So You Think You Can Dance?

23 January 2012

Ballet has been around for a long time. The first professional ballet school was created in 1661 by King Louis XIV at the Louvre in Paris (this is why ballet terms are French). Although many different styles of ballet exist including, but not limited to romantic, classical and contemporary ballet, they all use the same fundamental techniques.

Did you know? Although the first professional ballet school opened in 1661, the first professional women dancers appeared 20 years later, in 1681.

Ballet dancers, when achieving amazing feats such as seemingly endless turns and floaty leaps in the air, are more than performers they are physicists!

A lot of ballet is done en pointe, where the entire weight of the dancer is balanced on their toes. Dancing en pointe is difficult because the dancers’ center of gravity, that is the point where all of your body is balanced (located just below the navel), must always remain in a perfect vertical line over the small area of contact between their toes and the floor, or they will fall.

A vertical jump in the air is no more than an upward force greater than that of the dancers’ own downward force (a.k.a. their weight). A jump becomes a leap when you combine this upward force with horizontal motion. When the dancer is mid-air, the only force acting on the dancer is gravity. Ballet dancers leap so well that they can appear to float and defy the laws of gravity. They aren’t! When a ballet dancer executes a soaring leap like a grande jeté, they move other parts of their body to give the illusion of floating. This includes tilting the head back, raising the legs into splits and keeping the arms high.

Did you know? Professional ballet dancers can go through 2 pairs of pointe shoes per performance.

Completing a string of turns to gives the effect of spinning. At one point in Swan Lake, one of the characters performs 32 consecutive fouette turns! To complete a fouette turn, the dancer balances on one leg and begins to turn by pushing off the ground, bringing their arms and the other leg close to the body. Once the first turn is completed, they extend their arms and leg away from their body. By whipping their leg out, momentum is stored from the first turn, and is transferred to the next turn by tucking it back towards the body.

Did you know? In 1913 a riot broke out during a performance of The Rite of Spring. The ballet about a pagan ritual disturbed the audience so much that the Paris police showed up during intermission, but that didn’t stop the fist fights in the aisles!

For the grace and fluidity of ballet, dancers are in top physical form and tend to be lean. If two dancers use the same amount of force to jump and turn, the lighter one will jump higher, have more momentum for the turn, and land easier than the heavier dancer. This, with the traditional view of slender professional ballet dancers, can lead to eating disorders in both male and female dancers. Too much weight loss can lead to permanent health problems and even death. Most major ballet schools now have health and nutrition workshops to help educate students and promote healthy body images.

“Ballet is for the strong, the fierce, the determined, but for the sissies, never!” Bart Simpsons’ ballet teacher tells him (yes, even Bart studied ballet!). Although ballet dancers spend many hours a week practicing and training, can they be considered athletes, and ballet a sport? A study compared 61 sports and concluded that ballet was the most physically and mentally challenging of them all, more than football, judo or gymnastics. Yet even ballet dancers have problems identifying themselves as athletes. Ballet is distinct from other sports because of the artistic component. Fantastic set design and intricate costumes make ballet more identifiable as performance art than sport. No matter what you call it, ballet is an amazing display of what the human body is capable of!


National Ballet of Canada

Dr. Gollin, a professor of physics, has put together a website describing the Physics of Dance

An essay about anorexia in ballet dancers published by an educational website about eating disorders

Patrick, P. 1978. Ballet as a Sport: Athletes on Pointe. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 20-21.

Nicholas, JA. 1975. Risk factors, sports medicine and the orthopedic system: an overview. J Sports Med. Sep-Oct;3 (5) :243-59.

Nancy is working on her PhD at the University of Toronto, studying how the sexually transmitted infection gonorrhea affects the immune system. When she\\'s not in the lab, she is probably playing ultimate frisbee.


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