Dimensions of Fitness
The most frequently studied dimensions of fitness are
- Aerobic capacity
- Muscular strength
- Muscular endurance
- Body composition
Given the extraordinary physical demands of ballet, it seems reasonable to expect dancers to display excellent levels of fitness in these areas. However, a review of research on professional ballet dancers (Twitchett, Koutedakis, & Wyon, 2009) suggests othwerise. Here are some key findings:
Aerobic capacity is the ability to take in oxygen and use it during steady state activity. Laboratory studies consistently reveal low levels of aerobic fitness for ballet dancers, particularly when compared to the aerobic capacity of athletes in many sports. This finding can be partially explained by the nature of activity in class and performance.
Class may consist of low-intensity work at the barre and high-intensity jumping and center activity. In both cases, the activities are intermittent rather than steady state.
Performance data reveal higher-intensity activity is the norm, with oxygen intake and heart rate reaching close to maximum levels. But, as in class, the intermittent nature of activity is insufficient for promoting aerobic fitness.
Slower sections during performance involve holding positions, which requires strength, mobility, and balance, but not aerobic fitness. And the intermittent nature of this activity also appears to be inadequate for stimulating an aerobic training effect.
Power, Muscular Endurance, and Strength
Power is strength combined with speed. Muscular endurance is the ability to perform a power activity, such as jumping, for 30-60 seconds. Given the nature of ballet, it’s not surprising to see that various aspects of power and muscular endurance in male and female ballet dancers are excellent.
Strength is force production. Hip rotation force is a relative strength for professional dancers, but strength “in the torso, quadriceps, and hamstrings” tends to be below norm-referenced predictions based on body weight.
Limited strength can be accounted for by the low level of muscle mass carried by professional ballet dancers, even when compared to sedentary individuals of the same weight.
One aspect of ballet that distinguishes it from most athletic activities is the expectation for dancers to meet both performance and aesthetic standards. In other words, dancers must display extreme athleticism but with minimal body mass.
In their review, Twitchett et al. note that the relatively low energy requirements of ballet combined with the technical economy of professional dancers limits the effectiveness of dancing as a weight management strategy. Thus, dancers restrict calories to achieve low body mass.
Of course, with restricted calories comes an increased risk for injury and the frequently identified female athlete triad: disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis.
Although dancers maintain low weight, it is muscular weight. The bulk of research on professional female ballet dancers reveals typical body fat percentages of 12-17%, but this varies by study and method of assessment. Male professional ballet dancers typically carry around 6-7% body fat.
Not surprisingly, ballet dancers display excellent ankle flexion (pointing the foot) and external hip rotation (due to turnout). Flexibility of the spine and hamstrings is also evident.
Collectively, research on the fitness of professional ballet dancers indicates
- limited aerobic capacity
- excellent power and muscular endurance
- strength below weight-predicted norms
- low weight and body fat percentage
- extraordinary flexibility
Data on dancers’ specific strengths and limitations can be used to inform training programs designed to improve performance and prevent injury.
Aerobic capacity is an aspect of fitness that has little to do with ballet training and performance. Devoting time to developing this dimension of fitness offers little to professional dancers.
Based on research evidence, the primary area of concern for professional ballet dancers is preventing injury due to low weight, limited strength and muscle mass, and inadequate nutritional support.
With restricted diets, it’s particularly important for dancers to eat nutrient-dense foods to maintain a healthy body. Training programs that promote strength, but not mass, will also help the dancer to improve performance and prevent injury.
Source: Twitchett, E.A., Koutedakis, Y., and Wyon, M. A. (2009). Physiological fitness and professional classical ballet performance: A brief review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23, 2732–2740.
What Do You Think?
Surprised by the findings? Are they consistent with your experience as a dancer? Where would you like to see research in this area go from here? Share your comments below!