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The Rebranding of the Performer

A couple of years ago I was discussing the physical demands of performing with a friend and colleague of from the Royal Ballet. We were getting into the amount of physical load that Performers deal with on a day to day basis and how many of them perform daily with pain, as a painful day is a normal day for them. I said to my colleague that we treat our Performers through the lens of an athlete, which makes sense as that both of our backgrounds. To which he responded that they don’t use the term Performer at the Royal Ballet, they use the term “Performing Athlete”. For me, that label is perfect. It concisely captures everything you are. A performer also engaging in a heavily athletic pursuit.  

From that day on we’ve borrowed that term and used it day-in-day-out to help our Performing Athletes reframe what they do, in a way that allows them to engage with the physical side of their job and further their understanding as to why thinking of themselves in that way will have dramatic affects on their short term pain and performance, and their long term success and career longevity.

 

How do we do that? By trying to make it relatable and understandable. If we can’t do these two things successfully then our words are wasted, there is no point using long scientific words and complex rationales for someone non-medical, just wanting to get better. We should never baffle the people we work work with with this type of approach, they need to understand in their language what we think is going on. There’s no time for that kind of “flex” in this scenario. Stripping it back to basic if need be. Their understanding is key for buy-in to the plan.

Often these Performing Athletes will need to squat, hinge, pull, press, turn, change direction, jump and land. Essentially creating and absorbing force in every plane of movement. The same as most sports. By agreeing that’s the case, and helping them understand that landing from a 30 centimetre jump will put 4x your body weight through your legs, then showing how high that is (not very high for a lot of performers), you can often see the cogs start to turn. If you have the relationship where you can ask how much they weigh and get that answer, multiply that by 4 and come up with the resulting number. Often eyes widen and their attention is grasped. But it's important to reinforce that they are capable of that, but it helps to quantify exercise perscription.

Then it’s important to caveat that with “we are NOT talking about putting 3 times your bodyweight on your back and squatting”, cue a chuckle of relief. But just understanding that gravity doesn’t discriminate, whether you’re a footballer, Formula One driver, Lacrosse player or a Performing Athlete, physics and biology remains the same.

This is where the traditional model of therapy in the Performing Arts sector has been lacking. Historically it has some strong views around the need to stretch being much more important than strengthen; that strength work will make you bulky, that if you are to do “weights” then high reps only, no heavy stuff. As well as a general neglect to acknowledge that an individuals structure can make a task more (or less) difficult, and that we are not all the same in that sense.

Figure 1 shows some differences in hip joint structures

One example is your hip joint shape. The orientation of the head of your femur (upper leg bone) in relation to the acetabulum (the socket it sits in) will determine to a large degree how much rotation you have at the hip and how you might squat comfortably. Dependent on your “version” will be where your feet are pointing when you are in a hip neutral position. For retroverted hips a neutral hip position would create feet that point outwards to some degree. Think of what some people refer to as duck feet. "Correct" that person at their feet and have the feet pointing forward makes their hip internally rotate (femur rolled inwards) meaning that for this person, feet pointing forwards takes them from their hip neutral position. That can have a dramatic impact on squatting and lunging patterns. And over a course of time the hip can genuinely be a limiting factor and a driver of some issues. Understanding this about yourself is such a simple thing that can really put a Performing Athlete on the path of knowing their body.

Another area where our sector has been harshly treating people is in their need to recover. Of course, training and rehearsals are hard times. Long hours, repetition, stop start nature, small breaks for food and drinks. As well as a stigma around a need to recover and in some instances a disregard due to someones experience themselves as a performer. Where they had to go through it the pain, like a right of passage. Reshaping this is a key pillar of change we try to create. We’re lucky to work with people and productions that want to evolve and modernise, they want to push their productions forward and add objectivity and science to the way they look after their performers. With a genuine Performer-centric view on health and performance. It’s happening.

Recovery is the single most important aspect of a Performing Athletes life. Because after rehearsals you essentially have a matchday every evening and sometimes twice a day, with less than 24 hours recovery. Giving 100% in each performance is hugely taxing, whatever the production . That being said it’s no wonder why we spend a lot of time educating Performing Athletes on the need to recover well, what kinds of recovery is needed for different types of fatigue, how they may accelerate recovery, and what to avoid to slow down recovery. This emphasis on education during sessions and specific talks with cast is helping reduce our injury rates and giving our performers the tools to own their physicality which translates in to more time on the boards, more time closer to 100% performance, which in turn can lead to more opportunity and a more successful future career. For a Production it can give the Performing Athletes that feeling that they're being looked after, cared for and then are more likely to give me too which has huge performance and financial benefits for the Performing Athlete and the Production.

We’re pleased to be helping drive this evolution in our sector, and having this healthy, positive conversation. If you want to know more about how this reframing can be benefit you or your production then Contact Us at Production Physiotherapy