Introducing Wellness Programs in Pre-Professional Ballet Schools in the United States — Part 2

As evidenced in the case studies of the seven pre-professional ballet schools studied in my thesis* — The University of North Carolina School of the Arts (NCSA), The School of American Ballet (SAB), The Boston Ballet Center for Dance Education (BBCDE), The Ailey School, The Joffrey School, The San Francisco Ballet School (SFB), and The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School (JKO) at American Ballet Theatre — some have taken a multi-disciplinary approach to wellness while others have focused primarily on the physical needs of their students. These differing approaches seem to imply that schools are justified in cherry-picking the multi-disciplinary model for the individual components they want. However, the very nature of ballet training makes multi-disciplinary wellness a necessity, not an option. A demonstrated dedication to dancers’ health and wellbeing on the part of the institution produces healthier, happier, and more capable dancers. A demonstrated dedication to dancers’ health and wellbeing on the part
of the institution produces healthier, happier, and more capable

Recommendations below discuss what type of wellness program ought to be implemented in pre-professional ballet schools, both those that are well funded and those with fewer available resources. No differentiation is made between residential and non-residential schools because whether or not students reside at the school has little effect on the structure of ideal wellness programs. In the case of both well-funded and less well-funded schools, the addition of a wellness program to the ballet curriculum can and should be understood by both the staff and the parents of potential students as an asset and a selling point for the school.

Physical and Mental Health
• Assemble a wellness team with at least three specialists who, ideally, have experience working with dancers or elite athletes: a physical therapist/athletic trainer, a psychologist/psychotherapist/counselor, and a nutritionist;
• Locate these specialists and facilitate contact directly between them and the students as a low-cost alternative to hiring them for onsite consultation.
• If the school has funding, make wellness specialists available on-site on part-time basis for one-on-one consultations.
• Create a series of mandatory wellness seminars for students. Address topics in physical and mental health (e.g., injury prevention and pain, cross-training, psychological and emotional stresses, and nutrition for dancers).
• For schools with less funding, bring each wellness specialist to the school one time per semester to deliver a one-hour lecture on prevention (of injury and pain, nutritional issues, mental and emotional stresses). Some specialists will do one or two pro-bono lectures.
• For funded schools, create seminars that meet more regularly, ideally at least twice per month. A year-round dancers’ health class could take the place of seminars.
• Institute pre-season, mandatory screenings for basic health, dance-specific issues, and nutrition. (Making screenings mandatory sends a message to the students (and parents) that the screenings are an important part of their training.)
• For residential schools: incorporate wellness topics into residential life programming. (All residential schools have some form of “student life,” which funds student programs. Connect wellness specialists to student life staff for additional seminars.)
• Use Restriction Forms: Physical therapists and doctors should fill out a restriction form, which informs the teacher and staff how a student is to restrict his/her dancing and for how long when an injury occurs. Restriction forms hold both teacher and student accountable for following the doctor/physical therapist’s recommendations.

Teacher Education
Invite wellness specialists to address teachers in one seminar per semester (or a series of seminars, depending on funding) on topics including dancer risks and the latest best practices in dance education. Consider requiring teacher certification of your teaching staff from programs like American Ballet Theatre’s teacher training programs, for example, IADMS’s program with Trinity College of London, or other similar programs. Even the best teachers can benefit from training programs that focus on the latest findings in age-appropriate curricula for ballet and emerging best practices in the field of dancer wellness.

Administrative Measures
• Institute a flat-fee payment for physical, mental health, and nutritional screenings.
• Establish a working relationship with a local research hospital. The hospital may send additional interns to work with the school for credit toward their degrees, rather than for a fee.
• Establish a working relationship with an orthopedic surgeon, preferably with experience working with dancers.
• Create a wellness liaison on the school staff to facilitate scheduling, keep faculty and staff abreast of developments, etc.
• The wellness liaison should gather data from specialists to track trends. (Trends to track: number and type of injuries per semester, number of eating disorder diagnoses, and detailed data on students’ ages, levels of training, etc.).
• Keep a list of local physical therapists, psychologists, and nutritionists on the premises, and hand out copies to students and parents as well.
• Get a copy of the Taskforce for Dancer Health’s guidelines and keep those on the school premises, accessible to dancers and parents (
• Have a designated member of the health services staff serve as the “go-to” person for wellness-related questions. This individual can direct students to the wellness specialists and available resources.
• Keep parents informed about developments in the wellness programming with regular letters/emails.
• Institute regular surveys to students on the wellness program.

Wellness programs are a necessary counterbalance to the physical, mental, and nutritional demands of intensive ballet training. A dedication to dancers’ health and wellbeing on the part of a ballet school produces healthier, happier, and more capable dancers. Every professional ballet school, without exception, should have a wellness program and resources for its students, and every ballet school should make an effort to familiarize students with practices that can help ensure their physical and mental wellbeing. My hope is that this study will help in some small way to make it possible for dancers of all ages and abilities to pursue the sublime joy of ballet in a truly healthy fashion.

Elizabeth Sullivan started dancing at age eight in Albany, N.Y. She spent her high school years at the North Carolina School of the Arts where she majored in classical ballet and her summers training at pre-professional ballet schools including San Francisco Ballet School, Boston Ballet School, Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C., and the Hungarian National Ballet Academy in Budapest. At 19, Sullivan began dancing with the Cleveland/San Jose Ballet as an apprentice. In her second and third years with the company, she danced soloist and principal roles before leaving for the Boston Ballet in 1995. After two years in Boston, Sullivan matriculated at Dartmouth College where she majored in Classical Archaeology. Equipped with her B.A., Sullivan moved to Italy where she lived for six years and eventually ran Dartmouth College’s study abroad programs in Rome. In 2007, she returned to the U.S. to earn a Master’s degree in arts administration at Columbia University. While at Columbia, Sullivan interned at The Joyce Theatre and American Ballet Theatre (ABT). She is currently being certified as a health and wellness coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City and is developing a wellness curriculum for dancers. She plans to help young dancers in training achieve their maximum potential as artists and individuals through a balanced approach to their health.

* Material from “The Introduction of Wellness Programs in Pre-Professional Ballet Schools in the United States,” written and submitted for completion of the M.A. degree in Arts Administration at Teachers College, Columbia University on February 2, 2009, by Elizabeth Sullivan.


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