Article by: Ina Nikolaeva
A ballet performance looks light, graceful and effortless, though most of us know it requires extreme athletic ability and strength. But did you know that ballerinas have to do almost daily stretching to maintain their flexibility? Or that the shape of dancers’ feet can make or break their future? Here are 5 interesting facts about what ballet dancers do and endure behind the scenes in order to be able to perform onstage and delight their audiences with their art form.
5) Ballet dancers stretch EVERYTHING
We know dancers need to be able to do the splits. But once they achieve the splits, they tackle the over-splits. And that’s just the legs! Ballet dancers also regularly stretch their shoulders and back. Stretching the neck side to side helps achieve that sloped-shoulder, long-necked look that people associate with a professional dancer. Rotation of the hips and the arches of the feet always need more work, too! Adequate flexibility is a requirement for any aspiring dancer, and it takes daily stretching exercises to achieve and maintain it. Furthermore, ballet is performed turned-out, which entails fully rotating legs from the hip down so that toes point straight out to the sides. This makes just lifting a leg to its maximum height that much more difficult to do! And on that note…
4) Turn-out! Turn-out! Turn-out!
Have you ever walked by a ballet studio? You’ve likely heard the instructor not-so-gently reminding the students to “turn-out!” This is the hallmark of proper ballet technique. While most of us spend our lives being turned in, i.e. toes pointing straight forward, ballet dancers work daily to improve their turn out. Most positions – first, second, fourth, fifth - require the legs to be turned out at 90 degrees to be considered correct. However, dancers don’t just stand still in first position – the turn-out must be maintained while performing complex dance moves onstage, even when dancing en pointe!
3) Super-strong toes
Toes are parts of the body I never even thought could “have strength” until I tried going up en pointe. The little piggies, however, need various strengthening exercises with therabands, repeated pointing and flexing, as well as exercises at the barre in order to be able to point hard enough to allow a dancer to stay up en pointe in the center. While the box and shank of the pointe shoe provide some support, a professional dancer cannot “sit” (relax) in the shoe and rely on its rigidity to support her. While up en pointe, the dancer’s foot is fully and actively pointed, every muscle engaged. It is the only way to dance up there.
2) A pair of pointe shoes can get worn out in one performance or less
Pointe shoes require a lot of skill and man hours to produce. The cheapest pairs come out to $50-60, but for the most part dancers don’t just get to choose the cheapest style. Pointe shoes are fitted to the dancer’s foot shape, and so when a dancer finds the shoe that feels best, she will stick with that brand and style. The average price for Blochs and Grishkos, two of the more common shoe brands, is about $80. A professional dancer at a company can get anywhere from a single day to about a week of dance out of a pair of pointe shoes before having to discard them. There are, however, ballets that can kill a brand new pair in a single performance, or even in one act! Therefore, pointe shoes are a huge expense for a ballerina until she joins a company (as companies generally provide the shoes for their dancers).
1) Ballet dancers are obsessed with feet!
A pointed foot in a pointe shoe is THE symbol of ballet, and it is always a very arched pointed foot. This “banana foot” aesthetic of ballet has a practical purpose behind it – unless a foot has a certain shape, a dancer simply cannot go up en pointe. Even then, it is not easy to stay up there unless the arch is significantly higher than the minimum requirement. However, today’s dancers also need more and more curvature to their feet because of the look it creates. A young dancer can be told she won’t advance out of the corps de ballet in a company because her feet aren’t good enough (it happened to Zoe Saldana, before she turned to acting!). If two dancers are equal in every way, a company will always pick the one with better feet. It is no surprise, then, that the foot aesthetic is something dancers are preoccupied with – they stretch their own feet, and they stretch each other’s feet. Instructors are experts in bending feet painfully to increase flexibility. Everyone looks at everyone else’s feet and compares them to their own. It’s quite the obsession!
I hope this has been an interesting glimpse into the off-stage life of a ballet dancer. Ballet is truly an exquisite technique to learn and practice, and it provides a unique experience of the dance world.
Happy dancing, everyone!
- By Ina Nikolaeva