In March last year, the Royal Opera House, home of the Royal Ballet, closed its doors. Shows were suspended for four weeks, then indefinitely. Schedules that once ran from 10am until 10pm, six days a week, were thrown out. Dancers found themselves searching for ways to practise grand allegros and double tours in kitchens and living rooms.
As for us all, the change was sudden and unexpected. But despite its Renaissance-era origins, the world of ballet has proved surprisingly capable of adapting. Indeed, it had unwittingly been preparing for a moment like this.
Ballet is an art, but one that is propped up by science. Since 2013, the Royal Ballet has operated an on-site health-care suite that boasts the type of kit you’d expect in any elite sporting environment. It has force plates for measuring jump performance and accelerometers that are made in-house to record activity data. It has squat racks, leg presses and deadlifting platforms – evidently, ballet bros don’t skip legs day. The Royal Ballet collects data on everything from dancers’ performance and medical histories to their vitamin D levels, and inputs all of this into a database called Smartabase to derive insights into their progress. The same software is used by sports teams such as the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and the US army.
Even in an art form as subjective as dance, tech allows the Royal Ballet to make objective inferences about what it takes for its practitioners to excel. This proved useful during last year’s disruptions. As lockdown began, classes that had run six mornings a week to ingrain a dancer’s repertoire of movements into muscle memory were replaced with thrice-weekly Zoom classes. But the data showed that dancers jump around 600 times a day, and even more if they’re performing in a show; three Zooms a week wouldn’t cut it. So they were advised to take up running and skipping, activities that would previously have been no-nos, to provide the necessary conditioning.
To prevent injury and to keep athletes at pre-lockdown levels of fitness, ballet is leaning on sports science more than ever. And having incrementally increased its influence in the ballet world, it’s ready to take the weight.
A Higher Barre
Professor Emma Redding’s dance career has taken her all over the world. She was teaching in Hong Kong when she began to replace traditional technique classes with running and swimming. She discovered that these cross-training methods increased her dancers’ endurance, so they could perform at higher intensities for longer.
It was a light-bulb moment. Dancers need technique, but they also need the athleticism and stamina to make it all look effortless. “In technique classes, you’ve got your arms in a particular way, you’ve got a count, you’re having to perform and look in a particular direction,” says Redding. “What if we stripped that away and said, ‘Let’s first build the strength and power to jump high and jump repeatedly without getting injured, then layer the skill, the style, the count and the artistry on top’?”
On returning to England, Redding took a job at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London. There, she devised the first Master’s degree in dance science. “I got sports scientists together with dance teachers, and we sat for a week and wrote the course,” says Redding. “We had nothing much to go on. But I had questions based on my practice
and my intuition.”
Walk around Trinity Laban today and you’ll find a lab performing analyses of gas, urine and blood lactate. You’ll find EMG equipment for measuring muscle activation, and 2D motion analysis. The conditioning rooms are kitted out with cardio machines and suspension trainers. Battle ropes lie draped across the floor for power and strength work. There are Pilates and yoga areas, and everything is manned by a team of conditioning experts, physiotherapists, academics, lecturers and lab technicians. But Trinity Laban’s real strength is its students. “We’ve got hundreds of dancers to study,” says Redding.
Research here influences training around the world. Redding’s PhD investigated the discrepancy between the intensity of ballet classes and the levels that athletes are expected to achieve in performances. That work led to the development of a kind of dance bleep test that is used by dance companies internationally to determine whether athletes are fit enough, first for practice and second for performance.
Redding’s work has made dancers safer but, she insists, not at the expense of what audiences see. “We want to make dancers more durable, stronger and fitter, so they can be even more creative and innovative.” She gives the example of the improved safety measures in Formula One. “Drivers are fitter and the cars are stronger. But they’re still breaking records. They’re not slowing down; they’re just not dying. I’d like to think we can do the same with dancers.”
Since the Royal Ballet opened its health-care suite, the company has brought in injury-prevention and physiotherapy experts from other elite sports to lead its well-being operations. First, it hired Gregory Retter, who was a rehabilitation manager with the British Olympic Association. Next to arrive was Richard Clark, who came fresh from football physiotherapy.
Currently in situ is Shane Kelly, who left his position as head physio with British Athletics to take up a full-time role with the Royal Ballet in September. “We run a holistic health-care service, but its main thrust is injury prevention and injury management,” says Kelly. “We try to stop injuries happening, or reduce the risk – and once they do, we manage them really, really well.”
The dancers’ schedules are arduous. Working days of 12 or even 14 hours aren’t uncommon, and the time allotted for rest, recovery and refuelling is small. To give dancers the best chance of avoiding fatigue and injury, the Royal Ballet employs doctors, physios, strength and conditioning experts, instructors in Pilates, yoga and gyrotonics, a psychologist and a nutritionist, all of whom can be booked via Smartabase.
The Royal Ballet’s world-leading services are exactly the sort you’d find in an Olympic setting, explains Kelly. An issue for dancers is finding the time to take advantage of all that’s on offer. Dancers attend ballet class every morning, followed by rehearsal, which runs from noon until 6.30pm if there isn’t a performance and 5.30pm if there is. Performances start at 7pm, and it can be as late as midnight before dancers get home. Any supplementary work has to be done outside those periods. “It can be challenging to fit it in,” says principal dancer Matthew Ball.
While the monitoring of workload, wellness and fatigue is well established in sport, it is novel in ballet. In 2016, the Royal Ballet partnered with St Mary’s University, which now provides strength and conditioning and sports science support to dancers. Among its staff is Joseph Shaw, who in 2019 began a PhD to quantify the workload of elite ballet dancers. Kelly hopes that Shaw’s work will help to predict the workloads of dancers based on historic rehearsal and performance schedules, to ensure that their time is “more balanced”.
The First Dance
The stress that ballet puts on bodies is unique, says Ball: in no other discipline would you be expected to lift a weight with your feet in turnout position, but that’s what dancers are expected to do when lifting partners. For Ball, strength and conditioning work is a necessity, but the Royal Ballet’s repertoire is so varied that his preparation changes from role to role. “There’s a part in Mayerling, where you dance with six or seven different women and, by the end, your arms are exhausted – you feel like a rubber band,” says Ball. “At the other end of the spectrum is the Bluebird pas de deux [from The Sleeping Beauty]. Your character is a bluebird teaching a princess how to fly. There’s a solo that’s only a minute long, but every step is a jump. Then it continues into a duet. For that, my favourite type of training is interval training on the rower.”
Prior to lockdown, it was normal to see Ball with other dancers in the gym, pushing each other through arms sessions or spotting each other during their downtime. His numbers are impressive: he weighs 73kg and can squat 120kg and deadlift 175kg. During lockdown, he put the heavy weights down and took up calisthenics, as well as sprint and plyometric training.
Swapping weightlifting in the gym for bodyweight workouts at home has gone some way towards keeping dancers in condition. Yet whether their minds are ready is another matter. When injuries occur, dancers are encouraged to work with the Royal Ballet’s psychologist, Britt Tajet-Foxell, on visualisation techniques in order to, as Ball says, “make sure you’re not all messed up and worried about the injury”. Coming back from lockdown feels a little bit like coming back from injury. Ball admits that it was daunting to have to fill large, empty dance studios with moves that had lain dormant for months.
“Confidence is something you need to work on, and the same goes for finding how to reintegrate yourself into that mode of working,” Ball says. After the first lockdown was lifted, he gradually regained his stride in the classroom, but “going back out on stage is something entirely different,” he says. “You’re under a lot more pressure. There are a lot of people watching, a live orchestra, lights, costumes, and all sorts of things. It’s nerve-racking at the best of times, so I think there will be a teething process surrounding that.”
Are dancers ready to come back? The whole of sport is monitoring its athletes to avoid too rapid an increase in training and performance workload, and ballet is no different. On paper, they’re ready for that first performance, but only when the curtain lifts will we know for certain. Meanwhile we can be sure that sports science’s grip on ballet will only tighten. The discipline may have mastered how to conjure movements that are both awe-inspiring and beautiful but, as Redding asks, “Olympic athletes are breaking records all the time, so why can’t we?”
Sign up to the Men's Health newsletter and kickstart your home body plan. Make positive steps to become healthier and mentally strong with all the best fitness, muscle-building and nutrition advice delivered to your inbox.
For effective home workouts, uplifting stories, easy recipes and advice you can trust, subscribe to Men's Health UK
You Might Also Like