How Difficult Is Ballet?

The best answer to any question.
June 24 2014 2:09 PM

How Physically Intense Is Ballet?

Dancers from the Royal Ballet run through a dress rehearsal of Swan Lake in London in 2007.

Photo by John D. McHugh/AFP/Getty Images

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Joshua Engel:


Here's one way to look at it: Have a look at what happens to a ballerina's feet. I'm not going to post a picture, because it's not for the weak of stomach, but here's a link to a Google image search.

That kind of damage comes from spending hours a day training. They move as if they don't weigh anything at all, but that's a carefully crafted illusion: They move that way because they are intensely strong. They combine that strength with a grace that comes from practicing the same moves over and over and over until it looks as if it's weightless.

It breaks a body. Most ballet dancers are completely shot by their mid-20s, and many will suffer lifelong disabilities from the effort.

Pound for pound, ballerinas are some of the most intense athletes out there. Not only are they tremendously strong, but they have to do it while looking like little stick figures blowing in the wind. It will come as no surprise that eating disorders are rampant among ballerinas.

Do not let the ease and grace fool you. These are dedicated athletes doing an unbelievably hard thing.

* * *

Answer by Melissa Stroud:

It is very physically demanding and hard on a dancer's body. I studied for about 11 years, three or four of them on pointe. By the time I stopped studying, I was wearing ankle braces and knee wraps on both legs during every practice. Moleskin and Nu-skin are a dancer's best friends and were always applied liberally on the toes before putting on pointe shoes. My feet never got quite as bad as the linked images above, but they were a bit ugly.

Have you ever walked up five flights of stairs? Know how your legs start to burn a little bit? Imagine doing a solid hour of exercises that constantly have you supporting your weight while trying to balance or continuously doing squats while balanced on your toes. The stair example is the best I can think of for people who haven't studied ballet. Leg strength and flexibility are key to preventing serious injury.

I'm sure you've seen dancers who do pas de deux, "dance for two." Looking at it, you would think it's the man doing all the work, lifting his partner, catching her, guiding her. It is just as hard for the woman and requires quite a bit of upper body strength for her as well. When her partner is holding her simply like so, she is keeping her upper body at the correct angle to help keep the balance point. Also, look at his hand holding her leg. She has to keep pushing against his hand to keep her legs at the proper angle.

And think of this iconic lift from Dirty Dancing:

The lift from Dirty Dancing: harder than it looks.

Courtesy of Vestron Pictures

I have personally done this lift, and it is very hard. Yes, my partner had to grab my hips in the right spot and use some of my forward momentum to muscle me over his head, but I had to have my arms and legs positioned and held correctly to help stop the forward momentum once I was up there. And that balance point is very hard to hold. Yes, we practiced on very thick mats for a while until we were sure I wouldn't face-plant. There were a lot of tumbles, though. Not fun.

People tend to misjudge how much strength, stamina, and sheer will are required to dance ballet because the best dancers never let you see anything but the ethereal image they are trying to portray.

More questions on Quora:


Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 17 2014 1:33 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Senior editor David Haglund shares what intrigued him at the magazine. 
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Space: The Next Generation
Oct. 19 2014 11:45 PM An All-Female Mission to Mars As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.