Breaking down ballet’s barriers
Updated: Dec 31, 2017
Most people know what ballet is. They have seen a performance, watched their sister (or brother) attend ballet class, or seen it on the television now that ballet has become more mainstream.
But many myths still surround ballet: myths that can sadly prevent people from giving a ballet-inspired workout a go.
“Ballet is pink, fluffy, sickly sweet and so NOT cool”
Yes, this is most definitely the case in some of the baby ballet classes that exist. And on stage at the Royal Opera House there may well be a pink tutu in sight if you go to see one of the traditional classical ballets. But that is what we are meant to see. We are not meant to see behind the curtain – the reality of the athleticism and training. The dancers train hard in order to make it look effortless, to deliberately conceal the blood, sweat and tears that can be experienced in the dance or rehearsal studio.
There is a reason why so many athletes, sportspeople and celebrities use ballet as a tool to improve their fitness and physique. Many sports coaches have realised the benefits of ballet training and now incorporate it into their training programmes. Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand incorporated ballet conditioning into their training programme for years to keep them injury free.
And ballet is cool. The film Black Swan helped make ballet cool, but ballet was doing pretty well before that. The video “The Royal Ballet. Not What you Think” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-46BZD4zNlk) shows how ballet can be sexy, athletic, strong and cool all at the same time.
“Ballet dancers are all anorexic”
Ballet has had bad press in this regard and has not traditionally been regarded as the most healthy of pursuits. Dancers do tend to have a restrictive diet because of the hours of training they endure (you can’t be light on your feet with a full stomach) but professional dancers are training for between 5 to 8 hours a day and ballet naturally creates longer, leaner muscles rather than the bulk you sometimes see with other forms of exercise. Although professional dancers are slim (and remember there is an aesthetic requirement to this art form), most of them are health conscious. In order to train and perform at the top level, dancers must sustain a healthy relationship with their bodies and nutrition is a key part of that. They are athletes and today’s dancers are far more muscular and strong and need to sustain this physique like any other top athlete in order to perform the more athletic choreography that exists today. Rick Guest’s portraits in his book “What Lies Beneath”, of dancers themselves (as opposed to dancers performing) are a wonderful insight into the strength and muscularity of today’s dancers (http://www.rg-books.com/product/what-lies-beneath).
“Ballet is elitist, formal and for the middle classes to enjoy”
Modern ballet is accessible and is not all based on fairytales. Ballet has in recent years become more mainstream and is becoming increasingly intertwined with modern culture. Ballet is appearing in television and film (Flesh and Bone, Black Swan, Dance Moms), in advertisements (Alessandra Ferri in the Boots No.7 Lift and Luminate advert and Lexus IS advert), on social media (the multi million viewed video of the Ukranian ballet star Sergei Polunin dancing to Take Me To Church, the Ballerina Project on Instagram), and in books (Carlos Acosta, Roberto Bolle, Mikaela DePrince to name a few). Not to mention celebrity obsession with ballet fitness (Gigi Hadid, Victoria Secrets Models, Pippa Middleton and Natalie Portman etc). Music videos are also incorporating ballet (Sia’s Chandelier, Florence and the Machine’s Spectrum, Kanye West’s Runaway, Money’s Hold Me Forever, Coldplay’s True Love…and so the list goes on).
And more and more dancers are beginning to share their personal ballet journeys with us on social media (see Instagram accounts of Mikaela Kelly and Juliet Doherty). There are also plenty of photographs on social media of dancers in “normal” environments (follow The Ballerina Project on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter.). Seeing the effort and the extremely hard work that goes into the dancers’ training is captivating and breaks down the normally glamorous mystery of ballet making it far more accessible.
“Ballet is for weak girlie girls who love pink”
Ballet is the most rigorous athletic training of all. However, any reference to “ballet” or “barre” as an alternative training or conditioning method usually produces the above emotional reactions from people. If you think ballet is for sissies you are wrong. Just ask Evander Holyfield (former World Heavyweight Champion), Batman (Christian Bale) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who all studied ballet.
The skills required for football include strength, flexibility, agility and mental preparedness. Cyclists need strength, heightened stability and flexibility to achieve the correct positioning on the bicycle. Swimmers need a strong core while their limbs are doing extreme movements in the water and runners need endurance, a strong core for speed and mental focus.
So, what has stopped you from doing a ballet workout before? Are you still hesitating?
“Yes. Ballet just involves lots of twirling and prancing around”
Most barre/ballet workouts focus on low impact but high intensity toning exercises and stretches through mat and resistance work. The classical techniques that are used in ballet are drawn into movement patterns that anyone can learn and do not have to be too challenging on your co-ordination. There is NO DANCING involved. Trust me, you will not feel like you are prancing around!
“And you need to be thin, graceful and co-ordinated to do ballet”
No you do not. Please don’t be put off by the stereotypical size criteria for ballet. Any ballet workout programme should encourage people to feel good about themselves and their lives, to foster a love of ballet and gain a better understanding of their bodies. None of us are going to appear in a three Act ballet at the Royal Opera House any time soon. Leave that to the professionals and focus more on striving towards the toned, powerful body type that ballet dancers are so well known for.
And my all time favourite stereotype about ballet dancers…?
“Ballet dancers are naturally amazing dancers at parties”
Ha ha! There really is a belief that ballet dancers are natural dancers at parties and nightclubs. Not true! These are two very different types of dance, so don’t expect your ballet dancer friend to outshine you on the dance floor. That crown remains yours.
As you can see from the above, most of the myths that surround ballet are outdated, or simply wrong. Ballet benefits elite athletes and anyone else looking to shake up their workout regime. It improves your strength (targeting and using muscles that are not used in other fitness programmes or sports, particularly your core), increases your flexibility (reducing risk of injury), builds speed and extension in your legs and connects your mind to your body.
Don’t let your preconceptions about ballet stop you from joining a ballet workout programme. Make an educated choice and reap the benefits.
Sarah is the founder of Breaking Ballet, the online ballet workout programme open to everyone, including ballet enthusiasts (and soon to be converts too).