Perry and his mentors, associate professor of dance Renay Aumiller and associate professor of exercise science Titch Madzima evaluated dancers to find a correlation between body composition and qualitative performance
Already a trained dancer, Cassidy Perry ’22 came to Elon with a healthy skepticism and curiosity about the art form and its traditions.
During her interviews with Honors Fellows in the spring of 2018, she pitched the idea for what would become her Lumen Prize-winning research project on body composition and aesthetic performance.
“To what extent is what is considered the ideal dancer’s body based on utility, and to what extent is it relevant to a dancer’s actual performance? I thought it would be interesting to look at dancers of all body types and find a way to measure their performance,” Perry said.
Her questions led to a co-mentee, interdisciplinary study that blends dance performance, dance science, and exercise science. The research included 27 participants and nine independent professional dance judges. The results contradicted his hypothesis but contribute to the study of dance forms beyond ballet and diminish historical physical ideals imposed on performers’ bodies.
Majoring in dance and choreography with minors in exercise science, entrepreneurship, and business administration, Perry began meeting with Elon’s faculty during her freshman year in hopes of testing her hypothesis that more of muscle would lead to better performance.
Associate professor of dance Renay Aumiller, whose expertise is in qualitative assessments of dance performance, was excited about the research potential. She encouraged Perry to recruit an exercise science professor to co-supervise the study. She got in touch with associate professor of exercise science Titch Madzima, who agreed to guide her through body composition studies.
“Cassidy is very curious, just like all of Elon’s dance faculty are curious, about what training offers dancers,” Aumiller said. “What is quality dance training? What elements of a dancer’s training are the most valuable? »
Perry’s project, “Creating an Optimal Performer: A Body Composition and Performance Analysis,” received the Lumen Award in the spring of its sophomore year. The Lumen Prize, Elon’s main award for undergraduate research, awards researchers a $20,000 scholarship to support ambitious research projects. It allows undergraduate students to work closely with faculty mentors on their projects for two years. Each year, 15 emerging juniors are named Lumen Scholars and conduct research that often results in presentations and publications at conferences.
Although the pandemic reduced the scope of the study – originally planned as a global assessment of dancers in Ghana, Italy and the United States – it did not impact the significance of the results.
Twenty-seven dancers from Elon’s major and minor programs, dance crew, and members of Elon DanceWorks participated in the study. They underwent body composition measurements and performed strength, flexibility and range of motion tests. Then Perry gave them a short routine to perform individually, which she filmed and submitted to dance professionals to score qualitatively.
They were surprised when dancers with higher amounts of lean muscle scored lower on subjective measures. Perry has presented his research at the Southeast American College of Sports Medicine Conference, National Undergraduate Research Conferences, and Elon’s SURF Day.
Perry believes this work opens the door to further research into dance training and the effects of muscle mass on fluidity of movement. Comparing it to sport-specific drills, Perry wonders if consistent, focused training would improve dancers’ abilities.
“I think it will help counter some of the aesthetic fears around ‘I don’t have a corps de ballet,'” Perry said. “There is no ‘corps de ballet’. We know that, but it’s hard to break. I think we can also study dancers’ musculature and injuries more, especially overuse injuries, which often stem from muscle imbalances.
“What’s exciting to me is that Cassidy expected people who have higher strength levels to perform better qualitatively,” Aumiller said. “She found it to be the opposite. It’s exciting to have the data to prove it. The data showed that while higher levels of lean muscle mass did not correspond to higher performance scores, the more a dancer trained equated to higher performance scores. This concludes that a dancer’s body type is not related to how they are perceived to perform, but learning to control their body, whatever its shape, does.
Madzima agreed that more studies of different dance genres are needed to better understand and train dancers’ bodies.
“Cassidy’s research contributes to the literature and data on dancers,” Madzima said. “Dancers are populations that haven’t been widely studied, so there isn’t a ton of body composition information for dancers compared to other athletes.”
Madzima praised Perry’s ability to persevere during the pandemic, working hard, completing a range of academic studies, leading the African company Elon while meeting deadlines and performing in multiple shows.
“I’m impressed with his ability to juggle it all,” Madzima said. “Cassidy took great ownership of her project throughout the process. Renay and I were really able to play the role of guides as mentors, sharing our points of view.
“Cassidy is incredibly driven,” Aumiller said. “I learned a lot from her and I’m excited to know where she’s going next. She showed such courage and rigor to dig into a project like this for four years.
After graduating, Perry will pursue a career in dance and hopes to perform with European companies and audiences.