En Pointe: Exploring Health Literacy in Dance Education

PhD student Andrea Kozai has completed a first-of-its kind review of dance curriculums at education schools across the world. The study shows areas of improvement that can help dancers lead healthier lives. 

April 01, 2021

Gregory Latshaw

Andrea Kozai headshotBefore enrolling in a PhD program, Andrea Kozai was a professional dancer for 14 years. She performed with elite ballet and modern dance companies in New York City and in Pittsburgh. Along the way, Kozai experienced her fair share of bumps and bruises, as well as some nagging injuries.

“The most common injuries in dancers are called overuse injuries,” says Kozai. “They are an imbalance between how much stress there is on the body and the amount of time needed for recovery.”

To prevent injury, many dance education programs in colleges and universities make functional anatomy part of their curriculum. But given the full range of unique health issues associated with dancers—including psychological health and nutritional concerns—are schools doing enough to develop the overall health literacy of their students? 

Kozai, a PhD student in exercise physiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, conducted a novel study to answer this question. 

First, she sought to understand exactly what was being taught in university dance programs around the world. She and study co-author Jatin P. Ambegaonkar, a professor at George Mason University, performed one of the first efforts to quantify this information. 

They gathered information from 104 people (which included students, faculty, and administrators) from university dance programs across 11 countries and from 25 states in the United States. The universities were selected by referencing the Dance Magazine College Guide. 

Among the study respondents, 81% said health-related education was delivered at their institution. The most frequently offered topics were functional dance anatomy, recognizing dance injuries and illness, and strength and conditioning for dancers. The least commonly offered topics were basic first aid and injury management, environmental factors, and psychology of dance. 

“I was inspired to study this topic because we don’t have a good idea of whether dancers are getting the training they need to be able to advocate for themselves in a health environment, and we don’t have a good idea of how that fits into a dance curriculum,” says Kozai. 

A Disconnect in Curriculums

Andrea Kozai dancingThe study next reviewed perceptions. Were universities offering courses in the health-related subjects that students and faculty rated as the most important?

This is where the disconnect came in. The subjects that respondents most commonly rated as “extremely important” were in recognizing dance injuries and illness, basic personal health, and nutrition for dancers. The topics they were least likely to rate as “extremely important” were environmental factors, Pilates, and yoga. 

“Interestingly enough, students, faculty, and administrators were on the same page with what is most important.  But there was a mismatch between what was being taught and what people thought was important to teach,” says Kozai. 

For example, while the subject of recognizing dance injuries and illness was both commonly offered and highly rated as important to teach, the subjects of basic personal health and nutrition for dancers were each highly rated but not commonly offered. Furthermore, some of the least highly rated topics, particularly Pilates and yoga, were offered at most institutions in the study. 

Moreover, the most commonly offered topic in universities, functional dance anatomy, did not appear in the top three subjects that were most commonly rated as “extremely important.”

“The findings give new perspectives for people who are planning curriculum,” says Kozai. “This is not to say, for example, that we should get rid of anatomy, but maybe it makes sense to not put as much emphasis on it and to start teaching more in nutrition instead. This is especially important these days because students are all over the Internet, and there are unbelievable amounts of misinformation about sports nutrition in particular.”

Lastly, another finding of the study was a concern over health-related education being taught by faculty without expertise in the subject matter. 

Improving Health Literacy in Dance Education

The study became the basis for the research paper “Health Literacy for Collegiate Dancers: Provision and Perceptions of Health-Related Education University Dance Program,” which was published in the Journal of Dance Medicine & Science in September 2020. 

The Pitt School of Education is among the universities that can apply the findings of the research study. 

The school offers a popular 18-credit dance education minor that draws students from all over the university. The curriculum has courses in dance technique (ballet, modern, and jazz), introduction to dance (history), dance production one and two (pre-and post-production), choreography, dance pedagogy, and two dance teaching experiences.

“I think I have the best and brightest students as dance minors,” says Susan Gillis Kruman, the clinical instructor who runs the dance program. “They have academic chops but also like the physical aspect of dance.”

For her part, Kozai is hopeful that the research study can help provide evidence for ways to further develop dance education curriculums that improve the health literacy of dancers.

As a former dancer, she knows there is a lot riding on it. Dance is a rewarding, if physically and mentally challenging, pursuit. 

“My goal is to help dancers have longer, less painful careers,” says Kozai. 

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