History of Dance Medicine
CitationHo, Madelyn. 2018. History of Dance Medicine. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard Medical School.
AbstractDespite the extensive history of dance as an artform, beginning with ballet in the 16th century, it is only in the last two decades with the founding of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science that the medical care of dancers has become an organized subspecialty. Dance medicine is a multi-disciplinary subspecialty that specializes in the treatment of the musculoskeletal injuries as well as other dance-related health needs, including mental health, of dancer patients. To better understand this young field’s trajectory, I examined the unique origins of this subspecialty. To this end, I conducted semi-structured interviews with dance medicine pioneers to get first-hand accounts of the early history of dance medicine.
The late 20th century was a period that witnessed a proliferation of medical subspecialties. This allowed sports medicine and performing arts medicine to form. Given the status of dance at the intersection between arts and sports, I am interested in dance medicine’s relationship to these fields. In the early 1970s, dancers and dance educators witnessed the benefits that athletes received from sports medicine, a field led by orthopedic surgeons, and began to seek their medical advice. Individual orthopedic surgeons observed many similarities between dancers and athletes. While some injuries are unique to dancers because of the aesthetic demands of the art form, this alone does not account for how dance medicine became a distinct entity. The key distinction emerged as healthcare providers realized that the dancers self-identified much more as artists than athletes, yet their needs were more similar to athletes than musicians and vocalists, thus could neither group them in sports medicine or performing arts medicine. Dance medicine, unlike any other medical specialty, became a distinct subspecialty driven by patients and not the medical profession.
The oral histories I obtained revealed another important component: though focused on the needs of dancers, dance medicine has yielded insights that are valuable more broadly. In particular, eating disorders and HIV are two diseases that have emerged earlier and in disproportionate prevalence in dancers, bringing them to the attention of the medical community as well as the public.
The interviews revealed that the emergence of dance medicine was a combination of fortuitous events and opportune timing. Individuals who were invested in the well-being of dancers, a small but unique population, were brought together to bring awareness to dancers’ needs and propel the advancement of better care, ultimately with a creation of a new subspecialty.
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