Most people have come to associate “the ballet body” with long legs and a lean, toned figure. While dancers come in all shapes and sizes, and the focus is shifting from looking healthy to being healthy, there’s a reason we have that image ingrained in our minds. Ballet, being an intensely physical activity, creates an unparalleled level of strength and flexibility in dancers. But there are so many physical benefits of ballet that go far beyond the way a dancer’s body looks on the outside—benefits that affect a dancer’s body both inside and outside the studio, and for years to come.
Cardiovascular & Muscular Health
Ballet is unique in that it trains the body in both cardio and light weight training at the same time. Many sports focus more heavily on one than the other, and athletes supplement their training with whichever activity isn’t as focused on in their sport. But in a single class, ballet dancers train both their muscular and cardiovascular systems—using their own bodies as resistance weights at the barre, and dancing at high speeds for long periods in centre work—resulting in a very balanced workout. On top of that, ballet dancers work the entire body at once as opposed to focusing on one specific muscle group, like weightlifters do.
You’d never know it from the audience, as part of a dancer’s craft is to smile and perform effortlessly, but ballet dancers build massive muscular and cardio endurance as well. Take it from Steve McLendon, who takes ballet to supplement his football career. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers nose tackle says, “[Ballet is] harder than anything else I do.” The average ballet dancer burns 300–500 calories in an hour of class. That’s more calories than an hour of running, swimming, or cycling will burn.
Skeletal Strength and Muscular Flexibility
The weight-bearing nature of ballet means that the bones are strengthened as well as the muscles. This is good news for both the youngest dancers and the oldest. Younger dancers will benefit from skeletal strength as their bones grow, mature, and harden, and senior dancers will have a reduced risk of bone density loss.
Additionally, the way ballet dancers are elongating their muscles as they flex them is unique to dance, and it results in the long, lean limbs (rather than bulked-up muscles) that dancers are known for. Even for male dancers, who spend considerable time lifting female dancers in addition to their own limbs, this constant elongation makes it very hard to over-bulk the muscles.
Incredible flexibility is another hallmark of a ballet dancer, and this increased flexibility reduces chronic pain and the risk of injury—especially in seniors, where ballet has also been found to increase balance and decrease the risk of falls.
Hormonal and Lymphatic Benefits
We have a separate blog post all about how ballet improves brain health, but there are other benefits to the brain that affect the physical rather than the mental side of things. It’s well known that exercise produces endorphins, the feel-good hormones that result in better sleep, improved cognitive function, happier relationships, and lower stress levels. Ballet has been found to produce more endorphins than other forms of exercise. These endorphins also produce the same result as a runner’s high, which reduces feelings of fatigue and increases feelings of energy and emotional well-being. So, despite ballet being an intense workout, the high level of endorphins that ballet produces means you can actually leave a ballet class feeling energized.
Because ballet also involves so much more stretching than other exercise forms, there are more hidden benefits to the body’s inner workings. The unique combination of exercise and stretching promotes lymph drainage, which helps the body detoxify fluids and maintain its peak immune system. Flexible dancers have also been found to have lower levels of stress, which is also another great result of lymph drainage.
Posture and Pelvic Floor
Ballet dancers are extremely well known for their perfect posture, both in the studio and on the street. Ballet, more than any other dance form, requires a lengthened spine and neck, square hips, and tucked pelvis, which is exactly the formula for great posture. Aside from working all the muscles necessary to maintain good posture, ballet also teaches thorough awareness of the body at all times and in all movements, which is why dancers are able to maintain that ballet look wherever they go. In the short run, good posture helps with chronic pain and prevents injuries. In the long run, it increases balance and helps prevent a hunched-over back often found in the elderly.
The increased awareness of the body that ballet brings has a surprising effect on the pelvic floor muscles. As we age, and especially for women who have given birth, pelvic floor muscles can become weakened, leading to incontinence. Ballet trains the pelvic floor to be incredibly strong, preventing the incontinence that can happen in postpartum or old age.
The Ballet Body
As we move into an age of health and body inclusivity, the idea of “the ballet body” is being challenged. But despite ballet dancers coming in every shape and size, every ballet body has one thing in common: ballet improves everything from bone degeneration to balance, from elongated muscles to endurance, and from posture to pelvic floor health. The unique nature of ballet makes it a wonderfully stimulating activity that improves the physical health of the young and old alike.