Jan. 18, 2023

PhD research turns spotlight on using wearables to study workload in dancers

UCalgary grad aims to offer dancers the same research focus as sports athletes
Valeriya Volkova successfully defended her thesis on the workload stress that dancers go through in December of 2022
In December 2022, Valeriya Volkova successfully defended her thesis on the workload stress that dancers go through. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

When most people think of athletes, the word “dancer” often doesn’t come to mind. But dancers are a unique group of artistic athletes who participate in large amounts of training. Nonetheless, when it comes to examining issues such as athlete injury rates, there tend to be fewer studies that focus on dancers compared to athletes in sport-science research.

Dr. Valeriya Volkova, BSc’18, PhD’22, hopes to change this. She successfully defended her doctorate thesis on how much and how hard dancers are working — a dancer’s workload — from the Faculty of Kinesiology under the co-supervision of Drs. Sarah Kenny and Reed Ferber, both PhD.

Valeriya Volkova

Valeriya Volkova

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

“Dance science is a growing area of research, comprised of many aspects including training, performance, recovery and decreasing injury risk,” she says. “Workload in dance has been researched with respect to training, performance and recovery, but most studies focus on a subset of dance genres (i.e., ballet, modern, Dancesport) and a subset of dance-participation levels (i.e., vocational, professional).

Getting the right tools

When first starting her research, Volkova had to understand what tools had been used in the past to study dancers’ workload.

“We found that the most-used tools … either measured how much dancers worked (i.e., volume of training) or how hard they worked (i.e., intensity of training at one point in time),” says Volkova. “Using tools that encompass both volume and intensity measures will help us understand dancers’ true workloads.”

While there are still some limitations to some of the workload tools used in sport, Volkova tried to address some of those issues by implementing novel methods in the dance setting. The availability and affordability of wearable technology allowed Volkova to bring research-grade equipment into the dance studio to explore university dancers’ workloads.

The COVID-19 dance

As with many other research projects, the COVID-19 pandemic complicated participant recruitment and data collection, forcing Volkova to make several pivots in her research.

“We were only permitted to conduct in-person research with adult participants on campus during 2020-2021, so we could not explore workload in adolescent dancers, which was the original plan,” she says.

By using wearable technology Volkova was able to capture in real time the amount of work dancers go through during training

By using wearable technology Volkova was able to capture in real time the amount of work dancers go through during training.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

“Many of the dancers approached to participate in our studies opted out due to the added stressors, pressures and uncertainties that came with the pandemic. Dancers’ training during the pandemic was also different. Not only were they dancing in masks and while physically distanced in their own three-metre-by-three-metre boxes in the gymnasium, but they also did not have productions, performances and competitions during the peak of the pandemic.”

Despite the setbacks, Volkova is positive that dancers, teachers and clinicians will benefit from the data and results that were collected. She says a goal is to help dancers understand how much and how hard they work, show teachers how their dancers are responding to their planned dance training and choreography — and make adjustments when those demands get too high — and clinicians will be able to use dancers’ workload information to effectively plan and customize recovery from dance-related injuries.

“Ultimately, we want to reduce dancers’ risk of injury and keep them healthy and doing what they love for as long as possible,” she says.

We-Trac to startup

Even before her research was concluded, Volkova found herself exploring new avenues in the wearable technology sphere when Ferber, BPE’93, who was Volkova’s program director, invited her to join the Wearable Technology Research and Technology (We-TRAC) program through the Faculty of Kinesiology.

“I was intrigued by the multidisciplinary aspect of We-TRAC,” says Volkova, adding her background is in exercise physiology. “We-TRAC provided me the opportunity to receive training outside of my main academic discipline [and] allowed me to take part in a Wearables Summer School [at the University of British Columbia] in 2019 and work directly with lululemon Whitespace Labs in 2021 via a We-TRAC industry practicum placement.” She says working with the clothing company gave her a chance to try something new.

Working with lululemon taught Volkova that, while academic research is necessary, industry research differs from the rigour in academic research, to account for short timelines and quick-result turnaround to support product-development and production timelines.

In 2020, Volkova also helped to create Memory on Hand, which came out of NeuroNexus, a startup company that focuses on memory in older adults. Memory on Hand has developed a wearable band that can help improve memory by implementing an evidence-based memory technique called "spaced retrieval.”

“Spaced retrieval helps the user retain information long enough to commit it to their long-term memory or write it down by recalling targeted information over increasingly longer intervals,” says Volkova. “This method appears simple in theory, but is difficult to implement as the user must ‘remember to remember’ at each interval.

“If older adults with memory struggles used our device, not only would it assist them with remembering small pieces of information, but it would decrease all the negative emotions one experiences with poor memory, leading to possible improvements in one’s mental health.”

Volkova says the device is still in the user-testing stage, and anyone interested can sign up to test one via the Memory on Hand website.