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OU on the BBC: Blue Sky - Dance therapy

Updated Tuesday, 1st August 2006
How dancers might help people with spinal injuries

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ballet dancers

Kitsou Dubois, a contemporary dancer, and Dr Nick Davey, a neuroscientist, describe their unusual collaboration

Dr Nick Davey admits that he is quite a clumsy person: "I'm not adept at dancing ... I'm not even adept at controlling my arms let alone the rest of my body!"

So how did a neuroscientist come to be working with a contemporary dancer? Kitsou Dubois explains that she is interested in the science of dance and found a connection between her own research and that of Dr Davey.

Although Dr Davey may consider himself to be out of place on the dancefloor, he says that he is very interested in how other people dance and what makes him different from other people. He says:

"Dancers are able to maintain their posture for long periods of time while they move their arms and while they move their limbs and nothing seems to happen to them. They maintain that verticality throughout all these complex manoevres that they are making with their limbs and this is due presumably to the control of the muscles in their trunk and the muscles either side of their spine keeping them upright. The really interesting thing is – why is it that they are different?"

The reason clearly is that as they have gone through years of training, presumably their brain has adapted and learnt. He continues:

"When we move a limb muscle we have to produce some kind of compensation in the back muscle otherwise we’ll fall over so we need to maintain our stability. But to what extent is gravity controlling that correction mechanism?"

To find the answer to that question, dancers were put into zero gravity. Only by actually going into Zero G is it possible to discover whether this is a hard-wired mechanism - in other words the nervous system is wired up so that whenever an arm is moved, back muscles contract in compensation - or whether it is some kind of compensatory mechanism that depends on gravity distorting a position of the body as we see on earth.

Dr Davey says that if it is a hard-wired mechanism the muscles could be trained up as it is presumably in dance but, more interestingly, as it is in rehabilitation:

"The trunk muscles - the muscles of the abdomen and the back - are the ones that tend to lose their function after a trauma such as a stroke or a spinal chord injury. Physiotherapy techniques tend to restore this function. We’d like to find out how this works. It might be possible to intervene into the nervous system in patients that have had spinal chord injury or a stroke with drugs that aren’t currently used in that way."

Being put into Zero Gravity must be an unusual sensation. What is it to move in an environment where there is no gravity? Kitsou Dubois describes the experience:

"Suddenly you feel that your organs move. We call this the vomit comet – a lot of people are sick! As a dancer, we are looking for this right moment in the dance – this is a sort of moment where the space, the weight, the time is perfect. When you are in Zero G you feel this moment."

Dr Davey admits that the language that artists talk and the language that scientists talk is very different:

"We might talk for hours and only at the end realise that we were perhaps trying to say the same thing all along. The scientific side of it is something that we have to prove using orthodox scientific equipment and orthodox scientific rules and statistics. This is something that would never be done by either an art team on their own or a scientific team on their own. The gaps between the two disciplines has provided some really fruitful work".

Kitsou Dubois agrees:

"This project is really valuable because the arts can help scientists become more creative."

First broadcast: Friday 11 May 2001 on BBC TWO

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