Apr 01

Incorporating Modified Ballet as Cross-Training

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…It is all about achieving and maintaining correct body alignment and posture, body and spatial awareness, and the prevention of injuries…

…It is all about improving and/or further refining existing motor skills to enhance overall movement efficiency to optimize and maximize performance… (Schloder, 2014)

Dancers are some of the most athletic individuals – a fact that is not easily acknowledged within the sport community. Albert Einstein’s famous quote, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” ought to challenge coaches and athletes at any level to think outside the box and look for alternative activities for cross-training to increase all-round athletic abilities or ‘physical literacy’ (Balyi, Way, & Higgs, 2013). However, the artistic and aesthetic nature of ballet frequently encounters misconceptions from the public at large, especially by males ‘feeling uncomfortable’ because of their personal perception. Any reference to this activity usually elicits traditional myths, social bias with reactions such as, “Are you kidding me?”…“It’s a frilly thing for girls!” …“It’s not masculine!” …“Not my thing!” …“I am not wearing that silly tutu!” or …“I am not comfortable with it and feel really stupid with this stuff!” …“Besides, what does this have to do with my sport anyways?”

Indeed, it has everything to do with ‘your sport’ and some more because the training of physical components in ballet is very beneficial for all sports. In fact, some of the greatest NFL football players in the 1970s participated in ballet. Injured NHL hockey players have credited modified ballet,Yoga, and Pilates, for being able to resume their playing careers. As of late, world-class and Olympic swimmers from the UK have also taken up ballet with strong support from their coach at the University of Loughborough. These elite athletes recognize that dancers not only deserve great admiration for their daily rigorous workout, but also for the inherent focus on physical and mental components.

A study, undertaken by Watson and Garret in the UK at Hertfordshire University reports the results of ten standardized fitness tests from late October 2008. These were administered to dancers of the Royal Ballet, the English National Ballet School, and a squad of national and international British swimmers (including Olympians) in order to construct individual fitness profiles. The test battery included strength, endurance, balance, flexibility, and psychological state among others. The results: Ballet dancers were fitter, scoring higher on 7 out of 10 test items. Moreover, they were apparently 25% stronger when tested for grip strength. Though the fact is that ballet in itself is daily resistance training because the individual’s body weight pushes into the floor during every specific leg exercise while jumping, leaping, hopping, turning, or through other associated dynamic movements. Such activities not only strengthen muscles, but also build up and maintain bone mass and bone density, essential for healthy bone growth. It is now a well-known research fact that impact activities during the early years delay the onset of osteoporosis for both females and males, which swimming, for example – a non-impact activity – does not provide. Bone density in young dancers is known to increase during their developmental years into adolescence and adulthood. Therefore, it only makes sense to examine the total body training concepts within ballet for potential integration into swim programs.

Here are some interesting facts about athletes in other sports pursuing ballet to enhance their skills. During the 1970’s and 1980’s famous NFL Pittsburg Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann (1974-1982) and running back Willie Gault, Chicago Bear Super Bowl champion (1983-early 1990s), credited their success on the football field to previous extensive training in ballet. Howard Cosell of Monday Night Football referred to Swann in 1980 as ‘arguably the most graceful receiver’ in NFL history to date while NBC Sports Curt Gowdy commented during Super Bowl X, “I always thought that what Swann did was a higher form of art than what Baryshnikov is doing.” Swann’s ballet training was well known throughout the league as he always contributed his grace and skills to ballet he began as an 8-year old boy (Johnson, Calgary Herald, May 14, 2014). According to the Pinstripe Press, Swann was described in NFL films as “a lethal combination of smooth sipping whiskey and greased lightning… Swann was arguably the most graceful receiver in NFL history. He made more key catches – in more big games – and in more spectacular fashion – than any receiver did. His ballet training enabled him to defy gravity and his hands were second-to-none” (Pinstripe Press, cited in Ballet Alert, and Funny Face, 2011). Swann played in four Super Bowls and was inducted into the Hall of Fame and is now on the Board of Directors of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, where he has created a youth scholarship.

Willie Gault, Chicago Bear Super Bowl champion (1983-early 1990s), also a world-class sprinter and bobsledder was called ‘the speed merchant of football’ (Emmerman, 1986). He was referred to as ‘a man for all seasons and the first ‘dancing bear’ to perform with Chicago’s Ballet’, quoting, “I am not real hung up on the macho aspects of football, ballet is not a sissy sport” (Archive, People, October 13, 1986). Bruce Newman (Sports Illustrated) wrote: “Gault is divided into many parts: Ballet dancer, model, entrepreneur, and track star. Willie Gault also catches passes for the Chicago Bears – when the quarterback throws to him, that is” (November 24, 1986).

These days, more and more athletes in various sports have taken up ballet to improve core and pelvic stability, body and hip alignment, and to develop dexterous leg and footwork, to prevent injuries, and for the purpose of rehabilitation. For instance, retired NHL hockey goalie Ray Emery was told that his playing career was finished due to avascular necrosis of bone components (cellular death, a condition that interrupts the blood supply and affects the hipbone). His daily rehabilitation routine after surgery included ballet, Yoga, Pilates, and swimming to strengthen the core, hip, and thigh muscles. He resumed his playing career for the 2010-2011 season. According to Emery, “I can do things now I could never do before.”

Researchers from the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Calgary (Canada) have concluded that runners with knee pain benefit from an intensive hip-strengthening program because it helps to align the hips better with the knees (Ferber, Kendall, & Farr, 2011). The results seemingly support the benefits derived from ballet as an activity as it focuses on core strength, hip and pelvic alignment. It further substantiates Emery’s endorsement as a successful rehabilitation program. Recently, British world-class swimmers have taken up ballet as cross-training and made it part of their Warm-up activity as well. Here are some of their thoughts about their involvement:

…“We’ve been using ballet to warm-up before swim sessions and it works. It really helps to loosen you up, to breath better and it gives you a better sense of feel and reach, makes you feel ‘longer’ in the water. I can’t say everyone is amazing at it but that’s not why we’re doing it. Coach Ben Titley likes to think outside the box. He looks at every possible angle when it comes to getting us fit and strong. Posture and flexibility, thinking of how you’re moving as a whole is really important.”

Ballet is more often seen as the natural partner of synchronized swimmers than racers but there was no sniggering at Loughborough. It’s unusual but when Ben suggested it, everyone was really up for it,” swimmer Tancock recalls.

…“We’re a different group of people in terms of the way we think.” We’re open to ideas, and using different sports and activities keeps the brain fresh. 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,” states Tancock (2011 World Champion, 50-meter Back Crawl stroke), in C. Lord “Ballet keeps Titley’s company on their toes”, SwimNews, June 14, 2011.

Value of Basic Barre Exercises

The artistic and aesthetic nature of ballet still creates lots of stereotypes, especially among males. Ballet offers much more than layers of tulle and satin ribbons, and keeps athletes on their toes. So, toss the tutus and don the tights. This form of dance can reap benefits for the most hardcore of athletes. Stale performances become the norm when boredom during training sets in. Incorporating ballet exercises into training is one way to keep things fresh and interesting. The usual chorus of protests includes comments such as: “I won’t wear tights and a tutu”, but athletes would do well to consider the benefits of dance in helping fine-tune sports performance. The developmental model from the Calgary-based study of 24 young athletes and their progress over eight years included modified ballet into the program as one type of cross-training. The athletes in this study tested well below the Canadian National Fitness norms for their respective age group at the start of the project but were off the charts by the end of the study, thus demonstrating the positive effects of ballet as a cross-training activity. Ballet helped to enhance their physical and athletic abilities to achieve an efficient and more effortless movement repertoire.

Barre work is an important element because the focal point is body and postural alignment, correct use of muscles, core strength, strength of the inner thigh and hip flexors, ankle and toe strength, in addition to flexibility, balance and control, head, body and limb awareness, and coordination of arm and leg movements in synchronized or opposition action.

Exercises are designed to:
  • Contribute to learning a given stance and awareness of weight change as the working leg moves in a different direction, and weight is transferred from one leg to the other
  • Develop and promote centering of the body
  • Develop and promote continuous body alignment
  • Develop and promote stationary and dynamic balance
  • Develop directional acuity when moving body parts
  • Facilitate change of direction during movement sequences

barre workout

barre workout









Since many common or specific technical skill errors may indeed be linked to incorrect body alignment or positioning of isolated body parts coaches play an important role in the monitoring process. They can use the tests described previously to assess posture at the beginning, mid-season (checkpoint), and post-season (evaluating the progress). Sudden growth spurt in younger or pre-teen children or injuries can produce postural flaws, which have to be monitored closely as different postural exercises may need adjustment or revision.



Additional Exercises


Monika E. Schloder (2016)

Ballet for Athletes: Modified Exercises for Cross-training

Ballet for Swimmers: Modified Exercises for Cross-training

Dual DVD: Exercise Demonstration and Interactive PDF Book


Ballet Alert (2003, August 13). The marriage of football and ballet (cited in Funny Face). Retrieved August 25, 2014, from http://balletalert.invisionzone.com/index.php?/topic12948-the-marriage-of-football-and-ballet/

Cosell, H. (1980, November 17). “Maybe the most perfect wide receiver of his time.” Comments on Monday Night Football.

Emmerman. L. (1986, September 29). Dancing around `dumb jock` image. Retrieved June 15, 2013, from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1986-09-29/features/8603120713_1_willie-gault-chicago-city-ballet-ballerina

Emmerman, L. (1986, September 30). Willie Gault mixes football and ballet as easily as 1-2-3. St. Petersburg Evening Independent, p. 6-C posted by Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 15, from https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=950&-dat=19860930&id=G2lQAAAAIBAJ&sjid=xVkDAAAAIBAJ&pg=6709,37629 09&hl=en.

Ferber, R., Kendall, K., & Farr, L. (2011). Changes in knee biomechanics after a hip abductor strengthening protocol for runners with patellofemoral pain syndrome. Journal of Athletic Training, 46(2), 142-149.

Garrett, T., & Watson, A. (2008, October 28). Ballet dancers are fitter than international swimmers. Science Daily. Study at University of Hertfordshire, UK. Retrieved May 2014, from

http://www. sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081022073916.htm

Gowdy, C. (1976, January 16). “I always thought that what Swann did was a higher form of art than what Baryshnikov is doing.” Comments during Super Bowl X.

Hrysmallis, C., & Goodman, C. (2001). A review of resistance exercise and posture realignment. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 15(3), 385-390.

Johnson, G. (2014). Swann enjoys Baryshnikov moniker. The Calgary Herald, pp. D1, D3.

Lord, C. (2011). Ballet keeps Titley’s company on their toes. SwimNews.com

    Retrieved May 25, 2014, from http://www.swimnews.com/news/view/8694

Newman, B. (1986, November 24). Gault is divided into many parts. Ballet dancer, model, entrepreneur, and track star. Willie Gault also catches passes for the Chicago Bears – when the quarterback throws to him, that is. Sports Illustrated. SI Vault, pp. 87-97.

Novak C. B., Mackinnon S. E. (1997) Repetitive use and static postures: A source of nerve compression and pain. Journal of Hand Therapy, 10(2): 151-159. April-June.

Ogden, M. (2010, October 15). “Owen Hargraves close to remarkable return for Manchester United thanks to Alex McKechnie.” The Telegraph, UK. Retrieved June 28, 2013, from   http://telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/manchester-united/8064402/Owen-Hargreaves-close-to-remarkable-return-for-Manchester-United-thanks-to-Alex-McKechnie.html

People Magazine (1986, October 13). Wide receiver Willie Gault becomes the first dancing bear to perform with Chicago ballet. People Magazine, 26(15).

Peterson-Kendall, F., Kendall-McCreary, E., Geise-Provance, P., McIntyre-Rodgers, M., & Romani, W. A. (2005). Muscles testing and function (5th ed.). Baltimore: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.

 Whitehead, M. (2014). Posture, alignment, and vertical load. Oregon Exercise Therapy. July 17.

Whitehead, M. (2014). Straighten before you strengthen. Oregon Exercise Therapy. August 25.

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