Science for dance performance

Professional dancers are like elite athletes

This web site is about using science to improve performance. Although my focus has generally been on sport, science can also help artistic performance. Professional dancers face many of the same challenges as elite athletes, but a cultural divide separates the two communities. A recent paper helps to bridge this gap, by showing that scientific advances in managing relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) may be of great benefit in the dance world.

Dance and sport

Professional dancers spend many hours a day training in order to deliver top level performances in high pressure situations. On stage, they are quite literally under the spotlight. They also start young, developing bodies that are able to meet the high level of technical demands required to reach the top. In spite of the similarities with the lives of those in elite sport, artistic performance is viewed differently from athletic performance. A prima ballerina would not consider herself an athlete any more than a sprinter would consider herself a dancer. Strictly Ballroom is dance, whereas figure skating is sport. This separations stretches from the individual participants up to the level of governing bodies.

Athletes in many sports adapt their body composition to gain an advantage, often seeking to achieve “race weight” ahead of competition. In many ways, the situation is more extreme for dancers, particularly those pursuing classic forms such as ballet, who aim for a body shape that meets aesthetic ideals, while maintaining the strength and flexibility to perform.

Relative energy deficiency in dance

In the paper, dancers were invited to complete an online survey that had been based on previous studies of athletes who were potentially at risk of low energy availability, specifically RED-S. Responses included anthropomorphic data, training and performance hours, injuries and illness, indicators of hormone status and attitudes to eating and weight control.

A RED-S risk score was derived from each dancer’s responses. Of the 247 participants, 57% of females and 29% of males had negative scores, consistent with low energy availability.

Psychological factors proved to be important. Many dancers felt anxious about missing class or rehearsals, in a similar way to athletes who suffer from exercise addiction. These dancers also tended to be more obsessive about controlling their weight and what they eat. Most considered the chances of gaining a leading role to be higher if they lost weight. These kinds of attitudes were observed in an earlier study of male cyclists.

Among the female dancers, some interesting correlations showed up between these mental attitudes and both physical and physiological factors. The more obsessive individuals tended to have a lower body mass index (BMI) particularly when calculated using their lowest weight for their current height. They also tended to have experienced various forms of menstrual disfunction, indicating a disruption to normal hormonal function that has been observed in female athletes in low energy availability.

The large majority of dancers had not heard of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, probably because they do not self-identify as sportsmen/sportswomen. Yet the peer pressure of dance schools and dance companies, combined with ever present social media, can lead some dancers to restrict energy intake to levels that are insufficient to meet the high demands of training and performance.

Fit to dance

The authors hope that the publication of this study will help raise awareness in the dance community of the importance of fuelling for the work required. The fact that physical outcomes are connected, via hormones, to mental attitudes is particularly relevant during the COVD crisis, which has impacted the dance world in such a tragic way. The hope is that dancers will be fully fit and healthy to return to the stage, when the theatres eventually open.


Indicators and correlates of low energy availability in male and female dancers
Nicola Keay, AusDancers Overseas, Gavin Francis

Energy Availability: Concept, Control and Consequences in relative energy deficiency in sportĀ (RED-S)

Low energy availability assessed by a sport-specific questionnaire and clinical interview indicative of bone health, endocrine profile and cycling performance in competitive male cyclists, Nicola Keay, Gavin Francis, Karen Hind