The Illusion of Effortlessness is Just That: an Illusion
Apparently ballet-as-fitness is a thing right now, but some who’ve tried it find that it’s “slower-paced” and possibly not as demanding a workout as their fitness level requires.
To them, I say, “Come try Killer Class, and if you live, we’ll talk it over.”
So, here’s the thing: the ballet classes to which good ballet schools steer true beginners are, out of necessity, introductory classes.
And, under the right teachers, introductory classes aren’t designed as exercise classes(1).
- I’m not commenting on “fitness barre” here—I haven’t tried it. The closest I’ve come was a class at the Joffrey which was labeled “Keep-Fit Ballet” that turned out, in fact, to be essentially Killer Class crammed into one hour.
A good introductory ballet class is designed to teach you how to use your body in a way that is fundamentally different from anything you’re likely to have done with it thus far (unless you’ve had good instruction in ballet in the past).
It’s designed to incrementally strengthen and stretch muscles that likely haven’t been doing much for a while.
It’s designed to impart the basics of sound technique so that when you level up, you’ll be able to learn harder, faster-paced stuff without compromising your technique and injuring yourself.
As such, the pace will by necessity be slow. It’s hard to learn sound technique when your brain is actively on fire and your body is sounding its air-raid sirens.
If you’re pretty fit, you’ll probably make it through barre (or even an entire class) in Intro to Ballet without so much as breaking a sweat.
If you’re using good technique, you almost certainly won’t “feel the burn” in the muscles where you, as a person with fitness experience, expect to feel it(2).
- Pro tip: if your quads are on fire after a développé-heavy Adagio, you’re doing it wrong. If they’re on fire after a long fondu or little jumps, you’re probably okay as long as your deep rotators are also ready to rise up and last waste to their oppressors.
If you stick around long enough to nail down the basics and get green-lighted for Beginner and then Intermediate class, though, you’ll discover that ballet is not by any means all gentle repetition and slow stretchy stuff.
If you stick around long enough, you’ll discover that a good class at an intermediate or advanced level can leave a flotilla of professional ballet dancers—arguably the fittest humans going—drenched in sweat.
See, ballet is all about the illusion of effortlessness—and the only way to achieve that illusion is through sound technique harnessed by a body trained in a highly-specific way. You must do a million tendus because those tendus evolve into dégagés, which evolve into grand battements, which evolve into grand jetés.
(So, basically, ballet is like Pokémon for the human body?)
In short, some of the most crucial muscles in ballet are ones that the average fitness buff probably doesn’t even know about, and that even the most skilled athletes in other disciplines(3) rarely think about at all.
- Notable exceptions: really good huntseat and dressage riders use the deep rotators constantly, which is unsurprising given that a good basic “seat” is essentially a modified plié; figure skaters also use their deep rotators in a very ballet-like way at times. For cross-country skiing, the ol’ turnouts are good for herringbone climbs; downhill, they come in handy in for stem turns and when you eff things up and need to get yourself out of a bind, but not necessarily out of your bindings.
As such, the physical training part of ballet can feel very unlike other forms of exercise, especially when you first begin. The focus isn’t on Mad Gainz; it’s on itty-bitty incremental gainz.
Likewise, the dancer’s long, lean physique isn’t achieved in one hour a week (as a matter of fact, the standard ballet class is 1.5 to 2 hours long by itself), or even in one hour a day.
Professional ballet dancers look the the way they do because they spend five to eight hours (or more) each day dancing—taking class, learning choreography, rehearsing, learning more choreography—and they cross-train via conditioning classes, cardio, and good old-fashioned lifting.
To give you an idea, with a heart-rate monitor keeping tabs, I burned nearly seven thousand calories on my most recent five-hours-of-class day. That’s counting class and everything else, not class alone, but still!
Presumably, this is why I came back from my summer intensives rather spectacularly lean and ripped: I was putting in the equivalent of a century on the bike every single day. I could not physically eat as much as I was burning. I didn’t have time.
Simply put, it’s really hard to shove 6,000+ calories into your face on a schedule that involves eight hours a day of dance. There just isn’t enough time in the day. As such, professional dancers tend to be lean—but do remember that ADs tend to select lean dancers, and that not all dancers are, in fact, Balachinian in proportion.
Likewise, dont forget that professional dancers largely also cross-train for cardio (though some companies and schools of thought still discourage it): six hours of class may turn you into a beast, but it is unlikely to prepare you for the two or four or six minutes of non-stop redlining you’re going to do on stage (seriously, this was one of the astounding things about LINES—long-ass demanding variations in which nobody died).
Dancing a demanding variation is like making the insane choice(4) to big-ring sprint up a long, steep climb to catch the breakaway group. Only, like you can’t even decide halfway through the sprunt that it’s a terrible idea, pop it down a couple of gears, and let your buddies in the flailing group catch your wheel.
- I feel particularly qualified to make this comparison. Insane climbing sprints are kind of my thing on the bike. Albrecht’s variation is pretty much like sprinting up the categorizable climb nearest to my house, including the fact that there’s a little extra “gotcha!” sprunt right when you think you’re in the clear.
You have to keep the hammer down and gogogo, or the whole audience and the whole company and the whole dance world will be like, “WTF?” (More importantly, you have to do this because you’re a dancer and, when you’re dancing, it doesn’t occur to you to do otherwise.)
So dancers cross-train for cardio (and strength!) in addition to all that fecking about(5) in tights.
- “Feck” is a long-standing favorite quasi-curse of mine; more so now that I know its canonical meanings include “throw/toss”—which is often an appropriate description of what we’re doing in class, really (jeté also means” thrown/tossed!”).
This doesn’t mean that the workload of ballet is too light to qualify as exercise—rather, it means that class occupies an unusual hinterland between body-weight strength training and high-intensity interval training. Bike racers who specialize in sprinting also cross-train for cardio: to a dancer, bouncing on a trampoline might be the equivalent of a bike sprint specialist(6) logging her base miles.
- Autocorrupt suggested “bike sprint socialist,” which is now totally the new name of my imaginary band.
Anyway, to sum this all up: if you’re pretty fit, it’s reasonably likely likely that an Introductory-level ballet class probably won’t “feel” like a workout.
Don’t be too quick to dismiss ballet as “too easy,” though—that’s like deciding after jogging a 3k that marathons aren’t hard.