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Young alumni stories: Physiotherapist en pointe with ballerinas’ careers

Alumni News

Dance has always been in Danica Hendry’s blood. The physiotherapist and professional ballerina studied at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), performed in The Phantom of the Opera and worked as a touring physiotherapist for The Australian Ballet and for Tim Minchin’s smash hit, Matilda the Musical. She is now undertaking a PhD, and researching contributing factors towards pain and disability in pre-professional dancers.

Danica Hendry performing in “The Phantom of the Opera” (third from left).

The punishing physical demands of elite dance ensure a ballerina’s professional life is necessarily brief; beginning early and ending at such a young age that a second career is a necessity. While a career in both the creative arts and applied sciences is rarely synchronous, for Danica, the allure of studying physiotherapy, and using her experience as a professional dancer to inform her treatment of other dancers, was very strong.

“My main reason for choosing to work in the dance and performance sphere as a physio is that it’s ‘where I came from’. I loved being an artist, and now I love working with artists,” Danica said.

“Performing artists are amazingly driven people. They know their bodies really well and they work really hard to stay on top of things, particularly at the elite professional level. This is where it is really fun working with younger, pre-professional dancers and performers as well. These developing artists have massive training schedules, and huge physical and emotional demands, and to teach them how to manage themselves within this space is really rewarding, and it is something they take into the rest of their career with them.”

Despite her background in professional dance, and her love of the performing arts, some unexpected advice from the head physiotherapist at The Royal Ballet in London inspired Danica to begin her physiotherapy career as a generalist, treating a range of injuries and ailments.

“In my final year of my undergraduate degree, I went to my first International Association of Dance Medicine and Science conference and, within this, went to a presentation aimed at young health professionals about growing in the industry,” she said.

“It was presented by the head physiotherapist of The Royal Ballet in London. She said that when she looks for physiotherapists to work with their dancers, she wants them to have a broad range of experience as a physiotherapist, and have treated lots of different patients across lots of different settings. So, I launched into my career with this advice and worked in a private practice in the outer suburbs of Perth, where I got to see and experience a range of different conditions.”

Danica treating a patient.

Danica continued to teach ballet, and worked on various musical theatre shows including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Rocky Horror Show, before undertaking a Masters in Clinical Physiotherapy, specialising in Sports Physiotherapy, part time. She then began to work almost exclusively with dancers, and had the opportunity to undertake a placement at The Australian Ballet as part of her Masters program. One thing led to another, and she was offered a job at the company as a touring physiotherapist.

“For the Masters course you do a placement at an elite sporting group. I managed to organise mine at The Australian Ballet where I was supervised by the head physiotherapist Sue Mayes,” she said.

“It was an amazing experience, and I learnt a lot from it. It really changed the way I approach dancers. I wasn’t expecting this to open doors for me but, once I had finished my Masters, Sue contacted me and asked if I was interested in some touring work. I have just returned from my first Regional Tour with them, which is quite unique in the fact that half the touring company are dancers from the main company, and the other half of the dancers are final year students at The Australian Ballet School.

“So as well as focussing on assessment, treatment and management of injuries and pain, there is also a lot of teaching the school dancers how to keep themselves in shape throughout the duration of the tour. As the physio, you keep close communication with the artistic staff in terms of where dancers are at.”

Danica’s passion for treating young dancers on the cusp of developing demanding professional careers informs her PhD project, ‘An investigation of pain related disability and quality of movement in pre-professional dancers’. She is collaborating with the Curtin Institute for Computation and WAAPA on the project, which uses high-tech sensors to track movements and, in the longer term, aims to prevent pain and disability in dancers.

“Frequently, I have dancers come in to the clinical setting asking, ‘Why is it me who is always having problems?’. When we start to dig a bit further, we find that there is a lot more to it than the fact that they have just done a bit too much, and that often they are really stressed out or aren’t sleeping properly at night,” she said.

“They also start telling me about how their dance technique is a bit off – for example they will describe feeling really heavy when they jump. So, I want to see if there is a link between these factors and how they all relate to each other.”

Danica uses her experience as a professional dancer to inform her treatment of her patients.

As part of her project, Danica will follow a group of university level pre-professional dancers over a university semester, as they approach a performance season and following the season.

“We will measure different psychological factors, lifestyle factors (such as sleep) and physical factors (such as training volume), and look at how they affect the way a dancer moves, and in turn how this influences/is influenced by pain and disability,” she said.

“To measure the dancers’ training volume, and quality of movement, we are using little wearable movement sensors. Currently, these know how to detect movements like walking and running, but not dancing. So the first thing we need to do is ‘teach’ these machines to detect movements, for example we are teaching the machine what different jumps in ballet look like, so that it can identify a jump and tell us how many times a dancer jumps in her day.

“From there, we will also use the output of the sensors to provide us with information on the jumping, such as how high the dancer is jumping and how softly they are landing. These components have implications for pain that dancers feel, and also have performance implications…Long term it could help with preventing pain and disability in dancers.”

Despite living and breathing dance for so many years, Danica is still struck by the opportunities on offer as a sports physiotherapist for dancers, and believes the knowledge she, and other specialists, have developed can be utilised by other sports.

“I never expected this to happen. I love being around the studio and the theatre environment, so both my work at The Australian Ballet and Matilda felt as though I was in an environment that makes me buzz,” she said.

“Both companies also have a huge respect towards physiotherapy and their performers’ health and wellbeing, which makes the work really rewarding and enjoyable. It always feels good to sit back and watch a performance and know that you have had a role in bringing those performers on stage. I like the idea of applying what we know in sports physiotherapy to dancers and performers, and I think that there is a growing body of knowledge within the dance sphere that we can take and apply to other sports.”

This story is part of Curtin’s Young Alumni Stories series where we celebrate the achievements of Curtin graduates 35 and under. Learn more about the Young Alumni Program.

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