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General Purpose and Benefit of Ballet Training

Part 2:

 

People with ‘good and poised’ posture are deemed frequently more dynamic, impressive, fit, and therefore assumed to be more successful by society. Incorrect or faulty posture, core weakness, hip and pelvic instability affect daily function, personal health, overall life quality (i.e., our general well being) and, of course, sports performance. ‘Postural flaws can be attributed to many factors, physical, psychological, and emotional ones (‘the way we feel’), stress, and injuries, as well as potential growth spurts during childhood years, which were overlooked or not treated. ‘Correct’ and efficient posture is deemed essential for graceful, efficient movement, and the associated ‘movement flow.’ The latter concept is somewhat philosophical in nature due to the inherent aesthetic aspects  … that effortless performance we refer to with ‘awe!’ … The late Bruce Lee is said to have commented, …“Learn to use the joints of the body – You must become aware of their actions because they provide energy when working together and they put energy back into the action … The art of expressing movement demands control over movement. Be like water – take on its shape – become one with the water” … (Little, 2000). An elite swimmer expressed it this way … “When I am happiest with my performance I’ve sort of felt ‘One’ with the water and my stroke and everything … I was going, oh this is cool!“ … (Csikszentmihalyi & Jackson, 1999, p. 4). The following physical components (general athleticism and sport specific abilities) are developed through specific exercises in ballet. Physical Components–

  • Functional and motor fitness
  • Neuromuscular coordination
  • Muscle balance
  • Kinesthetic (body) awareness… or proprioception … vestibular awareness (balance)
  • Balance – static – dynamic – and control
  • Spatial awareness
  • Agility and mobility
  • Coordination (motor – hand-eye – hand-foot)
  • Laterality and symmetry
  • Peripheral vision (without ‘looking’)
  • Rhythm

And

  • Cardio-respiratory
  • Muscular and strength endurance
  • Core strength – strength (muscular and strength endurance) – speed – power – flexibility (range of motion [ROM] – ankle joint and foot flexibility)
  •  Body symmetry

Specific Components–

  • Overall body awareness
  • Head and hip-pelvis awareness
  • Lateral awareness
  • Core strength
  • Limb awareness – limb strength – limb flexibility – limb extension
  • Groin flexibility
  • Body undulation (torso flexibility)

Ballet training entails a combination of three energy systems: anaerobic alactic (0-10 seconds); anaerobic lactic (10 to 120 seconds); and aerobic (more than 2-minutes). Whereas the exercises tend to be short in duration (except for movement series) they do however completely load the muscles during that time because of the total body workout during the entire period. Each exercise, however, is designed to provide rest for some muscles while alternately engaging others in order to warm-up the entire body evenly. All major muscle groups are therefore activated, which is not always the case in other sports, leading to statements by athletes, … “I am feeling muscles at work I never knew I had”  … The focus is on developing a stronger body, improving the body core and the range of flexibility (swim strokes). The latter is not only a synergistic component but also enhances coordination and balance through diverse stretching and toning techniques, which in turn helps to decrease the risk of injury. Even though joint and overall flexibility are prominent features so are muscular strength and power – but without the use of heavy weights. Imagine dancers using slow preparation and take-off steps to jump or leap for height or distance! That would be disastrous! Various stepping patterns, running, sliding, gliding, jumping, leaping, hopping, turning, twirling, and spinning exercises are used to enhance strength, speed, power, endurance, dynamic balance, and control. In addition, the exercises develop awareness for the body (head, shoulder, and off-center body carriage, shrugging of the shoulders, tilting, leaning, arching and twisting) awareness of limb extension (long reach) and body amplitude, spatial awareness (remove the lane ropes in the pool or swim ‘blindfolded’ to test this ability), and peripheral vision. Turning, twirling, and spinning movements increase the knowledge about accurate body positioning and those factors that increase, decrease or control rotational speed (turns, roll-over turn). Strengthening the body core and the spine by lengthening the core muscles provides not only support for the spinal column but also improves posture, increases balance and coordination. Poise, coordinated and controlled movements are indeed achieved through maintaining excellent posture. A taller and leaner posture not only strengthens the back and abdominal muscles but also helps to reduce back pain. Good posture is said to facilitate breathing (chapter 3, Pilates, pp. 11-13) as British swimmer Liam Tancock states, … it (posture) helps you breath better” … The exact use of various muscle groups improves body-arm-leg coordination; rhythmic limb synchronization (arms and legs in the butterfly stroke and breaststroke) and rhythmic opposition (crawl strokes); correct body positioning (swim strokes); and body-arm-leg coordination (swim strokes). Swimmers especially benefit from the following: head and hip awareness (back and front crawl stroke; roll in the front and back crawl strokes); laterality (drills, and turns); body and limb extension (long strokes-extended legs); limb dexterity; limb speed; torso-hip-pelvis stability and mobility (undulation); strength and flexibility of the torso, hips, gluteus, quadriceps, hamstrings, thighs, knees, calves, feet (flexion-extension and foot turnout), ankle joints (kick), toes (kick extension), and the Achilles tendon; rhythm and timing of  specific movements or skills (timing) Correct use of the gluteus muscles and hip flexors, increasing the tonus (definition) of the thighs, improving foot rotation, awareness of foot inversion (turning in) and eversion (turning out) are additional objectives. The ‘neutral’ stance position whereby the spine is straightened and the hips are square (both sides are parallel in the front view) is a basic pre-requisite for good posture and efficient movement because the legs and shoulders have to be aligned and positioned correctly. A moderate turnout position of the foot-feet helps 1) to rotate the leg{s} from the hip{s}; 2) to strengthen smaller, more injury-susceptible muscles in ways a parallel stance cannot; 3) to correct the so-called ‘pigeon-toe’ position (inward rotation of the foot-feet – breaststroke error). Ballet training also has a special appeal to female swimmers because it enhances the tonus or shape of the legs, thighs and buttocks, and provides weight control due to rigorous workouts (increases muscle mass although not necessarily the ‘bulking’ type). For example, a swimmer, weighing 110 pounds, burns 63 calories every 15 minutes in a ballet class, which translates to 360 + calories in 1.5 hours.

Concentration and Focus

Although ballet is demanding due to the exercise routine it present special challenges but also offers FUN. Swimmers seldom can afford to ‘get spaced out’ because constant attention has to be given to specific instruction to maintain correct posture, technique and the rhythm count for  each exercise. This requires a high degree of focus and concentration on details. According to British swimmer Liam Tancock … “Ballet is very physical and you need a lot of strength and precision. They (dancers) make it look effortless but it requires a lot of concentration. You become more aware of your body and what your limbs are doing, how you’re positioning your limbs, fingers and toes” … As a result, some have proposed that ballet is a ‘brain’ activity because the inherent relationship between body – space – and movement requires the use of both sides of the brain. Being able to think about a specific technique while controlling isolated and independent movements of the body in-and about space enhances not only the level of self-image, confidence, and self-esteem but in the end improves the ability to move better and subsequently ‘feel’ better.

Importance of Rhythm Training

The ability to dictate and control the specific rhythm of a skill, the ‘correct timing and pacing’ is th e difference between truly great swimmers, good or average ones. Coordination-based skills are based on rhythm and developed during pre-adolescence and play a significant role in the ability to change direction fluidly and to move extremities (limbs) in opposition. Therefore, rhythm training is a critical component but is frequently neglected, under-taught, or lacking reinforcement (including elite swimmers). Subsequently, swimmers may perform skills in isolation, which become robotic (machine-like) and lack ‘movement flow.’ Rhythm is, however, a vital feature in ballet training because all exercises are executed to set counts and, of course, music. This also becomes a powerful mood enhancer, relaxation mode, and a motivational and/or visualization tool.

Social Interaction and Emotional Development

Acquiring social skills is important for human interaction in all aspect in life. Ballet provides an environment whereby personal achievement and perfection of technique is the focal point not the competitive mentality of constantly having to ‘out-do – out-work or beat’ someone on a daily basis (although we are not opposed to ‘hard-nosed’ competition to achieve set objectives in the specific training scenario!). Ballet training offers ample opportunities through group interaction whereby swimmers learn to express themselves through movement, either alone or within small or larger groups. Learning to work with others is a huge component to enhance peer acceptance, teamwork and group dynamics as well as self-confidence and self-esteem. According to research, it is the very lack of such social aspects that contributes to the drop out rate especially among teenage female swimmers. They place a higher degree of importance on social interaction at this stage, compared to their male counterparts.

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