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Pain & Injury

Published date
25 Jul 2018

Pain and Injury in a Cultural Context: Dancers' Embodied Understanding and Visual Mapping

Principal Investigator: Emeritus Professor Helen Thomas
College: London College of Fashion

Project summary

Professor Helen Thomas is Director of Doctoral Programmes at UAL. She led a funded project, which body mapped the pain and injury of dancers. The major focus of her research is in the area of the body and dance within the field of the sociology of dance and culture, which covers theatrical dance and social dance and involves a range of theoretical and empirical studies.

At LCF we have a three dimensional white light body scanner, which has its own room in the John Princes Street site. An earlier model of this scanner was used for the Size UK research to scan 11,000 people to give detailed measurements and compare current body sizes and shapes with those from previous data from the 1950s. The research, which involved LCF, UCL with several other academic and industry partners, was funded by government, industry and retailers, showed that we were becoming tube shaped and that our waists had expanded by six inches since the 1950s. You can now be scanned at Selfridges and try-on, in the 'virtual' sense, a whole range of jeans, to see which style and make fits you best, without having to go to the bother of actually trying them all on.

But what, might we ask, is the relevance of using the 3D body scanner at LCF to map dancers' pain and injury? Although this type of body scanner is generally conceived to be a tool for the mass-customisation of clothing, it has also been used for health related applications and it was the potential for this aspect that was of interest in the research project on dance injuries.

Pain and Injury in a Cultural Context: Dancers' Embodied Understanding and Visual Mapping is a recent Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded research project (2005-07). Helen Thomas was the Principal Investigator with Jen Tarr as the named Research Fellow. LCF Research Fellow, Karen Wong, also worked on the project for eight months. The research aimed to investigate how dancers make sense of pain and injury in their everyday working lives and the consequences this has for their performance, careers and the dance industry.

The potential for injury for dance professionals is extremely high, with the injury rate ranging from 60 per cent to 94 per cent. Dancers often ignore the signs of injury in order to continue working in a production, if they are professionals, or carry on with their practical training programme if they are students. As such, injury among dancers is a large problem, which the project sought to address. The research explored the use of visual representation through three-dimensional body scanning and pain and injury mapping and its benefits for injury identification and warning.

The research involved interviewing 205 dancers to find out their perceptions and understanding of pain and injury and how they manage these in their working lives. The idea was to construct a narrative history of their understandings and experience of dance related pain and injury. The dancers were also body scanned, using the 3D scanner at LCF and the results imported into another file using software for viewing body shape in 3D. This gives us a 'skinned' 3D image of the dancer's body as well as detailed measurements of the body. During the interview, the dancers were asked to map current and past pain and injury sites and strengths and weaknesses onto the visual representations of their body. The dancers also filled out a short questionnaire, which provided us with demographic data, training, and information on past and current pain and injury. The process took about an hour and a half. A total of 205 dancers were interviewed and scanned and the interviews were transcribed in preparation for analysis.

Findings and outputs

Findings and outputs realised from the project.


What is abundantly clear from the analysis is that pain and/or injury are indeed a regular feature of dancers' everyday work experience and that many routinely dance through pain and often injury, to keep the show on the road. A number of dancers indicated that they know they are injured when it affects their performance to the extent that they have to stop dancing. However, the contradiction lies in the fact that they seldom do stop dancing, which further begs the question of what counts as injury in the first place, and they do not always seek help immediately either, but rather wait to see how it goes. Because they work with their bodies so closely, dancers say that they can distinguish between 'good pain' and 'bad pain'.

It may be suggested that the mapping process facilitates bodily memories of pain and injury, which have been lost in the mists of time and dancing. We also filmed around 30 interviews and the dancers can be seen trying to locate the pain or injury they are discussing through touching and moving a particular body part or area. There may be a kind of forgetfulness in regard to pain and injury, as they dance through these time and time again. The relation between the individual dancing self and the dance training regimes, which individuals undergo, looms large in the findings of the research. Dancers are inducted with a culture of pain and injury.

The AHRC awarded further funds to disseminate the research to non-academic audiences. As part of this process, we constructed a website on two levels: The first level is a public one where people can find out about the details of the project, the events, publications and early findings. The second 'interactive' level is for the dancers who took part in the project and the health professionals who have attended workshops on the project. The dancers can log in with their unique username and password to their own page. They can access their scan (no one else can see this of course) and can comment on the research findings. The dancers can comment on the findings and the quotes on the participants section of the website. They can also indicate if there are any differences between the mapped image of their body in the interview and their current body condition. The aim is to provide the dancers with a 'voice' in the process of dissemination and the research findings.

We also held two workshops with health professionals and a symposium, which included presentations from other dance health related research with an invited audience of health and dance professionals. In September 2007, we held a seminar for all the participants in the study and provided them with a summary of the major findings. We also published a report on the findings in 2007.


Tarr, Jen and Thomas, Helen (2011) Dancing through Pain and Injury: Tales from the Stage. Dance Research or Dance Research Journal. ISSN 0264-2875/1750-0095

Tarr, Jen and Thomas, Helen (2011) Mapping embodiment: methodologies for representing pain and injury. Qualitative Research, 11 (2). pp. 141-157. ISSN 1468-7941

Thomas, Helen and Tarr, Jen (2009) Dancers' Perceptions of Pain and Injury: Positive and Negative Effects. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 13 (2). pp. 51-59. ISSN 1089-313X