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The next steps for dance medicine

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September 05, 2013



Prior to her phys­ical therapy career, Shaw Bronner per­formed as a pro­fes­sional dancer on the national and inter­na­tional stage. The expe­ri­ence resulted in a robust under­standing of the unique skills, phys­ical demands, and poten­tial injuries inherent in the pro­fes­sion. When she piv­oted to her cur­rent career track, Bronner hoped her work would one day lead back to the dance studio.

Did it ever. Over the last 15 years, she’s led the Analysis of Dance and Move­ment Center—a research lab­o­ra­tory at Long Island Uni­ver­sity ded­i­cated to exam­ining human move­ment and dance—and served as director of phys­ical therapy ser­vices at Alvin Ailey, the renowned modern dance com­pany, junior com­pany, and school. It was there where she cre­ated an in-​​house pro­gram that now ser­vices more than 5,000 dancers annu­ally through ser­vices ranging from triage to screen­ings to back­stage pre­ven­ta­tive care.

“I felt I could have a big impact on devel­oping healthier habits for our dancers,” said Bronner, who imple­mented this novel com­pre­hen­sive man­age­ment pro­gram at Alvin Ailey. Over an eight-​​year period, this pro­gram resulted in a 34 per­cent decline in total injury inci­dence, two-​​thirds fewer workers com­pen­sa­tion claims, and a 56 per­cent decrease in dancers’ time lost to injury in the com­pany mem­bers. Dance, she explained, does not have the finan­cial resources of pro­fes­sional sports, so the sav­ings accom­plished by the in-​​house pro­gram was substantial.

She joins Northeastern’s fac­ulty this fall as an asso­ciate pro­fessor of phys­ical therapy in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, where she will move her ADAM Center lab­o­ra­tory and con­tinue studying the bio­me­chanics and epi­demi­ology of dance move­ment, injury, and treat­ment. A key factor in this work, she said, is the ability to iden­tify and describe healthy move­ments and those that lead to injury.

Over the years, her research has crossed dis­ci­plines and branched in exciting new direc­tions. For a series of Nike-​​funded projects, she exam­ined the bio­me­chanics of break­dancers’ move­ments as they sported dif­ferent types of footwear. Her group is cur­rently ana­lyzing the effect of video game tech­nology on motor learning and neural plas­ticity. In par­tic­ular, the work is exploring whether Parkinson’s dis­ease patients could use the game “Dance Dance Rev­o­lu­tion” as a training tool to help pre­vent them from falling. The first step is studying younger, healthy adults.

Bronner’s fas­ci­na­tion with brain research can be summed up with a single ques­tion, one which popped up fre­quently at Alvin Ailey: how is it that a dancer can go 10 years without per­forming a rou­tine and then step into the studio and per­form it flaw­lessly? Greater under­standing of the cor­re­la­tion between move­ment and memory, she said, can be a boon for brain research and rehabilitation.

Still, Bronner acknowl­edged that dance med­i­cine is years behind sports med­i­cine. For example, much more is known about a base­ball pitcher’s throwing mechanics than, say, the move­ments of a ballet or hip-​​hop dancer. She hopes her research can help close the gap.

“When I starting treating dancers, they thought of them­selves as artists and not as ath­letes,” said Bronner, who received her doc­torate of phi­los­ophy in health sci­ences from the Uni­ver­sity of Med­i­cine and Den­tistry of New Jersey. “We’ve come leaps and bounds in recent years, but there is much work yet ahead.”