The Wear and Tear of Ballet: The Dancer

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We’ve talked about the wear and tear of ballet on sets, scenery and costumes, but what about the heart and soul of the art form? What about the dancer? From twisted ankles to torn hamstrings, ballet is tough on the body. Dancers are asked to do things that are inhuman: overextend their legs, balance on their toes, press people over their heads, get thrown through the air. And what’s the toll it takes? We’ll take a look at that in just a moment!

First, a quick update on our 45 in 45 fundraiser! With just two and one half weeks left, it appears as if we may not reach our goal. We’ve had lots of interest, many people spreading the word, but very little in the way of donations. We are heartened and humbled by the amount of people who have expressed interest and/or concern over helping us to raise funds, and we understand that sometimes there just isn’t any money to spare for donations. So, take a look at your wallet, ask your friends and family to do the same. If you can skip just one or two Starbucks trips next week, even a $10 donation will make a difference in our upcoming season. While we may not have raised enough money yet to fix our sets, we do have enough to repair and replace a few costumes, and that’s a start! So, for those of you who have given California Ballet a helping hand, we cannot thank you enough!

Now, onto the wear and tear of ballet on the dancer!

To understand the type of strain dancing places on the body, we really should start at the beginning with a dancer’s training. Most professional dancers begin their instruction at a very young age. The skills and technique required to dance ballet are so precise and demanding that most ballet dancers begin their training in early childhood. Of course, the age at which a child begins training differs depending upon whether they are a boy or a girl. Ballerinas usually begin their training incredibly early – between ages three and eight. Boys, on the other hand, can begin their ballet training as late at 14 – in some rare cases as late as college – and still become professional ballet dancers. Most men, however, still begin training by age eight.

Yes, we know it’s unfair. But let’s face it, men and women are completely different animals! Boys and girls develop at different rates, and most men achieve the physical maturity that ballet requires later in their youth than girls.

What does ballet training include? A lot. But here’s an abridged look at a dancer’s training:

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When a child begins their dance training, they typically start by taking one or two classes per week. Classes may range from 1 to 1 1/2 hours in length, but they always follow the same format: warmup at barre followed by a series of exercises in the center of the studio. We could go into detail about what a typical ballet class looks like, but we’ll save that for another post. If you run a Google search for “ballet class” you will likely come up with a good description.

During these early years of ballet training, a young dancer is learning basic steps, the French terms for each step, fine-tuning their control of their body, building muscles and flexibility, and learning the respect and discipline that are necessary for being a good dancer. Most importantly, they are discovering just how much they love the art form, and perhaps how much of their lives they are willing to dedicate to ballet.

This last is important, because as a dancer enters their teenage years, their training is going to suddenly accelerate. They will go from one to two classes per week up to 10 to 15 classes per week! If their school is connected with a professional company, those hours spent in the studio will be augmented with hours of rehearsals for productions, time spent in the theater, summer intensive workshops, the list goes on. Needless to say, a teenager with his or her eye set on a professional career will need to make sacrifices in their personal lives: missing school dances, football games, dating, family functions . . . you get the idea.

Of all the dancers in the world, only the top 2% will find a place with a professional ballet company. Dancers with companies like ABT and New York City Ballet are akin to Olympic athletes when you compare their skills and strength to others. But, more specifically, these top 2% will also have a “natural ballet body“.

What’s that, you ask? It’s a body with specific proportions and a high level of natural flexibility, turnout, and strength that are all conducive to dancing. Not everyone has this natural facility, and those that don’t have to work hard to make up for the lack. This is not to say that only those with a natural ballet body will become professional dancers, but they will need to work much harder.

Okay, but what does a dancer have to do physically?

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A dancer must be able to:

      • Balance on their toes
      • Jump extremely high in the air (men must jump higher than women – some as high as 5-6 feet in the air!)
      • Extend their legs up to their head
      • Turn out their legs from their hips to as close to 180 degrees as possible
      • Turn multiple times at high speed without becoming dizzy or disoriented
      • Ballerinas must have ankles strong enough to support their entire body on the very tips of their toes
      • Men must have upper bodies strong enough to hold a girl over their heads with one hand

And all the training for this begins at the ripe old age of seven or eight! Dancer kinesiology – or the study of human movement in dancers – is still a relatively new field. We haven’t had the opportunity to do deep studies of how training from an early age affects child development but we do know some things:

  • The constant use of turnout – or rotating one’s legs from the hips:  This leads to lengthened tendons and ligaments. It has been hypothesized that the development of turnout during a child’s growth may leadPlumLift to a shallower hip joint. 
  • Extreme stretching and flexibility: Same thing as use of turnout. Lengthened tendons and ligaments and elongated muscles may result from this hyper-flexibility.
  • High impact from jumping: It has been directly observed by sports medicine that the high impact of landing out of the spectacular jumps you see in ballet wears away at the natural shock absorption in a person’s knees. As a dancer ages, this becomes a major problem, often leading to knee surgery, arthritis, and ultimately retirement.
  • Pointe work: There’s no way around it – dancing on the very tips of your toes is unnatural. A ballerina must suspend her entire bodyweight on the tips of her toes – often times on one foot! The end result afteryears of training and dancing like this? Severe arthritis in the ankles, toes, and the little bones in the feet. There is also a wearing down of the body’s natural shock absorbers.
  • Lifting: A male dancer will be required to lift other dancers over their heads, as well as catch ballerinas who are flying through the air at phenomenal speeds! The shock and impact of doing this repeatedly has the same effect as doing all those high jumps: a slow wearing down of the body’s natural shock absorbers, as well a slow weakening of shoulder, wrist, and elbow joints as tendons and ligaments get stretched and joints are worn down.
  • Injuries: This is a big one! Almost every single dancer will find themselves injured at one point or another in their careers, Whether it’s a twisted ankle, torn muscle, or dislocated joint, these injuries are often severe due to the extreme nature of professional ballet. The trouble is, as a dancer stays away from ballet class while they heal, they lose their technique and strength incredibly quickly. As a result, many dancers hurry back to the ballet studio prematurely, and end up dancing with their injury unhealed. In the end, a dancer will only shorten their career by doing this, but if you haven’t met a professional ballet dancer, you don’t know stubborn!

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All of these things are just the physical wearing down of a dancer. Professional ballet can be incredibly emotional as well. Professional classical ballet is every bit as competitive as any Olympic sport. Add to that the aesthetics of art, and you have a recipe for emotional strain. The professional dancer does most of his or her training during the troubled years of adolescence. The body is going through extreme changes, and it’s all happening in skin-tight clothing. Ballet requires a slim, athletic body. This means that for safety as well as artistic reasons, a dancer must control their bodyweight. Have you ever tried to tell an adolescent to watch their weight? Not a good time.

Then you have many dancers vying for select spots with a professional company. They aren’t selling housewares, and it isn’t a cerebral exercise. Dancers are putting themselves out onstage at an audition and asking people to judge their skill and, most brutally, their bodies. A rejection can be devastating, and the fact that the competition for positions in a company or roles in a ballet is between friends and colleagues makes it all the more stressful!

So, the wear and tear of ballet on the dancer is both physical and emotional. Because of the amount of strain it places on a person, a dancer’s career is very short. Most dancers retire between the ages of 30 and 40! Can you believe it? Most people are only starting their careers at that age!

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By now you may be saying to yourself, “Injuries, arthritis, emotional trauma, a sacrificed childhood, and a ridiculously short career on top of it all! Is it really worth it?”

You must understand, a professional dancer isn’t in it for the money. Most aren’t even in it for the applause and glory. Dancers do what they do because of an undying passion for the art form and an unrelentinglove for what they do. Injuries, emotions, and sacrifices aside, most dancers cannot see themselves doing anything else. And that short career? That just means that they have to work twice as hard to get as much out of their career as they possibly can before they reach the geriatric age of 30!

Ask any retired dancer, whether ballet, modern, jazz, or tap, and they will tell you the same thing: “I wouldn’t change a thing!”

When a dancer retires, they are able to look back and say that they’ve had a full career – by 30! How many people can say that? Additionally, a dancer in his or her prime is also at the pinnacle of human fitness. With proper diet and exercise, a retired dancer may retain this fitness well into their middle years. Sure, they’ll have aches and pains other people their age may not have, but everything comes at a price, right?

When you get right down to it, the moral of the story is this:

Ballet is not for sissies!

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If you support the hard work and sacrifice of these spectacular artists, consider helping to make the next season for California Ballet dancers a spectacular one. Donate to our 45 in 45 fundraiser, or create a fundraising page and get your friends to donate for you! Go to www.stayclassy.org/45in45 for more info.

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