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Why Ballet Can Benefit Everyone: Exploring the Physical and Mental Benefits of a Ballet Education

The Prix de Lausanne is coming up and if you’re not excited, perhaps you should be! Amazing young dancers from across the world are invited to compete in this prestigious competition. This year, the Prix de Lausanne is taking place from January 28 - February 4. As a figure skater, we must study all art forms that incorporate movement. This competition is a great way to introduce yourself to the ballet world (if you’re new). Figure skaters should watch ballet dancers - if for no other reason - to watch the position of the arms in relation to the body. However, this is pretty superficial as ballet has much more to offer. Beyond grace and beautiful arms, ballet builds core muscles that are paramount for balance and alignment, which are critical in any training environment.

 

What is the Prix de Lausanne?


Candidates across the globe undergo a highly selective application and screening process and prizes are awarded to outstanding dancers. These prizes are usually in the form of scholarships that support future dance education and/or careers. Similar to skating, ballet is an extremely expensive endeavor and these scholarships could facilitate the pursuit of a career in ballet.


Some may think the pursuit of a life as a principal ballet dancer may be archaic. Let’s face it: going into the performance arts is a huge risk and Covid-19 did not help this fact. Many artists spend their lives in pursuit of making a full-time career out of their passion. To be a successful performance artist, you have to give it all you have and, more often than not, many people struggle to be national champions or in the corps de ballet and find themselves having to pivot career paths later in life.


This brings us to the question: why compete? How has dance education changed to incorporate a more well-rounded approach? Or are the performance arts just for dreamers?


How has ballet education changed?


I think globalization and technological advances have shaken up the ballet world (just a little). I feel ballet education has gone through several changes over the past decade. These changes reflect a dynamic and evolving landscape, driven by the desire to adapt to the needs and aspirations of today’s dancers while addressing the broader societal shifts and expectations. We see a reflection of evolving trends, pedagogical approvals, as well as cultural shifts.


The use of technology in ballet education has become more prevalent.


Online classes, instructional videos, virtual coaching, etc. are now tools used by both students and teachers and can offer accessibility and flexibility in training. We can not ignore that technology has opened doors for many in the ballet world to learn and connect. More students have access to top-level information and create opportunities for students who may not live in an area with a major ballet company or have the financial backing to pursue the art form seriously. Many high-level dancers have taken to YouTube to offer tips and tricks to the growing dancer. The Dutch National Ballet even posted barre classes that anyone can follow along. The wealth of knowledge available to young dancers is incredibly vast!


The emphasis on inclusion in ballet.


Providing opportunities for dancers from various backgrounds and body types has challenged the norm for traditional ballet education. There is an increased interest in ballet across the globe from dancers of various backgrounds and experiences. Dance schools are becoming more aware of this phenomenon and catering to the need to diversify their students. As the NY Times puts it from an article posted in 2015 about Misty Copeland’s promotion to principal dancer, “When a company is diverse, the audience becomes more diverse, too, and for those faced with aging, dwindling audiences, that is priceless.” The article also noted two known ballet schools for starting programs to recruit young minority dancers (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/arts/dance/push-for-diversity-in-ballet-turns-to-training-the-next-generation.html).


Though the ballet world has strived to include more dancers from different backgrounds it still faces some challenges. Ballet has a reputation for being only for the very thin or waif-like body type. As an industry, this is being addressed. Ballet schools/programs are posting their values over ‘healthy’ dancers versus dancers with ‘extreme thinness’. The Prix De Lausanne for example has a post specifically about health and dancers (https://www.prixdelausanne.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/ang-rules-and-regulations-pdl2024.pdf). Mind you: ballet is both an art form and a sport. Dancers still need a certain athletic ability and agility, which may seem it inherently create stipulations on body types. However, the mere shift in emphasis on healthy over thin is a shift for the ballet world. This shift speaks more to the athleticism of ballet and hiring dancers who can truly accomplish this feat versus hiring a dancer just for aesthetic purposes.


In some dance forms, progress is already being made: the Bodiography Contemporary Ballet is dedicated to showcasing dancers with non-stereotypical ballet bodies. You would think more companies would follow suit. However, in ballet, proportions still matter (https://www.dancemagazine.com/ballet-body/). Is ballet too obstinate to change or does it simply need to provide a more holistic approach to assist all dancers in achieving their goals?


The incorporation of a more holistic approach in training.


Incorporating a more holistic approach in training includes recognizing the importance of mental and physical well-being (e.g., nutrition, mental health awareness, injury prevention, etc.). In an interview, Josephine Lee (The Pointe Shop) states: “Pointe work in ballet needs to be a more holistic approach. It is important to rest, sleep, eat well, and give time for recovery when needed. Everything accumulates, injuries don’t happen overnight. Most injuries build up over time. Treat your body with more maintenance in mind rather than going through the motions.”


She also commented that “Recreational dance was such a revolutionary idea” in her native Korea. There has been a shift over the past 10 years and recreational dancing in adults is more acceptable. Dance training is not just for professionals anymore.


So with the rise of more adult/recreational dancers also entering the studios, how does that impact ballet training/education?  Perhaps, more flexible programs need to be provided that cater to all types of students including the recreational and professional. Holistic approaches also make room for ideas that can change the way we think about ballet.  https://balletgothenburg.com/2020/10/20/a-sit-down-with-josephine-lee/


An increased need to create more flexible training models.


Many ballet schools offer residential, full-time, and part-time programs that include summer intensives and short-term workshops. They should still employ these programs and cater to those who live and breathe this wonderful art form. However, more opportunities need to be provided for the more recreational dancers. Ballet companies and schools can diversify their student body by offering programs for those who love dance but don’t want to spend 8 hours a day dancing. 


The growing awareness of mental health issues in the ballet community.


Mental health is a big topic. A supportive and positive learning environment is now getting more relevant in ballet education. According to an article posted by Pointe Magazine (https://pointemagazine.com/ballet-and-mental-health/), in the wake of the pandemic, the administration at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School saw an opportunity to prioritize their artists' mental health and expanded its wellness program. They employed a consulting staff that includes: a licensed social worker, dietician, and a physical therapist.


There are still many issues dancers face both physically and mentally. The pandemic brought to light the importance of mental health in the workplace and a lot of administrations have agreed that the prioritization of mental health is crucial to the success of their company. More ballet institutions should follow the example of the Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) because the perfectionism of ballet can exacerbate negative thought patterns.  In this article (Consulting PNB School Psychologist Shares How Dance Teachers Can Manage Stress - Dance Teacher (dance-teacher.com), Consulting PNB School Psychologist, Toby Diamond, offers tools and methods to manage stress and address negative thought patterns in dance teachers and their students.


The increased focus on professional development for teachers.


Ensuring that educators stay up to date on best practices, teaching methodologies, and the latest developments in the field is one of the most important changes in the dance world. Organizations like NDEO (https://www.ndeo.org/) exist to encourage the development of teachers to keep up with the latest methods and approaches in dance education. The inclusion of progressive methods can give teachers the tools to facilitate the progress and aspirations of the young dancers of today.


Conclusion


Though there have been some changes in the industry, the professional ballet world is still on its journey to keep up with the times. As an education in the arts, ballet is wonderful: you learn to pay attention to your body movements and be detail-oriented. Ballet gives you the posture and stance to walk into any room chin first with an elongated neck. Competitions like the Prix de Lausanne exist to give all dancers from all backgrounds a chance to compete and earn a scholarship to continue their dance education - in whatever capacity that may be. You compete to perform and show your progress in this wonderful art form. 


So, is a career in the performing arts for dreamers? Maybe for some. But, an education in an art form like ballet or figure skating can be life-changing and provide tools that will assist you in any future endeavor. My work ethic comes from my education in the performing arts like ballet, figure skating, and music. This education has provided me with the groundwork to strive for success in all facets of my life.


Remember: all art forms are for everyone to enjoy and explore. Whether you go to ballet class, pick up a brush, or tie your skates, you can always glide with purpose!


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