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  • Physiotherapists at The Australian Ballet are paving the way for others

    Author: Rahima Saikal

Known to many professional ballet dancers and other professional athletes is a small centre in Melbourne that keeps Australia’s best in top condition; The Australian Ballet’s ‘artistic health’ centre. Here, a team of physiotherapists and La Trobe University researchers have been studying dancers' injuries in-depth and paving the way in sports medicine.

Physiotherapist, Dr Sue Mayes, founded the centre 28 years ago when it was just herself and a massage therapist in a ‘little room’. Today, the centre is full of high-tech rooms and studios where dancers are kept in peak condition, ensuring their dance careers don’t end anymore in their 30s due to an injury.

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“When I started 28 years ago…they’d all retire in their 30s. Today they’re dancing well into their 40s” says Mayes.

Senior La Trobe researcher and physio based at The Australian Ballet, Dr Ebonie Rio believes that studying elite dancers and athletes so intensely will also help others, from young children starting sport to the elderly.

In 2015, star of the American Ballet Theatre, David Hallberg was at the height of his career when he suddenly disappeared. Two surgeries couldn’t fix a foot injury which had led his career to come to a screeching halt. Devastated, the dancer boarded a plane to Melbourne, Australia to try and find answers at the centre.

“It was daunting when we saw the state he was in,” said Mayes.

Up until Hallberg had arrived at the centre, he had been told to rest but Mayes believes that is a common myth when it comes to recovery.

“We were getting him running up and down stairs”.

It took a year, but after intensive physiotherapy, Hallberg was able to dance once again. Later, in 2021, he took up the position of artistic director with the Australian Ballet. Today, he calls the centre the ‘beating heart’ of the company.

Dr Mayes has been praised in the past for her unorthodox methods which are very different from the traditional wisdom that comes from the ballet world: rest, stretch and don’t complain. The gym walls are lined with heavy weights and male dancers use heavy water bags and barbells in place of their female partners to practice lifting and catching.

“The men obviously have to be strong to lift, but the women train just as hard. People don’t realise they’re elite athletes as well as artists” says Mayes.

Professional athletes, such as AFL star and team member of the St Kilda Football Club, Mason Wood often drop into the centre. Before meeting Mayes, Wood was always in shin splints and had major issues with his toe.

“Three weeks later (after visiting the centre), the splints were off, I was out of orthopaedics, and my top speed jumped,” said Wood.

Many dancers who have experienced the magic of the centre now see their injuries as a silver lining in that they have had to go back to basics, but that also means perfecting their craft. Hallberg has seen this with many of his dancers and agrees that this helps shape them as dancers and pushes them to new artistic limits. He also wishes he had this support when he was growing up, becoming a dancer.

“All the big ballet companies around the world are looking at what we do now. The secret is finally out”.

La Trobe researchers studied dancers during 2023’s rigorous season of Swan Lake. Focusing on the health of their Achilles' tendons using ultrasounds, monitoring ankle movements and scoring the number of perfect calve raises that can be achieved – 30-35 to be precise – they have inspired the AFL world.

“Footballers break down in all sorts of ways,” says Wood. “But the ballet (dancers) are so precise, they’re good at isolating the problem areas”.

“I sat in on a few classes… those jumps they do, it’d be amazing to replicate that on the footy field, but it’s beyond me”.

*Story originally told to The Age.

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Rahima Saikal

Rahima Saikal is a freelance journalist and content creator and has been working in the media industry for 10+ years all around the world.

Rahima enjoys writing about healthcare, wellness, travel and social change movements, particularly animal rights.

Having written numerous articles for both print and online publications, Rahima is well versed in what makes a good story.

Rahima lives between Bali and Australia with her family and 3 Bali dogs.