Interview with 2019 Dance Educator Awardee – Nico Kolokythas

Author: IADMS Dance Educators Committee

Dr Nico Kolokythas, Performance Enhancement Coach at Elmhurst Ballet School, was the 2019 recipient of the Dance Educator Award. Here Nico talks about the challenges and successes of implementing strength and conditioning training within a vocational dance school.

Photo by: Karen Sudds at IADMS 2019 Annual Conference

Strength and conditioning isn't as prevalent in dance training as it is in sports and athletic teams. What challenges did you face when first implementing strength and conditioning classes within a vocational dance school?

I think the fact I wasn’t a dancer in my previous career could be placed at the top of the list as a challenge. Luckily all the dance teachers opened the studio doors wide open for me to go, observe and ask questions. I was also very privileged to have Judith Rowann as a mentor during this process. She is our rehabilitation ballet teacher, her knowledge and experience was and is very valuable to me. Like all the different sports I have worked with I had to understand ballet as a discipline. I spent a good few months simply trying to understand.

I then decided to focus on the graduates as they were the ones who, in my eyes, would benefit the most from my assistance. They were going to go for auditions in the new year, and the graduate girls asked to have a session with me. I felt it was an opportunity to get accepted by the group. I put a session together with bodyweight exercises. Having had quite a few years of experience with female adolescent athletes, I honestly thought I had it! Little did I know! After the session the girls could not go up the stairs for a week. It was a disaster but a wakeup call for me as I understood a bit more about the population I was dealing with. The girls didn’t really train with me the rest of the year. A combination of things, most importantly that they had little time available but I feel this session did not really help! So in a way I feel, that once again in life thinking you know is very far from actually knowing.


You have developed the 11+ Dance, an injury prevention intervention for dancers. How did the dance students and staff react to this when you initially implemented it in the school?

The 11+ Dance was not an idea that simply came to me ready-made. I didn’t wake up one morning with the complete package. It was a process of trial and error, and the errors were very valuable lessons, something that I have to praise Elmhurst Ballet School as an organisation for being open minded enough to, in a way, give me the room to make errors. My experience as a coach and a strength and conditioning coach helped a lot in the development and refinement of the idea.

The intervention is based on FIFA 11+ and FIFA 11+ kids so I wanted to keep the 11+ in the name. The reason for this was that I wanted to make sure we expose our work in the sports science world. I cleared it with FIFA that it was ok to use the 11+ and I was trying to find a way to connect the name with Dance. It was Prof Matt Wyon who said a random comment “you work with children who are 11+ years old all the way to professionals”. That’s how the name came about.

I think that the dance teachers and the students were a bit sceptical about the 11+ Dance, and I would say understandably so; why should they trust me? I knew it was the right thing to do but why should someone who only just met me, a perceived rookie in the sector, jump to the idea? So I would say that acceptance was a gradual process. It was achieved through open dialogue and compromise. Did we always agree? nope, but there was always a dialogue and there was always progress, starting from the senior leadership team, the dance teachers, and of course the students. I spent a lot of time discussing and explaining the why and how of research. I was making sure that the teachers and the students knew exactly what I was trying to achieve and why it was important. Education, therefore, was part of the buy-in process.


Have you seen perceptions of the 11+ Dance and strength and conditioning classes change over the past 5 years?

The answer is a clear yes! For the male population it was a bit easier again understandably, the boys realised very quickly where and how I could help them. They wanted to jump higher and lift heavier. The fact I can jump high helped! For the female population it had been a bit slower but change was initiated with my work with Jade Wallace and the video we put together “Up the spiral”. This video was intended as a motivational tool for Jade to keep going as her injury rehabilitation was very lengthy, but also an educational tool for the young female dancers who looked up to her as a role model. I wasn’t really sure if it was going to work but it was a turning point.

We now have a lot girls in the gym, lifting weights regularly and we have managed to change the mindset from exercising to training. I also think the students can now see the value that training like this can add to their dancing ability.


What developments have you seen in the students since you began your role as Performance Enhancement Coach?

The Artistic Director of the school said in a statement that the dance industry is demanding more athleticism. I would say that this is where we are moving towards. For the boys we can clearly see that those who train consistently and with intention have a more athletic lean look. The same goes for the girls, they look lean and toned without losing the aesthetic look that ballet demands. We are not there yet but the girls at Elmhurst Ballet School can now do that session I tried with the graduate girls 5 years ago, and the next day they are ready to train again. I am very proud of all of them.


What advice would you give to other schools or teachers looking to include strength and conditioning training in their training programme?

The main point, for me, would be to think of supplementary training as an investment of time and effort instead of time lost from dance training. We know from research in sports that stronger and more robust athletes have a reduced injury risk. Less risk of injuries means less time lost from an injury and therefore more time in the studio to dance and develop their artistry.

The next question probably is where do you start? I think it’s always best to start with fundamentals and to think of general, instead of specific conditioning. What I mean by that is, simply replicating a dance move with resistance (elastic band or yoga ball) may not be the way to go. Especially when the student dancers have little or no experience in strength and conditioning. As you can see with the anecdote about my first session with the graduate girls, the ability to do a training session was there, but the capacity of the body to deal with the load was not. Start with basic fundamental movements (squat, lunge, twist, pull, push, brace, hip hinge), get them right, and progress slowly and gradually. I find it fascinating when I see students correcting each other by repeating the coaching points they have been taught. This should be the aim, that is when one knows learning is successful, when the student can teach the skill. The cultural shift is as important as the practical shift and this takes time.


Check out this short film about Jade Wallace’s experience with 11+ Dance