My five-year-old daughter is taking dance this year.

She takes thirty minutes of ballet and thirty minutes of “theater jazz” one day a week. She’s in class with four of her besties, and she is as happy as a clam about it all.  As for me, I am glad that while she takes a full hour of dance, only thirty minutes involves classical ballet instruction.

If you read this post about building little bodies, you will know that enrolling her was not an easy decision for me to make.  As I explained in that post, after teaching fitness for a decade-ish, I can spot a former dancer a mile away.

Over this past weekend, I worked with a client in a small group setting who also danced for a long time.  We were discussing the multiple issues with the pelvic tuck that ballet cultivates and she said, “Ballet has a reputation for developing good posture and it does.  But only in the top part of the body, not the lower body.”TinyDancer

She is spot-on and I think she nailed the reason why so many people think ballet is good for bodies.  Dancers stand up tall and look lithe and lean.  How can that be wrong?

(The next few quotes are from the article “Dance-Related Injury,” by Keryl Motta-Valencia, M.D. in Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am 17 (2006) 697–723 found online here.  The original contains citations which I removed to make my post cleaner.  Please do go to the original and click on her supportive citations if you are interested.)

First of all, classical ballet training promotes extreme positions:

… ballet dance technique is characterized by the use of extreme positions, such as turnout (legs facing out) and pointe (maximal ankle and foot plantarflexion), which are positions that can potentially place undue stress on muscles, joints, and tendons. Ballet dancers who cannot attain these specific esthetic standards may disregard proper technique with an increased potential for injury.

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And if those extreme positions cannot be anatomically cultivated – meaning, if the dancer’s connective tissues and bones cannot be changed to accommodate turnout?

Dancers who do not have ideal turnout of the lower extremity may try to ‘‘force turnout’’ by using compensatory strategies along the kinematic chain.

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And what about failure to achieve flexion needed for pointe?

When dancers lack sufficient ankle and/or foot plantarflexion for pointe  or demipointe  positions, they may attempt to force plantarflexion, placing greater stress on the posterior ankle structures.

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So then, what happens?

Overuse injuries arise from repetitive microtrauma to bone or soft tissue structures, in which structure and function may be rendered insufficient when the injury cycle persists and offending factors are not eliminated.

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And,

The dancer’s anatomic alignment may be a determinant factor of the individual’s abilities and constraints in movement, and when trying to prevail over such boundaries, the dancer may become more susceptible to injury. Muscle strength imbalances may be developed from dance training by itself, for which supplemental strength training may be considered.

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In plain English?  Classical ballet requires turnout and pointed toes that a woman’s body may not be anatomically able to accomplish.  But, if she starts early enough and does it frequently enough, she can change her tissues to accomplish these positions.  And, if she can’t change her tissues, then she may make other changes in her limbs and trunk to make it look like she has accomplished them.  BOTH of these mechanisms can lead to chronic injury.

And why do this?  Why force the body, its tissues and cells into these positions that it wasn’t designed to occupy?

Here’s an answer to this question from Ballet Uni in a post titled How to Tilt The Pelvis For Correct Placement of the Spine.

Why do we need to do all this? Well, for one thing, in the art of ballet we always try to create beautiful, long lines. Allowing your back to settle into a natural position with the belly hanging out is not very pretty. But more than just an aesthetic reason, we need to do all of this for stability and balance. Probably the single most important concept of ballet technique is the turn-out of the legs from the hip-joint. When we stand up with turned-out legs, we will not be able to balance unless we compensate for that turn-out in the pelvis by straightening the spine, tucking the tailbone under. Mastering this posture takes lots of practice, but once you get it everything else in ballet will make more sense and more difficult steps (such as leg extensions, balances and pirouettes) will become much easier.

So let me review the salient points from this piece on tilting the pelvis:

  • Ballet is an art.
  • The goal of the art of ballet is to “create long, beautiful lines.”
  • The body’s natural position is “not very pretty.”
  • Ballet requires you to stand with your feet in an unnaturally turned out position.
  • We cannot balance in said position, therefore we must tuck our tailbone.

(PLEASE tell me at this point I don’t have to point our the sheer awfulness of what she just laid out?  And, if you need more, then go read the whole piece.  Especially watch the video of the little Russian dancers whose position is deemed ideal by the writer and which completely and totally makes me want to cry.  I can assure you that when those girls grew up and set about birthing babies, their labors and deliveries were undoubtedly needlessly painful.)

Here’s why all this matters:

Adaptation, people. Your body is the result of what you have done.

Katy Bowman in Your Pillow Is an Orthotic

When you use your body in unnatural ways repetitively, you transform your cells and the tissues that they compose.  Your body literally becomes your dysfunctional movement.  You create movement patterns as well as muscles, connective tissues and cells that perform in ways other than the ways they were designed to perform.

So it’s a pretty big deal that I let my daughter take ballet.  I admit, I kind of cringe when I walk her to the door each time.  Her big smile afterwards helps just a little, but I still cringe.

But that cringe is nothing compared to the kick in the gut I feel when one of my grown-up friends tells me she’s taking barre or ballet based “fitness” classes.  And that kick feels like a nibble compared to the fall-down-on-the-floor-and-never-get-up feeling I had when a client actually cued other clients in my class to “tuck your pelvis under!” at the top of a squat.

“Why on earth would you say that?” I asked after stopping the class mid-exercise.

“That’s what they tell us to do at barre class.  It’s what you’re supposed to do when you stand up.”

Gah!  (Mind you, this is in a class populated by women who fall into the demographic about which Julie Wiebe, PT writes in her terrific post The Junkless Trunk : And Not In a Good Way.)

I hope that in this longer-than-it-should-be post, I have developed a case that:

  1. Ballet is art and as such, its movements are based on an aesthetic ideal and not on sound movement science or with much regard at all to the implications for the human body.
  2. Accordingly, it promotes dysfunction.
  3. Building a fitness regimen on dysfunctional movements simply cannot be health-promoting.

 

If you remain unconvinced and you still want to pursue your barre based “workout,” do me a favor? At least find one that does not cue a pelvic tuck?  They are out there.

Or better yet?  Turn the music on loud, move the furniture out of the way, and dance for an hour in your own living room.  It’s fun, it’s free and there’s no turnout required.

This post is featured on Thank Goodness It’s Monday #37.  Go visit!

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