Q&A with Stefanie Feierabend, founder of AusDancersOverseas

Published on 23/08/2018

Today we talked with one of the faces behind the newly launched eNewsletter “AusDancersOverseas” and the accompanying project, launched by Dr Friederike Potreck and her daughter, Stefanie.

Stefanie, what was the catalyst to create the newsletter and can you remember your thoughts at the time if this was something you could create?

The idea to create a newsletter .... well, I can’t really remember as it simply felt such a matter of course. I used to stay in touch with students and dancers I had gotten to know in Australia and who were to, or already had, move(d) abroad. Social media is a wonderful tool for this – but that’s also how you get to see some struggles. More often than not, I would feel like “I cannot grasp why this problem can’t be solved” (e.g. doctors not talking to their patients and simply leaving them with the knowledge that they are injured and need surgery), other times it would “only” be a matter of language and bureaucracy, and while we were doing all of this in our leisure time, we got contacted more often. The variety of problems broadened, and with it came a lot of responsibility (just imagine being told that you were the only person someone talked to during a bout of depression). On top of that, we received feedback from parents that was totally overwhelming, expressing their gratitude that someone was helping their child(ren) to settle and be comfortable overseas. To cut a long story short: At some point this year we had to decide whether we would not take in any new requests, or whether would make all of this an official project. Well, here we are. The newsletter aims to get those abroad into a closely knitted network in order to share and help each other. It aims to connect but also to inform. Many are so young when they move abroad and when it comes to how to be the best one can be there is so much conflicting data out there – and also so many false claims, at least from a medical and psychological point of view – that we wanted to integrate this into the project.

How did you start to compile all the information from people who were interested?

Much easier than anticipated! As we knew some students and dancers, we would be in contact with them, they would talk about the project with friends/colleagues/teachers/parents, and these in turn would contact us. There were weeks when we would not be able to keep up with new input! Luckily, we will soon be able to dedicate more time to the project.

Did you have any expectations of the response?

No. Those involved in the first newsletter were very honest with their feedback, and generally so excited about it to be released that it simply felt we were doing the right thing, we were doing something that was much needed.

Was there a recurring theme that became apparent after talking to the students?

Oh, that’s a good question! And you’re anticipating something that’s going to come up in one of the next issues of the newsletter. It’s mainly two themes, with varying facets: The one is injury, usually combined with surgery that has the potential to end a career, a non-holistic approach to rehabilitation (=it is not looked after WHY this injury happened but only focused on getting the dancer back into the company asap, too often followed by another injury), and the other one is, unfortunately, the promotion of disordered eating (“It’s a bank holiday ahead, don’t eat, just drink tea” – and that is already a moderate example only). It was interesting to see that both, the occurrence of injury and the promotion of disordered eating would usually happen in the same environment. Well, I guess we have lots more to do here because such data will be very useful trying to improve the circumstances under which some have to train. I do hope our voice will be heard by schools and companies!

You are a member of IADMS, how did you become involved with this organisation.

When I was doing CPD with The Royal Academy of Dance (The Professional Award in Adult Dance Practice – it’s one of their online courses) I figured out that I wanted to get involved in the work of IADMS and contribute to all the research they’ve been doing in the field of dance medicine and science. There’s an ongoing project about the phenomenon of the hashtag #adultballerina on social media and why so many do have to dance on pointe (often after they’ve taken up ballet in adulthood and have taken class for only about a year – it’s crazy!), share those moments on social media and, simultaneously, post about their suffering, pain, and injuries. I do encourage everyone at any age to take up dancing (or take it up again) because there’s so much amazing data out there about the benefits of dance for health, be this physically or mentally, and in most cases both. But I absolutely disagree with the trend that everyone should be allowed to dance on pointe; it is grossly negligent regarding safe dance practice. There have been so many initiatives to promote safe dance practice – why then apply this in children, adolescents and professional dancers but not in grown-up recreational dancers?! You see, although I’ve been working on this for a while already, I still get very upset, and I’m afraid that would be enough to talk about in an extra Q&A :-) However, it’s not a rare phenomenon that I tried to follow up and describe, it does have the potential to do harm as surprisingly many self-proclaimed adult ballerinas have more followers on Instagram or Facebook than professional dancers with The Royal Ballet have!

Read #adultballerina(s) on social media, an article published in IADMS' Journal of Dance Medicine & Science.

You obviously love ballet and dance, what is your background in the ballet world?

Before I decided for medicine I wanted to become a professional in the Performing Arts. I won a scholarship for The Urdang Academy of Ballet and Performing Arts in London – but I got seriously injured before I could even finish the program. I turned away from dance completely as I could not stand this idea of returning to the studio knowing I would never again be as good as I used to. It’s interesting because with my knowledge today it might have been possible to return to peak performance. But when this happened (that’s now more than 20 years ago!) I was overly fortunate to find a physician (married to a dancer with the rank of a principal) who would not suggest surgery and permanent immobilisation of my lower back. With years, and decades, passing by I realized how much I had missed dancing, and then, one day, I simply took all the courage I had and went back into a studio...... I have not decided yet to get back into all dance styles and chose to stick with ballet for the time being. Maybe because it was the style that I always had to work on most? I simply love a good challenge :)

And you are still dancing and preparing for an exam, tell us about your preparation and what it entails as a mature student.

Oh, this is hard to answer – because I already have plenty of material (stories) that would easily fill a book! Honestly, it’s pretty hard. Not really from a purely bodily perspective – it is probably a bit harder than for those under twenty years of age, or those being professionals – but working towards an exam (= having a goal to work towards, just like e.g. a marathon runner has) has proven to be very unpopular. And there’s a good reason why I am training in Australia, but that’s the next question. There’s some very disturbing moments I lived to see, let me name just a few: I was told I would be too old to train at this level (it was RAD Adv2) – but nobody ever made the effort to check this in a class, with a demonstration, or the like. I was simply refused. And it was already incredibly hard to find schools offering this level. I would travel almost 2 hours just to first be promised access and then be refused. Others would make promises they would never be able to stick to, and so I ended up completely frustrated (plus, having spent way too much on training that wouldn’t help achieve my goal). Again others would tell me simply to enjoy the classes and dance and just not try to get better – because why would I want this at my age? I was told to be happy to still be able to dance like I did and not strive for more. I can now smile about this and think there’s so much psychology behind all of this, we would not want digging deeper here! If it had not been for Marie Walton-Mahon and the amazing teachers at Tanya Pearson Academy (TPA) in Sydney I would have given up and exited the (active) dance world a second time. Through my training at TPA I learned that no matter the age, a teacher should always look at a body’s capabilities and with these in mind provide the best, and safest training possible. And if that means that someone needs to work hard on their technique in order to be enabled to dance safely – then be it! On the other hand, this implies that when an old body is still very capable, as a teacher, ask for it to be seen! In agreement with the student, of course, I know there are some mature students simply wanting to enjoy but not achieve, and that’s totally fine. I do not want to sound like someone who only focuses on technique but I learned the hard way that artistry can only fully develop once the technique is secure and the movement is safe. So, eventually, to fully answer your question, I use a very individualized program of classical ballet classes, Progressing Ballet Technique, and also cross-training (including weight-lifting and running). I am a big believer in cross-training keeps you injury-free (and we’ve got the science for this) - but I have to admit that it is highly individual to figure out what is best for a particular person. When I see that often performance enhancement coaches simply apply athletic exercises from the bodybuilder or track and field athlete to the dancer, it makes me cringe. There’s no individuality, and, unfortunately, little understanding of the principles of dance. The community won’t get anywhere without mutual respect for each other.

You travel to Australia a fair bit, what are your impressions of Australian dancers and the differences to European dancers?

I absolutely love this question! It appears to us that dancers in Australia are better cared for – I know, that’s a very general statement, but let me explain: In Australia, a hobby like dance is not something that is brushed aside as a little girl’s or boy’s dream. And it definitely does not come on place 96 on the list of 100 unimportant things. I cannot judge where this stems from more, schools being more persistent about how often a child needs to train if they want to sit exams, or parents taking their children’s preferred activities more seriously? I see less of this approach that a child needs to be exposed to every single activity/hobby thinkable but rather that an understanding of “you only get out what you put in” (Hello, Lucinda Dunn!) is installed very early. We, personally, do not think that this is a bad thing to happen but we know there’s lots of people having the contrary opinion. While I see a lot of very young dancers being dedicated to their hobby, and, obviously, their passion, I am always extremely touched when I see how they are cared for. How they are looked at and looked after. Health here often has a very different definition as it may have abroad. It is definitely more often a very holistic approach, e.g. I absolutely fell in love with physiotherapy here, and it appears that – speaking of the present because it’s not up to me to speak about the past here in Australia – students and dancers are seen as human beings, and not simply as bodies that can move beautifully and vow audiences. Let me end this question with a short anecdote that I recently lived to see: I spent a week at an Easter Intensive in Europe and would listen to the students during the breaks. So often would they discuss that their teachers had told them that from Intermediate level on (RAD syllabus) everything would get so hard and difficult that they should be grateful if they made it to any of the next levels. It totally upset me because – if one thing is for sure – if they keep telling this to their students, their students will fail in the future, and even worse, they will never learn what they would be capable of if they were encouraged, not discouraged! Dance in Australia is, for me, all about care, courage, and encouragement. And while this shapes their attitude towards their (future) profession, it may also explain why dancers from Australia are so very welcome in schools and companies overseas – and then struggle due to a very different approach.

And one piece of advice for students contemplating studying in Europe?

I can only repeat what Jessica Fyfe said in the first newsletter: Do your research! Honestly, try to gather as much information as possible beforehand (visa, accommodation, every-day life like “supermarkets and farmer’s markets are closed on Sundays”), try to read/learn as much about the culture you want to live in as possible, talk to others you know have been to this school/in this particular company, and do ask for help. Nothing worse than feeling helpless and alone! And if you don’t know someone who was there before, ask us because it’s more than likely that we know someone we can connect you with. And stay tuned as with the start of the new school year/season overseas we’re adding reports about schools and companies to our website (special access required, just get in touch, please). Also, simply engage with the community, currently mainly on Instagram (@ausdancersoverseas) – your voice will be heard!

  • Q&A with Stefanie Feierabend, founder of AusDancersOverseas