The science of dance: keeping ballet dancers healthy

La Trobe alumnus Dr Sue Mayes is principal physiotherapist and head of medical at The Australian Ballet. She is pictured (right) with La Trobe University's Professor Jill Cook (left) and The Australian Ballet's Principal Artist Amber Scott. Photo by Ren Pidgeon.

As The Australian Ballet’s principal physiotherapist, Dr Sue Mayes has helped support and bolster the careers of countless professional ballet dancers over the past two decades.

The La Trobe University physiotherapy alumnus heads up The Australian Ballet’s world-renowned medical team, where she draws from clinical research, including her own, to keep dancers healthy.

Her most recent career highlight involved successfully rehabilitating 36-year-old star dancer David Hallberg, principal artist with both the American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet. With the support of Sue and her team, David was able to return to the stage after a potentially career-ending injury.

“David had failed attempts to return from two surgeries for an ankle injury in the US, and spent 14 months rehabilitating with The Australian Ballet,” Sue said. “This experience was a highlight in my career because I was excited at the challenge of a complex injury, and we had no time limit, so we took the opportunity to apply all that we had learnt from the latest research emerging from La Trobe University’s Sports and Exercise Medicine Research Centre along with our own clinical expertise developed as a team. It was a thoroughly holistic and team approach focused on educating David, so that he has become the master of his own body.”

Sue graduated from La Trobe with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Physiotherapy) in 1990, followed by postgraduate studies in sports physiotherapy. In September 2017, she graduated from La Trobe again – this time with a PhD following her research into the hip health of dancers.

She said her role had evolved significantly over the past 20 years.

“With only one physiotherapist and a massage therapist touring five months of the year and caring for the health and wellbeing of 70 dancers, there was very little time for a preventative approach initially,” Sue said. “There was also limited dance research that could guide evidence-based practice. I was a full-time clinician focused on keeping the dancers onstage six days per week, but I was always curious. I would evaluate the intricacies of the dancers’ injuries in depth and experiment with treatment techniques or adapt current methods to the dancers’ unique anatomy,” she said.

Over time, Sue’s team established successful injury-prevention programs.

“This has translated into extremely low injury and surgical rates, with dancers enjoying longer professional dance careers and retiring from ballet healthy,” she said.

La Trobe has recently joined forces with The Australian Ballet to research injury prevention and rehabilitation techniques, while providing students with exclusive access to work with The Australian Ballet’s sports medicine research programs. Sue said the special partnership was a significant step forward in improving the health of professional dancers and other elite athletes.

“The initial two years of the research program are focused on investigating the health of dancers’ hip and ankle joints. We have also started measuring the size of hip muscles and the effect of joint hypermobility on hip pain and injury,” Sue said.

“Our long-term vision is to establish an internationally-recognised dance research centre to investigate all aspects of a dancer’s health and wellbeing and generate new knowledge, skills and training programs to enhance their performance.”

Sue said she was thrilled to continue her relationship with La Trobe, including her most recent appointment as Adjunct Research Fellow in the University's School of Allied Health.

“I have benefited from the highest quality of health science education and have been educated and inspired by world-leading researchers, such as La Trobe’s Professor Jill Cook. La Trobe is unique, as many of the lecturers and researchers at the University are also world-recognised expert clinicians. They have demonstrated the importance of both clinical practice informing research and evidence-based practice.”

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