What’s Missing From Ballet Training? This.

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Some people may argue, but I believe that ballet is more physically demanding today than it ever was. The expectations of dancers today are so great, both in terms of ability and versatility. Men in the corps de ballet are expected to have their pirouettes down, their double tours perfected, and their partnering skills in place.  They are no longer just lifting and posing. Men in ballet today are dancing more than ever, and in many different styles. On the other side of the coin, the women have it hard, too. These days, they dance one work on pointe, the next work off pointe, and then sometimes maybe in heels! The use of the pointe shoe itself is taken to the extreme. It is on balance sometimes, then off balance the next. Women have to move through space with power and energy; they are not always going to be a dainty sylph.

This came from a conversation I had with our artistic director at Oklahoma City Ballet, Robert Mills. I had been wondering how dancers are being trained to be professionals. Are they receiving the training that truly prepares them for what will be required if they’re hired as a company artist? There should be a balanced approach to training any professional, but even more so with a professional athlete. Most current pre-professional ballet training adheres to a strict dance-only ideology. The problem is that it does not adequately prepare dancers’ bodies for modern-day ballet, which ranges from classical to contemporary and everything in between.

Let’s take a look at dance training from a cardiorespiratory standpoint. Other than end-of-year recitals and occasional small roles in bigger ballets and The Nutcracker, students receive very little performance time.

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RJ on stage
OKC Ballet principal dancers Alvin Tovstogray as Romeo and Miki Kawamura as Juliet. Photo credit: Jana Wakefield Carson.

The vast majority of the time spent training to be a professional ballet dancer, then, is spent in the classroom. When we break down classical ballet education to its most rudimentary form, it is training students to imitate a series of steps with little focus on the physical strength and fitness needed to perform enough combinations of these steps to dance an entire performance. Our company recently performed the ballet Romeo and Juliet, and principal dancer Alvin Tovstogray was required to dance two performances in one day as Romeo. Which means that for the better part of five hours in a single day, he was on stage dancing.

In an article published in Sports Med, they showed the results of a study of this:

…dance itself and its questionable ability to stimulate positive cardiorespiratory adaptations.  It has been reported that the relatively small aerobic fitness increments measured in professional dancers are not related to their class work, but to the duration and frequency of their performances. It has also been suggested that ballet class work, especially at the barre (e.g.plies, tendus), represents aerobic exercise of only low to moderate intensity.

A typical ballet class is an hour and a half, and ideally half of that is barre training and the other half is center-floor work. So for each class, a dancer is getting 45 minutes of cardiorespiratory training and then expected to perform ballets that average to be two hours or more in duration. When you go to watch a football practice, they do not only run plays, they exercise — a lot. I don’t think football players are preparing to have to run through tires on a field during an actual game, but it helps them develop the physical tools they will need to execute plays on the field.

Dance is no different. The easiest argument for this is that it falls to the dancer to supplement their dance training with cross-training. But not all students can take on the additional cost, travel and training time to work at other facilities. Most of them certainly don’t have the ability to hire people that can help them with the proper training techniques they need. If we are to give each student the same tools to succeed, then all aspects of what it will take to be a professional dancer need to be a part of their training from day one.

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Shane Jewell

Shane Jewell is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Ballet. Previous to this, he was the Executive Director for the OK MOZART International Music Festival. Before his time at OK Mozart, Jewell worked at Celebrity Attractions in Tulsa presenting National Touring Broadway shows to 8 markets in the Midwest. During his tenure there he handled several roles such as: Company Manager, Technical Director and Advertising Director. He also was the Company Manager and Stage Manager for the national touring musical, The Rock & The Rabbi. Jewell currently serves on the Education and Programming Committee for Oklahoma Contemporary and is a member of the Oklahoma Presenters Network.