Jillian Descoteaux, Ph.D.

“Typically, many students haven’t thought of performing artists as a population they could care for, and I’m hoping to spark this interest with students to take into their future health profession careers.”

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’m an assistant professor in exercise physiology; I started in May of 2021. Before that, I was a backstage therapist (athletic trainer) in performance medicine at Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas. Previously, I had finished my doctorate at Ohio University, specializing in performing artists’ healthcare.

I have also been a board member of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science for the past five years. It is a multidisciplinary organization that promotes health for dancers and dancing for health. The organization includes everyone from physicians and allied healthcare to holistic medicine, dance educators and dancers. It’s a bridge between dance educators who are with dancers and all these healthcare professionals who are practicing dance medicine and science.  

What led you to your position today?

I was an undergraduate at Keene State College in New Hampshire, my home state, and went to college wanting to write for health magazines because that was my exposure to health as a young person. So, I went to college thinking English with a health promotion emphasis or minor, but then I decided what I really wanted to do was patient care. I met an athletic training student and their program sounded so perfect for me that I switched majors to athletic training.

During that pivotal sophomore year of college, I started developing more friendships with students in the film, theatre and the dance programs, so I ended up attending all the theatre shows and being in student films and expanding that creative side of myself. All my extra time was spent helping artists with their creative practices. I decided that I wanted to use my position in healthcare to support artists. That led me to do my master’s in dance science and then a second master’s in athletic training and then my doctorate. Along the way, I worked in different performing arts clinics providing healthcare to dancers, actors, musicians, marching bands and film production crews.

What made you interested in athletic training and dance science?

I love the arts, visual and performance. I’ve enjoyed supporting my friends who are artists with their healthcare needs. But, with dance, there is a level of joy in performance that I adore; it brings me a deep contentment watching dance. I think I connect with the form as an audience member. The idea of the body as the medium, to me, speaks to a higher need for healthcare. If all your training is with your body, similar to athletics, then you need a specific kind of healthcare that respects that demand, and which isn’t always available to artists.

What was it like to work with Cirque du Soleil and how did that experience impact what you do today?

Clique du Soleil was the highest and most supported level of performing arts healthcare that I have experienced. I had been at the conservatoire level, as well as a collegiate level of dance. Being in that professional level, it really opened my eyes to the attitude of the professional performer versus the performer-in-training. I really got to learn a lot from my lead athletic trainer that I was working with as well as adjust to working with a whole technical crew who were lifetime professionals with the show. It was more team-based than anything else I had experienced, and it is a huge group effort to do performance medicine at that level with professional acrobats, contortionists and dancers.  

What made you interested in helping to develop the new dance science emphasis for the Exercise Physiology program?

It is special to be able to catch these pre-professional students because in exercise physiology, even my incoming freshman are thinking about graduate school. They have these ambitions that are a decade in-the-making. So, it’s a unique position to be able to add a little bit of something that they weren’t expecting into their education. Typically, many students haven’t thought of performing artists as a population they could care for, and I’m hoping to spark this interest with students to take into their future health profession careers.

What will students learn if they chose the Dance Science emphasis?

There are three main classes and the first one is going to be geared towards bringing everyone up to speed on dance culture because in healthcare, you must think about your patient and the culture they’re in. We talk a lot about societal influences on dancers such as the environment they’re dancing in, their clothes and how they are trained. Students are getting a developmental and environmental view of who a dancer is in the beginning.

Then we have two other classes, one is very much on performance enhancement which I am going to pull a lot from my Cirque du Soleil and Dance Science background. The other class is injury and illnesses which I am excited to bring light to some dance-specific patterns you see with dancers; this class draws from my years as an athletic trainer with performing artists. That class also spends time talking about mental illness in dancers and mental flourishing versus mental languishing in dance. I want to introduce the dancer as a whole individual.

What kinds of opportunities will be available for students after graduating if they choose dance science as an emphasis?

There are many avenues for how a medical professional can impact the arts community. One example a student could take is wherever they are working, they could reach out to local dance studios and say, “I have this training and I would love to be a positive influence or a referral source for your studio and for your dancers.”

If I spark any big interests in my program, then I’m going to be talking about how you form your own clinic that specializes in dancers as well how you do the next level of dance outreach and dance research, maybe even becoming hired by a dance or performing arts company. But a lot of it is going to be about how you can make a positive impact on a dance community, because every community deserves performing arts conscious healthcare.

What is your hope for students that choose the dance science emphasis and how will it impact performers and dance science? 

My dream for WVU is to have a performing arts clinic that the marching band and dancers as well as the acting and musician majors can all go to. I would love to support artists with a clinic, and I hope that my presence goes in that direction.

As far as my students, I hope that they take away an appreciation for performing artists and help lift them up. I’m hoping my students come out of this emphasis as defenders of local arts organizations and groups and they start thinking about these people who give color and beauty to our everyday lives.

Is there anything else you would like to share about the dance science emphasis?

For my non-dancers who are thinking about choosing this emphasis, you don’t have to be a dancer. We’re talking, thinking and having discourse about dance. My biggest fear is that non-dancers will shy away. Even though it’s a dance science emphasis area, I really want students to know that if you want to think about artists in general, because we will be talking about musicians and actors, it’s going to be dance-focused but broader.

I am hoping I can use my experience with the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science to give my students an outlook into the world. I want them to realize that the dance science community is small, but it is world-wide, and I am hoping they take advantage of the international aspect of dance. And finally, in 2024, the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science’s annual conference is going to be held in Columbus, Ohio and I am hoping to be able to bring my dance science students!