Ballet and Workers Comp: Important Lessons in Prevention

October 3rd, 2005 by

When you think of ballet, workers compensation is probably not what first comes to mind. A ballerina spins across the stage with breathtaking grace, her male partner leaps across the stage in a grand jete, seeming to float in the air. Sitting in the audience, you don’t spend much time thinking about the pain in the dancers’s feet, the strain on their muscles, the possible stress fractures in their legs. My two dancing daughters remind me that ballet is more physically and mentally demanding than football. According to a 1975 study by Dr. James Nicholas in The Journal of Sports Medicine, it even ranks above bullfighting. Ballet is not for sissies.
Workers comp has become a major issue for many ballet companies. The Diablo Ballet in California has seen its workers’ compensation rates rise more than 300 percent in the past four years to where it pays nearly $100,000 annually. The Oakland ballet saw its comp costs rise from $80,000 to $140,000 per year. These are very tough numbers for non-profit organizations that depend upon revenues from public performances.
It’s not difficult to see why comp costs are so high. Dancing is high risk. When injured, a dancer is “out of work” and unable to perform. There is no “light duty” per se — you can either dance your role or you cannot. All of this leads to significant comp costs: extended periods of indemnity payments plus substantial medical bills. And as with any business, on rare occasions dance companies can be defrauded by employees who try to take advantage of the system.
Managing Risk in Dance
So how can you manage this problem? The New York City Ballet has tackled the comp problem head on. From 2000 to 2003, the number of major workers’ compensation claims made by City Ballet dancers fell 24 percent, to 29, and the weeks of disability logged by company dancers fell 46 percent, to 231. Since implementing an exemplary wellness program, costs have gone down dramatically. In 2001, the company spent $8 per $100 of payroll on comp premiums for dancers. In 2004, it cut the expense in half to about $4, a decrease attributable to fewer claims and less severity in the claims.
Erika Kinetz, who covers dance for the New York Times, details how the New York City Ballet has been able to focus on prevention among its dancers. The Company’s’ Wellness Team ran a weekend workshop for dancers at Lincoln Center in New York City, sharing the lessons of their efforts to reduce workers comp and improve dancer health. Their premise — a compelling one — is that when your jobs are inherently high risk, as dancing is, you must focus on prevention. Once a dancer is injured, there is not much you can do to control your costs.
Wellness and Dance
Most of us assume that dancers are all in great physical shape. In fact, they are usually in an extreme and quite particular kind of shape. They spend much of their lives with their legs rotated outward, their feet pointing in opposite directions (“turned out”). Women stand on the tips of their toes for hours (needless to add, toes are not designed to bear the full weight of the body). While beautiful when seen at a distance, these are not natural body postions. The dancer smiles, but sometimes beneath the smile a grimace of pain is hidden. Although flexible in ways the rest of us can only dream about, dancers tend to have little cardiovascular stamina, chronically understretched quadriceps and weak upper bodies. Therein lies their risk of injury.
The wellness workshop teaches dancers that simply attending dance class after dance class is not the equivalent of a well balanced approach to physical conditioning. Dr. Linda Hamilton, a former dancer who now provides counseling for dancers, cautions that dancers are trained to be stoic: “We can dance with sprained ankles. We can dance when we are breaking up with our boyfriends. We can dance when we are starving.” She teaches dancers to be aware of pain, because pain is bad. The workshop emphasizes the importance of a healthy diet, stress management and cross-training – for example, doing Pilates and swimming in addition to dance classes.
Lessons for the Rest of Us
Fortunately, few jobs require the training, discipline and conditioning of classical ballet. If our jobs had such requirements, most of us would be out of work. But there is in the NYC Ballet’s approach to risk management a lesson for all of us. We need to look beyond the work that is performed and keep our eyes on our workers. All jobs have inherent risks. When workers are well conditioned and alert, when they are able to manage the on- and off-the-job stresses in their lives, when they eat well and get adequate rest, and when they are passionate about that they are doing, they are more likely to perform the job well and far less likely to be injured. We may not be asked to perform arabesques and grand jetes in our daily routines, but a sound conditioning program enhances our ability to do any job more proficiently and with less risk of injury. As a result, it is clearly in the self-interest of employers to support wellness programs and build them into their core operations.