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An audience with Luke Hopper at Harlequin

An audience with Luke Hopper at Harlequin

UK - Luke Hopper’s recent visit to Harlequin’s Tunbridge Wells headquarters provided the opportunity to catch up on his current research studies and talk about the path that had brought him to this point. His work in biomechanics and in particular the relationship between the characteristics of dance floors and injury, is a study area where Luke has been gaining a reputation far beyond his native Australia. It was a phone call to Harlequin’s Guy Dagger at the beginning of his doctorate research that started the relationship between the researcher and the world’s leading dance floor manufacturer, but Luke is quick to point out that Harlequin’s support has helped the project without compromising his independence and scientific credibility. "Harlequin has been fantastic," he said.

Luke Hopper trained in classical ballet in his home-town of Perth in Western Australia, only taking up dance in his late teens, "a late starter" in Luke’s own words. Inspired by a dedicated dance teacher whose architect husband had created a dance facility in their home, complete with hard wood dance floor - a floor with some spring but lacking a vinyl dance surface for traction. But a few years into his career, a bone spur had to be removed from the front of Luke’s ankle. Later pain and restrictions on movement when performing various ballet moves was diagnosed as being caused by further such growths on the rear of both ankles. As with many professional dancers, the stark choice between struggling against injury, or taking up a new career faced Luke at this time. Luke is philosophical about the finite career of a professional dancer and endorses the value of education for an alternative qualification to achieve a smoother transition at the end of any dancer’s career. He notes, that more roles have evolved in working with dancers these days with the opportunity for passing on experience.

Luke himself stepped into the scientific sphere and to the subject of sports medical research. As a former dancer he quickly established the importance of achieving a better understanding of the needs of dancers as elite athletes and the shortage of scientific studies in this field. On the one hand dancers generally have a good ‘feel’ for the response of a dance floor with the ability to distinguish between different types and very importantly, where they had confidence in a floor’s characteristics and where they held back in giving full rein to their artistic capabilities. Speaking with the dancers themselves and more particular with physiotherapists, the matter of consistency of dance floors was suspected to be a key issue, but lacked evidence to substantiate. Dancers on tour to various venues experienced a variety of stages in different venues which they considered unpredictable, causing then to respond with less confidence. It was around this time as he was researching dance floors the telephone call from Harlequin came through.

Luke’s research was looking at the forces impacting the lower backs of male dancers performing lifts, which evolved from work in biomechanics and injury risks implicit in various human movements. But during the course of his studies, expertise in other sciences had to be mastered. 3-D motion capture and the use of sensors to measure the loads involved was one. Understanding the engineering of floor construction and the test requirements of standards which seek to quantify performance a second. Psychology too was an issue, as it is real and individual dancers who are the users that have ‘confidence’ issues with poor floors. The findings of his research have informed not only dancers, but technical managers, venue owners and architects of the importance of a floor with consistent response, the right degree of spring or energy absorption and a dance surface that gets the right degree of traction to avoid slips.

Luke Hopper’s new post with a move to Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts has provided a unique opportunity to take his research forward thanks to close access both to dancers and to the biomechanical technology and tools needed. Luke notes that standard mechanical tests have limitations compared to the ways in which dancers actually use the floor. New ultra-sound techniques are being deployed in this research which is studying the behaviour of dancers’ calf muscles on landing. Luke is currently in the data collecting phase and Harlequin wishes his research work every success as science works closely with artistry to gain improved insights that ultimately benefit dancers through reducing injuries and lessening the chances of their careers cut short.

5th August 2014

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