Holistic Healthcare at The Royal Ballet School

At The Royal Ballet School, nurturing healthy, resilient young dancers is paramount. The School safeguards its students’ health and well-being through its world-class Healthy Dancer Programme. This programme sees 20 top-tier healthcare professionals work with the School’s Artistic staff to provide a fully integrated, holistic approach to classical ballet training.

Here’s how the School supports its students’ physical and mental well-being through the Healthy Dancer Programme and cutting-edge sports science research.

Supporting Long-Term Health: The Healthy Dancer Programme

The Healthy Dancer Programme invests in students’ long-term health through on-site support and supplementary training. Embedded research informs the programme, enhancing the School’s understanding of pre-professional ballet training’s unique risks and challenges. This understanding enables proactive prevention of potential health issues.

The Healthy Dancer Programme team includes a dedicated nutritionist, physiotherapists, sports physicians, strength and conditioning coaches, a clinical psychologist, counsellors, and a rehabilitation ballet instructor.

Additionally, all students can access immediate specialist healthcare through The Royal Ballet School Health Trust.

Physical Well-Being

As elite athletes, full-time Royal Ballet School students receive the highest-quality physical healthcare to help them reach their potential. In particular, strength and conditioning training is essential to keep young dancers strong and injury-free.

Chris McCann is The Royal Ballet School’s Physical Development Lead. He oversees the strength and conditioning and sports science provision at Upper School and White Lodge.

The programmes McCann and his team create for students incorporate the physiological adaptations the young dancers need to target in their training. These adaptations might involve enhancing bone mineral density, strengthening tendons, or improving overall muscle tissue robustness.

Additionally, McCann collaborates with Artistic staff to target specific physical qualities that individual students would benefit from improving. For example, addressing asymmetries in the body, which can be potential risk factors for injury.

McCann and his team conduct termly screening exercises that paint a picture of each student as an athlete. These exercises include jump testing to measure lower body power and isometric plantar flexion to measure calf and ankle strength.

The data collected from termly screening informs the conditioning programmes that support student development and performance outcomes.

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Physiotherapy is another vital aspect of managing students’ physical well-being. Physiotherapist Erica Gethen Smith and her colleague Richard Meaden help the healthcare team treat students aged 11 to 16 at White Lodge.

Students can schedule an appointment with Smith and Meaden or come to a drop-in session during the day. Smith and Meaden may refer students with more complex cases to a sports and exercise medicine consultant. However, promptly notifying the healthcare team of any minor injuries or concerns can prevent these from developing into more serious issues.

Mental Well-Being

A young dancer’s mental well-being is equally important as their physical health. Designated Safeguarding Lead and Psychologist Christian Uitzinger supervises the School’s comprehensive mental health provision.

Students have access to in-house counsellors, whether through referral or self-referral. These counsellors look after students’ psychological well-being and support their training with an emphasis on performance psychology. They also empower students to understand and manage their mental health, guiding them on when to seek support.

Uitzinger and the mental well-being team also organise activities to raise mental health awareness. For example, in 2023, the team served cupcakes to students and staff to encourage conversation and social connection on World Mental Health Day. Students also enjoyed hula hooping and treasure hunts during Mental Health Awareness Week.

Nutrition Support

Students need comprehensive nutrition support to perform at an elite level and maintain their health and well-being. The Royal Ballet School is acutely aware of the challenges of elite performance environments, especially the risks of under-fuelling, low body weight, and injury due to high training load.

The School has partnered with the UK Sports Institute (UKSI) for years, accessing its diverse, extensive network of nutritionists. Additionally, the School taps into the UKSI’s wider working groups, which delve into topics like menstrual dysfunction and disordered eating. These two issues are prevalent in all sports, but particularly in aesthetic art forms.

A dedicated performance nutritionist works with the School two days a week, educating students on fuelling their bodies and offering one-to-one support. The nutritionist also helps the School’s catering team plan menus and food provision.

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In this way, the School empowers students to understand their bodies’ needs and make informed choices about diet and intake.

Advancing Healthcare Through Sports Science Research

The Royal Ballet School uses the latest data to support young dancers by embedding sports science research into the Healthy Dancer Programme.

Harnessing Data for Valuable Insights

Aside from undertaking termly screening exercises, each day students log data — such as their sleep quality, hydration, and stress levels — in an app. The healthcare team uses this data to create individualised healthcare and conditioning programmes for each student.

The app is part of the Smartabase athlete performance management system the School uses to manage students’ holistic well-being. The healthcare teams at The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet also use Smartabase. The three organisations work together to contribute invaluable data-led insights and expertise to the wider dance community.

Reducing Injuries

In March 2023, The Royal Ballet School announced a partnership with Podium Analytics. The non-governmental organisation and charity is committed to reducing injury in sports.

The School has contributed to Podium’s Sportsmart education hub and is now working with the organisation to develop an app for the School’s Associate Programme. This will enable the School to track and monitor injury and attendance in Associate students.

Identifying injury risk is crucial in all sports, but especially for young athletes. Niall MacSweeney, the School’s former Physical Development Lead, is  his PhD on injury risk in pre-professional ballet. He believes the School “ ” due to the environment it’s created for the healthcare programme.

MacSweeney published the first of his papers, The Use of Physical Screening Tools to Identify Injury Risk Within Pre-Professional Ballet Dancers: An Integrative Review, in

The study reviewed existing research to help organisations like The Royal Ballet School. It also highlighted future research opportunities within the pre-professional ballet dancer population.

In  MacSweeney published further research he had undertaken with the School in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. The study focuses on injury risks in jumps and landings especially. MacSweeney’s research identified higher physical asymmetries during certain phases of jumps as a key factor in increased injury risk.

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Strength Training in Adolescent Ballet Dancers

Upper School Strength and Conditioning Coach Jamie Harding is undertaking a PhD in collaboration with the University of Essex. His study, set to conclude in 2025, examines the optimal frequency and volume of strength training in adolescent ballet dancers. Better understanding these factors will help enhance students’ training and performance.

Harding and University of Essex scientists are studying students to discover how elite sports techniques like targeted weight training can improve dancers’ strength to “reduce the risk of injuries while improving performance.” This research will benefit the School’s scientific understanding of its young dancers and contribute to the wider dance science industry.

The Importance of Research

The School is engaged in various other research areas, such as developing methods to effectively track and monitor relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S).

Karen Sheriff is Head of Healthcare at The Royal Ballet School. She says research is “ l” to the School as a world-leading dance organisation. Research enables the School to refine its training methods and deepen its scientific understanding of young dancers to “ .”

Learn more about The Royal Ballet School’s Healthy Dancer Programme.

About The Royal Ballet School

The Royal Ballet School continuously educates students on how to optimise their health and empowers them to take charge of their own well-being. This way, students have the necessary tools and support to meet the demands of their future careers as professional dancers.

Many Royal Ballet School alumni pursue careers in dance performance and choreography with The Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, and other top-tier UK and international companies. Renowned former students include ballet greats like Margot Fonteyn, Lynn Seymour, Anthony Dowell, Marguerite Porter, Jonathan Cope, and Darcey Bussell.

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