June 1, 2020

Body conditioning class helps UCalgary dance students prevent injuries

Sarah Kenny receives Peak Scholar award for infusing her research into teaching and community work

Dancers in this class are working up a sweat, but not in the traditional sense. Students in this undergraduate class at UCalgary are spread out in a large studio moving through a series of exercises that focus on hip and core strengthening, as well as cardio movements. This carefully designed body conditioning program will help the dancers decrease their risk of injury by strengthening and engaging the muscles that support them.

The class is led by Dr. Sarah Kenny, PhD, a contemporary dancer turned sports injury epidemiologist whose primary area of research is focused on injury prevention among dancers — both recreational and professional. She incorporates her research into the classes she teaches.

  • Photo above: Sarah Kenny (blue shirt) teaches UCalgary dance students the importance of strength training and body conditioning. Photos and video in this story were shot in February 2020, before the pandemic was announced. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

“We work specifically on muscle strength that is designed to support the dancers in their technical training, so a lot of hip strengthening, a lot of core strengthening. These are the muscles that we really are engaging in a functional way, that if they are strong when they get to their technique class, they don’t have to think about recruiting particular muscles, they can focus on the quality of their movement,” says Kenny, an assistant professor in the Faculties of Kinesiology and Arts.

“I’m really intrigued with the human body and learning about muscles and kinesthetic function,” says Zoe Abrigo, an undergraduate student in UCalgary dance program, who has completed a number of courses in dance science and anatomy taught by Kenny.

“Dance science knowledge, and anatomy knowledge is really crucial, it helps you stay safe, it helps you increase the longevity of your career.”

The next generation of dance teachers

Students in this class gain an understanding of kinesiology and anatomy that not only reduces their own injury risk, but provides lessons they can use to teach dance safely. Kenny says dancers who graduate from the dance program can now use this knowledge not only professionally, but are also now empowered as the next generation of dance teachers.

“Embedded in the dance curriculum is the content students need to learn to teach safely. For example, they learn the components of fitness in order to target complimentary ways of training, they learn foundations of nutrition and hydration to know how to fuel their bodies appropriately.

“This education is one of the fundamental pieces that we can impart in preventing injuries among the dance population,” she says.

“One of the unique things about dance is that it is often is based on tradition. With the influx of kinesiology, and with the influx of scientific research about dancers, we’re now able to bring in for example, appropriate warm up and cool down, that may not have been addressed in the traditional trajectory of teaching.”

As part of the UCalgary dance program, students have the option to register for an internationally recognized Healthy Dance Practice Certificate through Safe in Dance International, as part of their degree. UCalgary is the only academic program in Canada to offer this certificate.

In the community

As part of the Canada Council for the Arts’ Dance Mapping Study, Calgary had recorded the highest number of dance studios of any city in the country, and the impact of Kenny’s work extends into this community. In addition to teaching in the undergraduate dance program at UCalgary, she has used her research knowledge and worked with local dance studios to deliver workshops on the importance of safe dance practice (e.g., dance-specific fitness, warm up and cool down, nutrition and hydration) that they can apply as either recreational or professional dancers.

Kenny also works with the Alberta Ballet School and at times, the Alberta Ballet Company, to provide injury assessment and prevention services. In her work with these organizations she is involved with pre-season screening dancers and helps evaluate them for risk factors to minimize future injuries.

Sarah Kenny was recognized as a Peak Scholar in Entrepreneurship, Innovation & Knowledge Engagement by the University of Calgary in 2019.  She was nominated for this award by her deans.