancers when using emotional triggers in the creative process.

” Safeguarding the artist, the studio and the creative process” by Stuart Waters

Photo: Joe Armitage

My personal “rock bottom” was a near death experience, ironically, when I was at the peak of my dance performance career. It was a period of 35 days in ICU and 8 months recovery, during which my new dance theatre piece, ROCKBOTTOM, was born.

But I am not alone, and I challenge us to consider mental health in the dance sector. Are people working with awareness, balance and wellbeing or do people work to the point they feel stressed, demoralised and emotional? Are dance works devised with compassion or by harvesting personal experiences in an exploitative manner?

At a time when mainstream media discusses mental health, it is also time to examine what we expect from our dance artists in the 21st century and how they are treated in the name of art. How does the artist find time to do excel professionally and look after their mental health?

As I approached my “rock bottom”, my vulnerability was being used as a theatrical tool for authentic moments in creation and performance. I was peaking professionally but imploding as an individual. As I experienced the extreme highs and lows of creation and touring, I became increasingly vulnerable as a member of society. When I returned from tours I felt an emptiness. Over time this led to increased feelings of isolation, loneliness, anxiety and bursts of depression. I turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms in order to deal with the growing confusing feelings that were rising inside me. You could argue this lead to additive and self-harming behaviours that only made everything worse.

But whose responsibility was my safety? Was it mine? The choreographer’s? The office staff? My colleagues?

Why was it so hard to discover my illness then to disclose my struggle to my employers, especially when we were working so closely and intimately and knew each other well? Then when I did disclose my situation, even though they worked hard to support me, why didn’t it work? Ultimately, how could the worst have been prevented?

Why do we need and want vulnerability from artists? What does it achieve and how? Does it create great art or are dancers needlessly suffering because the choreographers don’t have the skills to get that material any other way? Is the cost of these explorations worth it?

In January 2017 I began exploring these questions creatively when ROCKBOTTOM gained Research and Development funding from Arts Council England. I wanted to use my experiences, but I knew it would be an emotional process, diving head first into vulnerability as I revisited what had happened. How would I keep both myself and my collaborators safe?

I developed a safe guarding model to protect our emotional and mental well being during creation, curious to see if these measures resulted in a deeper exploration, enabling us to safely push the boundaries. These included:

  1. Skype sessions with a therapist to support trigger moments and overwhelming anxiety. We were surprised by how much we were triggered so this was a private and safe way for us to gather fresh perspective without being consumed or creating anxiety in each other.
  2. Each day began and ended with a “check in” and “check out” that helped us understand where we were emotionally, strengthening the sense we were held in a safe space. Every rehearsal finished with reflection and meditation together. This became invaluable as it gave us closure on the emotions that had been ignited through the day, enabling us to leave the work in the studio and not be haunted by it when we were alone.
  3. Selecting and editing our stories so we could choose when truth needed to bend and flex to serve the art and keep us safe.
  4. Some creation took place in retreat like environment, deep in the countryside. Free from traffic jams and in a protective bubble we felt private and safe to re-visit trauma in a productive way.

Now Arts Council England is funding the creation of ROCKBOTTOM. The strategies I initially devised have been developed further and the choreographic process feels empowering, with a light feeling that is joyful, clear, honest and safe. It has informed the participation sessions I lead, creating an empowering approach that evokes profound responses in participants that surprise everyone with their clarity and revelations.

Far from compromising the quality of the art work I am creating, working with compassion is enabling us to reach depths I never thought was possible. I am proving you can keep artists safe whilst creating great art that is thought provoking and at times shocking. I now want the dance industry to join me, and pledge to:

  • Develop and embed protocols for safeguarding emotional and mental well being in artists
  • Value maintaining good mental health on a par with maintaining good physical health
  • Ensure dancers have awareness and skills to do this through training and support
  • Interrogate how dance work is created and challenge when methodology is exploitative
  • Develop communication between dancers and organisations/directors and ease the fear of being replaced if you are honest about a difficulty
  • For dancers to feel its ok to say no; to be able to say “I’m not in the right place for this today”

Some of these changes are small and simple but have an impact on the working atmosphere, happiness and well being of an artist. If I can put these alterations into my art then so can large companies and organisation. Together we can evolve with the times and be a better inclusive place. Art is a great platform for this and dance could lead the way.

For more information about Stuart and Rock Bottom please go to: https://www.facebook.com/rockbottomdancetheatre/

#TopTipTuesday

Relax and get a good nights sleep

A dance artists life can be hectic! Try to take some time out to relax and allow both mind and body some effective recovery time.

This can be done by relaxing in a warm bath, or by using simple meditation techniques such as sitting or laying down and observing the breath. Doing this in the evening can help in gaining that all important good nights sleep.

Today’s Top Tip is from Charlotte Tomlinson, Associate, SiDI provider and reviewer.

#TopTipTuesday

Start your day the right way….

Make sure you start your day hydrated by drinking a glass of water when you wake up in the morning. Being hydrated can make you feel more alert and energised and reduce potential injury risk from fatigue.

Don’t forget a good breakfast too so that both mind and body can be ready for the day ahead!

Today’s Top Tip came from our Provider, Reviewer and Associate Charlotte Tomlinson.

New on the Blog- Stretching by Janine Bryant

Guidelines for Stretching

– Warm up first. Never stretch a cold muscle!
– By warming up first, the delivery of oxygen and nutrients are increased thus preparing muscles for strenuous activity.
– Warming up should not be too tiring, but just enough to begin perspiring.
– Usually a light jog for 5-7 minutes is sufficient.

Read More…

Stretching by Guest Blogger and SiDI Provider Janine Bryant

Guidelines for Stretching

– Warm up first. Never stretch a cold muscle!
– By warming up first, the delivery of oxygen and nutrients are increased thus preparing muscles for strenuous activity.
– Warming up should not be too tiring, but just enough to begin perspiring.
– Usually a light jog for 5-7 minutes is sufficient.

This tip connects the idea of aging well and dance career longevity to current studio practices. The idea that, what we do now in the dance studio directly affects how our bodies age and perform later, is one that I often talk about within the bounds of my own research on aging and range of motion (ROM).

Perhaps one of the most controversial subjects for dancers and those who train them is the subject of stretching. Which types of stretching to do and when, during an active day, is a conversation happening across the sports industry offering multiple perspectives that often conflict.
For dancers, most of us have developed as artist-athletes without adequate information on this subject. Many can recall entering the dance studio, dropping the huge bags and plopping down on the floor into the widest second position the legs could make and forcing chests down. This practice and others like it still occur in studios everywhere. However, there is a growing hunger, thankfully, for more adequate and up-to-date information being driven by new and old generations of dancers alike who are also scholars and athletes.

While increasing ROM is sometimes considered a task for younger dancers, the idea of increasing or simply maintaining ROM as a dancer ages is sometimes abandoned because the pain of stretching is too great. Further, dancers who have sustained serious injuries due to overworking and overstretching during their active careers will find it difficult to participate in a stretching program, especially if those stretching activities only include the traditional ‘hold and stretch’ movements, more aptly known as static stretching. Complicating things further is the fact that many dancers are have ‘hypermobility syndrome’, which can increase the need for strength training in addition to a stretch program to ensure adequate musculoskeletal balance. The order is tall but dancers, who are by nature high achievers, are up to the task!

All of this begs the questions: What types of stretching are there and which ones are the most effective for increasing and maintaining ROM? And, more importantly, why is stretching a cold muscle bad? These are great questions, the answer for which every dancer old and young would benefit from knowing.

First, let’s take a look at the different types of stretching:
Some of these terms are commonly confused and misused.

Static Stretching

Static stretching means a stretch is held in a challenging but comfortable position for a period of time, usually somewhere between 10 to 30 seconds. Static stretching is the most common form of stretching found in general fitness and is considered safe and effective for improving overall flexibility. However, many experts consider static stretching much less beneficial than dynamic stretching for improving range of motion for functional movement, including sports and activities for daily living.

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching means a stretch is performed by moving through a challenging but comfortable range of motion repeatedly, usually 10 to 12 times. (for dancers, leg swings, fall and recovery activities, etc.) Although dynamic stretching requires more thoughtful coordination than static stretching (because of the movement involved), it is gaining favor among athletes, coaches, trainers, and physical therapists because of its apparent benefits in improving functional range of motion and mobility in sports and activities for daily living.
Note that dynamic stretching should not be confused with old-fashioned ballistic stretching (remember the bouncing toe touches from PE classes?). Dynamic stretching is controlled, smooth, and deliberate, whereas ballistic stretching is uncontrolled, erratic, and jerky. Although there are unique benefits to ballistic stretches, they should be done only under the supervision of a professional because, for most people, the risks of ballistic stretching far outweigh the benefits.

Passive Stretching

Passive stretching means you’re using some sort of outside assistance to help you achieve a stretch. This assistance could be your body weight, a strap, leverage, gravity, another person, or a stretching device. With passive stretching, you relax the muscle you’re trying to stretch and rely on the external force to hold you in place. You don’t usually have to work very hard to do a passive stretch, but there is always the risk that the external force will be stronger than you are flexible, which could cause injury.

Active Stretching

Active stretching means you’re stretching a muscle by actively contracting the muscle in opposition to the one you’re stretching. You do not use your body weight, a strap, leverage, gravity, another person, or a stretching device. With active stretching, you relax the muscle you’re trying to stretch and rely on the opposing muscle to initiate the stretch. Active stretching can be challenging because of the muscular force required to generate the stretch but is generally considered lower risk because you are controlling the stretch force with your own strength rather than an external force.

Stretching Techinque

Every stretch is static or dynamic and passive or active, as illustrated in the examples shown in table 1.1 above.
You might hear or read about other techniques and terms used in stretching (especially by coaches and athletes), such as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching. PNF techniques attempt to alter neural input thereby influencing muscle extensibility to improve flexibility. One common version, contract/relax, utilizes a 10-second contraction of the muscle followed by 10-seconds of relaxation, during which the same muscle is passively stretched. This procedure is generally executed three times and a static stretch of 30 seconds or more is added at the end. PNF techniques can be particularly useful for dancers having difficulty improving their flexitility.{2}

Most of the stretches you see and do are likely static-passive stretches. Static-passive stretches are the most common stretches and the easiest to perform. If executed with good technique, these stretches are effective in improving flexibility and range of motion.
However, most experts now agree that although static-passive stretches have many benefits, it’s best to do more dynamic-active stretches. Because dynamic-active stretches require you to use and build your own strength while moving through the stretch, they are more helpful for improving functional movements used in everyday life and in sports. In addition, because dynamic-active stretches are movement oriented, these stretches can help generate heat, which can make the muscles more pliable. Finally, evidence suggests that because dynamic-active stretches require muscle activation and contraction, the muscles being stretched are triggered to relax even more than they might during a static-passive stretch, thereby reducing the risk of injury while increasing the functional benefit.

This does not mean you should avoid or minimize static-passive stretching. Just be aware that there appear to be quite a few advantages and benefits to dynamic-active stretching and that you should include these types of stretches as often as is comfortably and conveniently possible for you. {1}

Experts are also recommending that dynamic stretches be performed BEFORE the first plie in class or prior to a performance and that static active and static passive stretching is best for recovery at the end of the dance day. Stretching cold muscles predisposes dancer-athletes to power loss and injury. Solomon et al suggest a warm up for 5 to 10 minutes before starting flexibility training. The resultant elevation in body temperature will make stretching more effective and comfortable and reduce the possibility of injury. Room temperature should be warm and focus on correct form and alignment stressed, as benefits of any exercise are greatly diminished when performed improperly as risk of injury increases. {2}

Other things to consider: Dancers who are naturally flexible should be monitored closely during stretching activities for form and hypermobility tendencies. Dancers desiring to simply maintain ROM could also benefit from bone-building resistance training alongside ROM flexibility training. Dancers in the midst of an active performance career need to time their flexibility programs wisely during their dance day with consideration for room temperature, strength preservation and injury prevention.

Until next time, friends, dance healthy, long, strong, and warm up before stretching!

Janine Bryant

1. Blahnik, J., Full Body Flexibility, Second Edition, Human Kinetics, 2011.
2. Solomon, R., Solomon, J.,Minton, S.C., Preventing Dance Injuries, Second Edition, Human Kinetics, 2005.

#SiDI Says

SiDI Says: Remember in this cold weather the temperature in your dance studio is important so that your dancers to do their best.

To make sure that dancers can work efficiently and safely, the temperature of a dance studio should be around 18° to 24° degrees Celsius. An ideal temperature would be around 20° to 21° degrees Celsius. This will help dancers to avoid either overheating or not being able to warm-up and stay warm efficiently, both of which can contribute to ill effects and injury.

Make sure that all your dancers keep their warm up clothes on longer in this cold weather so that muscles can be fully warm.

#SiDISays