Put on your ballet shoes

This dance form can correct posture and impart a better understanding of body alignment—and you don’t need to start young

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There was a surprising element on the brochure, which had a list of dance classes at the local fitness studio.

Ballet (adults).

Through Black Swan, Hollywood has given us the idea that ballet is an activity to be taken up only at an insanely young age, one which eventually goes on to produce highly ambitious, masochistic prima donnas who usually have an eating disorder. But they do look graceful while performing.

It looked like an exciting thing to try out, so I enrolled for the class. Who doesn’t want to feel like a ballerina?

You feel far from one, however, in the first session. The ballet class has five women, including me. The rest are teenagers, or college students, with legs much, much longer than mine. I had to quickly get over that and concentrate on the barrage of instructions coming my way. Feet turned out. Legs straight. Don’t break at the knees; keep your toes pointed. Stomach in. Shoulders down. Pull up. Long neck. Hand positions, leg positions, their French names (plie,rond de jambe, tendu, retire).

For an hour, you couldn’t let any distractions in; all the neurons were working hard to concentrate and place you in those nearly impossible positions demanded. Thinking of nothing was a great stress reliever, but by the end of the class, all the leg muscles were burning.

“There is no age to start any dance form,” says Noel Athayde, 27, who has been taking ballet classes for adults at the Arpita Step Up Dance Academy in Mumbai for a year. He took up ballet at 20, mainly as a complement to jazz and contemporary dance, and has been practising it for seven years now.

“Professional dancers are usually asked to take it up, because ballet gives great grounding and cleans up your lines. But it has amazing benefits even for people who just want to do it as a hobby,” says Athayde.

In a fitness market flooded with new trends and machines every week, old-timers’ ballet might be an odd and somewhat intimidating choice, but it has its virtues. In 2008, a University of Hertfordshire study, published on ResearchGate, a social networking site for scientists and researchers, declared that “the overall fitness of ballet dancers were greater than that of international swimmers”. The study, which compared members of The Royal Ballet and English National Ballet school with British swimmers, including some members of the Beijing Olympics team, concluded that ballet dancers scored over swimmers in seven of the 11 fitness parameters, including hand-grip strength, explosive strength (vertical and horizontal jumps) flexibility, dynamic balance and a better psychological profile.

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“Ballet goes a long way in strengthening the core, muscles and spine, and in making you more flexible, supple and graceful,” says Sanjay Khatri, 31, owner of the Central Contemporary Ballet school in Gurgaon, near Delhi. Khatri, who also started learning ballet at the age of 19, has performed with international companies, such as the American Ballet Theatre and Korea’s Universal Ballet Company. “It also helps correct your posture and gives you a better understanding of the alignment of your body,” says Khatri.

A strong core and legs are the foundations of ballet, and one needs to spend a long time working on these in a ballet class. You have to engage all the muscles, keeping the body strong and firm with each move. A part of the class is dedicated to flexibility, on barre (the stationary handrail) and floor, where you do deep stretches and hold them. If it was a geometry class, ballet would be all about neat, straight lines. Unlike weight training, which relies on the isometric contraction of muscles to give them bulk, ballet is about stretching and extending the muscles for that long, lean look the rest of the world is after.

“Ballet is a discipline,” says Athayde. “There is a lot of effort going on to make ballet dancers look beautiful and fluid. Every position that you get in to, you have to be mindful of 10 different things—feet, legs, hands, neck. That gives you a great awareness of your body and also enhances your memory. In ballet, you are always pulling yourself up, which makes you lighter on the feet.”

But as with most exercise and dance routines, it’s important to check out the school before enrolling for that ballet class.

One way to know you will not be wasting money is to check the floor at the dance school—whether it’s a wooden floor or a sprung one. The dance form involves jumps, twists and turns; and wrong flooring can worsen the impact on body joints.

Two, a good, patient instructor is a must.

“You have to do it properly to make sure that there’s not too much pressure on the joints, especially the knees and ankles,” says Vece Paes, a former Olympian and sports doctor based in Mumbai. “Strain on the back is an issue for all sports and dance practitioners. So you have to strengthen the upper-body muscles to relieve that.”

Dr Paes advises working on the muscles individually to get the best results. “You will get better at flexibility, coordination, strength and balance with each class. But working on those individually seems to be the best way to train for the discipline.”

Ballet, however, is not a go-to solution if weight loss is all you are looking for. The calorie expenditure, especially in beginner’s classes, is not much compared to other dance workouts. If the aim of zumba and similar high-intensity dance forms is to get you moving, the aim of ballet is to get you moving in a particular way.

Though it requires a greater commitment in terms of time and effort, adult ballet is slowly making its presence felt—there is greater awareness and it’s becoming more accessible.

So go ahead and hit refresh on your workout regimen.

Fitness steps

Ballet is a good lower-body and core workout

Nikhil Latey, director of sports science and rehabilitation at the Olympic Gold Quest, a non-profit that supports the training of athletes, says that just like any other dance form, you have to ease into ballet.

“Ballet is a high-impact dance,” he says. “But it is only high-impact if you want it to be. Beginners don’t have to get into jumps straightaway. The obvious benefits are flexibility and body awareness, the latter because a large part of ballet practice is done in front of the mirror, which helps you to check for the correct alignment. Also, it may not be a very challenging cardio activity at first. But when you do the kicks, you are using the long levers, so there is some cardio benefit.”

Latey, who currently works with some of India’s top athletes, including boxer Mary Kom, says ballet is a great lower-body and core workout.

“It does place more emphasis on the lower body, core and back like most dances. The thing about ballet is not just that you are squatting (during ‘plies’), but that you are doing it many times. A high number of reps (repetitions) make the muscles stronger,” says Latey.




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