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Sunday, April 21
The Indiana Daily Student


OPINION: Strength behind the fragility: Ballet dancers and their true power


My mother enrolled me into classical ballet when I was 3 years old — not an uncommon activity for many young children if they’re looking to become professional ballet dancers. During my seven-year-long journey with ballet, people from my school constantly passed comments like, “ballet is good for you; its dainty and weak, just like you.”  

Not just students, but teachers too; specifically, my school’s football coach found it particularly comical to compare dancers and football players and paraded around the school singing songs of how I, a ballet dancer, was weak and fragile; but his football team was strong and powerful. The curtain of false understanding with respect to ballerinas’ strength has been something the industry has had to battle with for years.  

From learning to keep your back straight, chest out, stomach in, shoulders down and chin up, to balancing your entire weight on just your toes, every ballet dancer has sacrificed their blood, sweat and tears for this art form. To hear someone say ballet dancers are weak and fragile hurts more than any of the ballet injuries and ballet variations do.  

The hours of practice, training and strengthening dancers undergo is comparable to that of any other athlete, especially those society considers the strongest. According to a study by the American Journal of Sports Medicine, elite ballet dancers took longer than football players to reach a certain level of fatigue after jumping on one leg from a 30 centimeter platform.  

Gates Northup, one of IU ballet’s best jumpers, is pursuing a professional career in ballet. She started dancing in Minnesota at the age of 3 and eventually switched to online high schooling to dedicate more time towards ballet before beginning an apprenticeship with Minnesota Dance Theatre.  

Wanting to pursue a career in professional ballet is not child’s play. Just the number of hours one needs to dedicate towards ballet goes to show the level of practice, technique and hardwork this art form demands.  

While rehearsing for a role in “Beauty and the Beast,”, I would attend seven-hour-long rehearsal sessions every weekend leading up the performance. The first two hours encompassed an intensive technique class where we went over the steps in the variation independently and warmed up our feet and body. Following a short lunch break, we’d have a five-hour-long rehearsal session consisting solely of running through the variation several times, until every dancer in that variation not just nailed the technique, but had the perfect expressions and look of ease while doing it as well. 

Ballet majors at IU train from 11 a.m. - 5:45 p.m. Monday through Friday, which is direct proof of the strength and stamina ballet dancers must possess to take on these long hours straining every muscle in their body. 

Northup disagrees with the assumption that ballerinas are ‘dainty and fragile’.  

She explained the intricacies and focus behind a female variation in ballet.  

“Even though the upper body is super light and airy, if you watch the feet, they’re moving like a machine, and that’s the whole point of ballet,” Northup said. “We do super hard things, but make it look incredibly easy.”  

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For an audience member, pointe work, in which a dancer balances their body weight on the tips of their toes in a wooden shoe, is often one of the most impressive parts about the performance. Ballerinas twirl and jump across the stage in perfect harmony, all while balancing on their toes. However, for a ballerina, pointe work takes years of practice, perseverance, injuries; and unimaginable strength to reach the level of perfection seen on stage.  

The first time I put on my pointe shoes and did a variation, I lost balance midway and fell down. This caused me to sprain my ankle, and I was unable to dance for two months. Northrup sheds light onto the reality of injuries in the ballet industry. 

“Our injuries are more like stress fractures, stress reactions where they come over time, but we do get heavy impact injuries as well,” she said.  

She further explained that IU currently has a physical training room as well as a physical trainer on site exclusively for the ballet department,which she finds very helpful. The university also provides pilates classes taught by a former ballerina to ballet majors twice a week.  

This extra training ensures that the workouts are ballet-centric and strengthen the muscles ballet dancers use extensively, which include the glutes, arms, back and ankles. With IU’s ballet program being regarded as one of the nation’s top college programs, it leaves no stone unturned to ensure its dancers are well taken care of and get everything required to build their professional career in ballet.  

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The “Waltz of the Flowers” from “The Nutcracker” is easily one of the most enchantingly beautiful pieces of ballet, but doing 64 perfect spins for eight minutes straight takes months of diligent practice, years of pointe work and an unmatched level of strength in the performer’s legs and toes to be able to produce those results.  

What takes this strength shown by ballet dancers to the next level is the fact that ballet is not just an athletic feat, but a dance form — a performing art. Ballet does not only demand strength, precision; and power, but also grace, expressiveness; and elegance.  

A ballet is considered a ballet because the dancers can glide across the stage like butter, jump to unbelievable heights and then land as quietly as a cat, all while maintaining a precise posture. 

Ballet may look effortless to us watching on the television while lying on the sofa in our dorm hall; but, as explained by Northrup, ballet is everything but that. From rigourous practice hours, to perfect technique, immense strength straining and relentless rehearsals, ballet dancers give their everything to deliver to us the most seamless and effortless performance, making them anything but weak and fragile.  

Pehal Aashish Kothari (she/her) is a freshman majoring in Marketing with a minor in Apparel Merchandising. 

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