by: Timea Presley
I have been re-invited to teach Pilates classes for young ballet dancers as a part of the Washington School of Ballet’s prestigious Summer Intensive this June and July. Students between the ages of 13 and 22 from all around the world auditioned and have been selected to participate the program that allows for rapid advancement in a short amount of time and study with the acclaimed Washington Ballet Faculty in the nations capital. As a former dancer, I wanted to dig deep and get some real answers and decided to turn to Leslie Braverman, former ballerina and STOTT Pilates Lead Instructor Trainer in Portland, OR for a thorough explanation why Pilates is important for the developing body of a young ballet dancer.
Timea: When I first mentioned to you that the Washington School of Ballet incorporates Pilates into their Summer Intensive, you seemed very excited. Why do you think it is a big deal?
Leslie: Years as a professional ballet dancer followed by a career in Pilates has shaped my passion for Pilates and dance. Many high caliber ballet programs offer Pilates—I was delighted to hear that TWSB is among them.
Timea: Many dancers incorporate a few Pilates exercises into their warm up. What made you go further and take full length Pilates classes?
Leslie: In the summer of 1987, Pilates was not available in every small town like today. I had the good fortune to discover it in NYC when I studied at School of American Ballet. Elite dancers in New York knew about the benefits of Pilates and attended classes to improve their dancing, manage injuries and stay in-shape during layoffs. I wanted to do what the professionals were doing. At the Pilates studios I got to work out with the best dancers in the city.
Timea: Do you think Pilates can help to prevent injuries and prolong a dancer’s career?
Leslie: Yes! Many dance injuries—tendonitis, stress fractures and shin splints—occur from over-use, faulty mechanics and muscular imbalances. The same injuries end careers. Since Pilates is informed by sound biomechanical principles, dancers learn how to place their joints in a neutral, stable and centered positions and develop strength and flexibility that is balanced and functional. Experienced Pilates instructors teach a dancer to control alignment, be strong in all ranges of motion, gain control in mid-ranges and stabilize joints without bracing and gripping. The spring-based equipment and mat exercises provide valuable feedback and resistance to enable a dancer to make changes quickly.
My path from performer to Pilates instructor has provided years of experience. As a student of the method and a STOTT PILATES Lead Instructor Trainer, I can say unequivocally: Pilates is an excellent way to prevent injury and prolong one’s career.
Timea: Dancers in training often find it challenging to carve out time for classes that are not directly dedicated to improving their technic and form. In other words: Pilates is not a dance class. It feels like a wellness class. Why should it then be taken?
Leslie: My own story has led me to believe that Pilates can improve ballet technique and form. Many years after I studied Pilates in New York, I danced in Oregon Ballet Theatre where I acquired a tibial stress fracture that would not heal. After a year of treatment, I still struggled to get back to a full dance schedule. Nothing helped. Eventually, I had to have surgery on my tibia to stimulate bone growth. I couldn’t dance. For months I went to the Pilates studio instead of the ballet studio. Then, something amazing happened. When I finally returned to work, I was stronger and more flexible than ever before. Pilates had helped me restore balance in my legs and trunk. My muscles were still long, lean and toned, but I had strength in my external rotators (turnout muscles) and the muscles used in parallel and internally rotated alignments. Harnessing the strength in the opposing muscles enabled me to balance better, hold my legs up higher and jump longer. I had real core and upper body strength for the first time. Too often dancers (like me) turn to Pilates in crisis. I wish I had taken Pilates preventatively— I would have been a better dancer, and I may not have been injured.
Timea: What did you get from Pilates that you couldn’t find in any other method?
Leslie: Pilates helped me be a smarter dancer. After I returned to dance from my injury, it enabled me to cope with many of the physical stresses and pressures that a career presents on a daily basis. It was a place to find my center, be in balance and restore movement without compromising my line or the long and lean shape of my dancer body.
Timea: Dancers have extreme flexibility and often hypermobility. How does an overly flexible body behave long term? What are the challenges and what can be done to prevent an unfavorable shift in postural balance?
Leslie: Dancers need extreme amounts of mobility to achieve the look and choreography (steps) of dance. That said, dancers with uncontrollable joint hypermobility are predisposed to injury. They have to acquire the ability to control their joints in mid-ranges, and the skill to go in and out of their mobility at will. Hypermobility should be a choice not a requirement. For example, hyperextended knees are desirable because of the look they achieve. Yet, to perform adagio, pirouette and balance, a dancer with hyperextension must practice how to control their knee alignment to be functionally straight and strong when called upon. Alternatively, if the student can only stand on their legs by dropping back into their knees—relying on ligaments, not muscles—they are likely to break down and become injured.
Timea: When you teach Pilates to dancers, what is the most typical weakness, or issue that they have?
Leslie: With ballet dancers, I most frequently see issues and weaknesses related to forced turnout. Turnout should be expression of rotation of the whole leg, with the hip providing 60% of the rotation and the rest attained through the knee, ankle and foot. I frequently see dancers who screw their feet into the floor and torque their knees, ankles and feet to create the look of perfect turnout.
Ultimately turnout must be functional, dependable and support ballet technique. Turnout is earned over many years of diligent practice, shaping and guidance. Forced turnout is not sustainable or functional. Pilates can help dancers learn to acquire external rotation in the whole leg—strengthen the muscles deep in the hip to hold the rotation and keep the heels together using the adductors. Feet in the straps on the Pilates Reformer, for example, enables a student to find new alignment, recruit muscles correctly and work in ranges in which they are weak.
Timea: How can Pilates instructors identifie dancers’ weaknesses?
Leslie: Pilates teachers may be easily fooled by a ballet dancer’s apparent coordination, flexibility and overall strength. I recommend four ways to gain key insights about a dancer’s movement patterns:
1. Plié on the Reformer
Observe how the dancer performs a demi plié in first position (a knee bend in lateral rotation) from front, side and back views. Look at the placement of the head, neck, trunk, hip and foot to see if the joints are in alignment and the weight is centered. Notice if the hips, knees and ankles are tracking correctly and if the spine is remaining in a neutral position throughout.Follow-up with plié exercises on the Pilates reformer using a Pilates jumpboard.
2. Cat Standing on the Stability Chair
Observe how the dancer executes cambré forward(standing forward bend). The hinge forward should occur at the hip and the roll up should have a balanced curve in the spine. Observe how the student rolls up and restacks their pelvis and spine to neutral. Follow-up with Pilates Cat Kneeling on the mat and progress to Cat standing Front, Side and Back on the stability chair
3. Swan Dive on the Stability Chair
Observe how the student performs cambré back (standing back bend). Notice if the movement begins with elongation of the spine—the spine and pelvis should complete a long fluid arc. Then watch how the student returns to standing. It should be a smooth movement from the bottom of the spine to the top—the pelvis should restack on the hips and ribs and head should center over the pelvis. In Pilates class, practice Swan Dive on the mat, stability chair, Cadillac and reformer. Students need to develop the strength to hold their back in an even supported curve and return to a neutral position.
4. Front Splits on the Reformer
Observe how a dancer performs a tendu (transfer weight from two legs to one leg). The dancer should begin with her weight centered between both feet with the pelvis, ribcage and head in alignment. The weight should shift so the stance leg is over the ankle. The pelvis and ribs should remain level. The foot should remain balanced on the floor without pronating or supinating. The dancer should return to a centered and balanced position. In Pilates, practice exercises that are on one leg: Forward Step Up and One Leg Press on the stability chair and Sleeper and modified Front Splits on the reformer.
In 2013, Melanie Byford-Young and I presented at the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) conference about how to assess for injuries in young female dancers. You can view our clips about how to perform these exercises here: http://www.pacificnwpilates.com/?s=ballet
Timea: Can you describe what happens with people with great mobility over the years if they don’t focus on developing strength and control? (For example as they age or become pregnant.)
Leslie: While anyone with hypermobility or joint laxity can suffer from injuries, dancers (and athletes) are particularly prone to long-term problems because of the frequency and repetition in which they practice. The type of injury one may acquire is based on many factors. For example, a dancer who tucks their pelvis under, flattens their back, grips their gluteals, pinches their ribs and holds their head forward to stand at the barre is creating a series of non-optimal compressive and shearing forces throughout their body. Their weight is not centered, their joints are held outside of their neutral zone and every movement thereafter requires extra force and effort to achieve it—this effort overtaxes muscles, tendons and ligaments and can lead to degenerative joint problems. Associated injuries may include stress fractures, ankle tendonitis/tendonopathy, meniscus tears, hip strains or bursitis, lumbar issues, sacroiliac joint instability and bunions.
Later on in life, this same dancer still carries with them the habits they acquired while dancing. This leaves them open to injury or set-up- for- failure when faced with other physical challenges in life.
Timea: Do you have general advice for ballet dancers from the Pilates Teacher’s point of view that will help them throughout their career?
Leslie: Pilates is the perfect cross-training solution for a dancer. Like any activity, ballet develops asymmetrical movement patterns. Pilates is an exercise that promotes symmetry and balance of strength and length. It can counter the ill effects of repetitive movement and extreme ranges of motion that lead to injury. Find a well-educated and certified Pilates instructor in your area. Pilates offers training and fitness tools you’ll use forever.
Timea Presley is the Head Pilates Instructor of MINT’s Pilates Studio in Washington DC. She is a Teacher Trainer through the PMA and a Post Rehabilitation Conditioning Specialist through STOTT PILATES. She is a former professional dancer and studio owner with over 16 years of teaching and managing experience. She has taught over 20,000 hours of private and group Pilates classes in Europe and the US and opened, or collaborated on opening three studios. Having achieved certifications from STOTT PILATES (fully certified advanced level instructor), Polestar Pilates, Yoga in the Shivananda tradition and Spinning, she has a wide arrey of knowledge and is dedicated to helping her clients with their health and fitness goals. Timea served as Yoga Studio Director at DC Yoga, guest faculty member at the Washington School of Ballet, and brought Pilates to the FBI, IMF, World Bank and Smithsonian Institute.