Ballerinas are known for their ethereal grace and exquisite beauty, but underneath those tutus and tiaras lie fierce athletes possessing gladiator strength and unrivaled physical control. In my 10 plus years as a professional ballet dancer, I was paid to be in the best physical shape possible and as such, learned a thing or two about staying in shape.
The following are seven things anyone can take from a dancer’s training approach and apply to their own fitness routine.
When I danced from 9am to 5pm, I wouldn’t have dreamed of starting a rehearsal day or going on stage without a proper warm-up. I’d learned over the years that my body and my mind were more capable of performing at peak condition with warm, stretched muscles and a focused brain than if I’d been sitting around beforehand.
It’s hard enough for most of us to get to the gym, let alone to take an extra 10 minutes to get started, but even if you only have two minutes to spare, incorporating light stretching or jogging in place to elevate your heart rate and get your blood pumping will bring your body to a more responsive, less injury prone state. Think of your warm up as a way to increase your mental function overall, making you better able to meet your day with ease.
In order for ballerinas to defy gravity with leaps and turns, they know that discipline must be utilized to their advantage. Every day in my life as a dancer, I practiced variations on the same steps so that I’d be better able to string them together in choreography. The more I practiced, the easier dancing became. The hardest of steps eventually became effortless with consistent, focused attention.
Maybe you aren’t doing 32 fouettés onstage at Lincoln Center, but moving your body each and every day will help you to show up more fully, strongly and gracefully in your life. Wherever you are in your fitness journey, practice. Consistently repeat your process, no matter what it is. Factoring practice into each day can be a game changer that leads you to an agile body and a life well-lived.
Ballet training is anaerobic, meaning it promotes strength, speed and power but doesn’t build endurance as it’s not an adequate source of cardio. In order to get through a 2-hour performance with finesse, ballerinas have to cross-train, or practice other, aerobic types of exercise, in order to build adequate stamina.
Do you always stick to the same old routine? Try switching it up. Varying your workout is key for strengthening your entire body AND conquering boredom. If you run, try adding in a weekly yoga class. Love Cross Fit? Try Zumba. Switch up your routine to get a wider spectrum of benefits for your body, mind and spirit.
4. Make sure you exercises every muscle.
Day in, day out, dancers practice a wide range of movements, from pointing their toes on the ground to huge, flying leaps across the floor. The one thing that makes a ballerina’s movement so unique is the use of long, stretched limbs that creates such beautiful lines in space. In order to make these positions possible, a ballet dancer performs tons of isometric, or static, exercises that work the small muscles often neglected in other types of exercise.
You don’t have to join the barre fitness craze to reap the benefit of workouts for your small muscle groups. Any exercise that is repetitive and doesn’t involve moving your joints will do. Try calf raises, or holding a plank that transitions into a side plank for a few minutes. Notice how using the length of your spine and limbs requires a whole different type of power. Think of strengthening your smaller muscles as creating a solid foundation your body can count on.
5. Take care of your feet.
During my career, caring for my feet became a daily habit, much like brushing my teeth. After hours of rehearsal and standing en pointe each day, it was imperative that I treat my blistered toes with ice water.
Our feet do so much for us. They are literally, the ground upon which we stand. As anyone who’s suffered an injury from the ankle down can tell you, when the health of your feet is compromised, life gets a lot more difficult. So, show your feet some love. Wear supportive shoes. Get a pedicure. Most importantly, appreciate those feet by moving them each day.
6. Everything comes from your core.
Ballerinas have amazing posture and I promise you, they aren’t born with it. In order to dance well, I had to learn how to properly use all of the muscles that made up my core. As a professional, I was amazed at how much easier dancing — and just moving my body in general — became with increased focus on my middle.
A strong core is essential for balance and stability, yes, but the real secret is knowing that all movement, regardless of where it begins, ripples through these muscles. A powerful core can create ease of movement through your whole body, and a weak core affects how you move your arms and legs as well. Spend a little time each day focusing some effort on your core. Try Pilates, crunches, or even walking to tone and strengthen the center of your body.
7. Fuel like a pro.
To dance for a living, taking care of my body was part of the job. A huge factor of this care included the fuel I took in. I learned that I performed much differently when I chose whole foods over processed treats, chemical-filled junk and fast food. I naturally gravitated toward high-quality nutrition, once I realized that food choices would help me become a better dancer.
Food fuels your existence, so it makes sense to choose wisely. Especially if you are active. When you choose real, unprocessed food over the other stuff, your body is better equipped to function at its highest capacity. Eat fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and quality protein. Drink plenty of water. Shift your focus from burning calories, to providing your body with nutrients. You’ll feel the absolute difference it makes.
My love of the human form and high-quality nutrition have led me to a career as a holistic health coach, now that my dancing days are become less frequent. I'm constantly in awe of what is possible for us when we feel empowered by our bodies and know that being physically active is a great part of this journey. Let these seven lessons help connect you not just to your physical strength, but to your inner-resolve as well.
How can you use your fitness practice to show gratitude for your individual body? How can the movement you choose help to acknowledge all of the strength you possess?