If you're excited by the prospect of longer, leaner muscles and a more graceful gait, an adult ballet class might have more appeal than the local gym. On the other hand, the learning curve is steep for beginning dancers. It takes time to learn ballet's unique vocabulary and master even basic steps and movement combinations. As you sweat it out in class, keep your eye on the prize. Over time, ballet can help improve your fitness profile.
Ballet training involves, to a greater or lesser degree, all the components of physical fitness -- healthy body composition, cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance and flexibility -- and of motor fitness: power, speed, agility, balance and coordination. Improving your motor fitness with ballet training can enhance your performance on the soccer field, running track, hockey rink and racquetball court.
The Strength Story
Ballet exercises boost strength throughout your body, from the small intrinsic muscles of your feet to the larger muscles of your back, glutes and calves. Classical ballet technique involves rising onto the balls of the feet or toes, turning out the leg at the hip socket and sustaining high leg extensions to the front, side and back. Constant repetition of these exercises builds considerable strength in specific areas, most notably in the hip, lower leg, ankle and foot. However, ballet's muscle-building benefits are limited. Ballerinas are notoriously weak in their arms, hamstrings and quads. Indeed, ballet training often leads to strength imbalances that are a risk factor for injury. Recognizing that ballet training alone isn't sufficient to protect them from injury, many ballet dancers work with free weights, attend Pilates classes and engage in other muscle-building activities to beef up their upper-torso, core and upper-leg strength.
Low on Lung Power
A typical ballet class involves short bursts of high-energy combinations that can leave a dancer gasping for air. On the flip side, those frenetic moments in class are interspersed with slower movement combinations and time spent standing still as the teacher demonstrates or offers corrections. A great deal of what happens during class places little demand on a dancer's heart and lungs. As a result, ballet dancers often demonstrate low levels of cardiovascular fitness. Because technique classes alone can't prepare dancers for the higher aerobic demands of rehearsals and performances, dancers often supplement their ballet training with more intense cardio activities, such as running, swimming or using elliptical machines.
Ballet training scores high in terms of developing flexibility, balance, agility and coordination. Over time, ballet's complex movement combinations, quick turns, fast footwork and high leg extensions can improve these aspects of your fitness profile. Even if you're starting ballet as an adult, you can expect to make significant gains in these areas if you're diligent, according to Eliza Gaynor Minden, former dancer and author of "The Ballet Companion.
Getting More Bang
Taking one 45-minute class a week might be great for de-stressing after work, but once-a-week dabbling with degages probably won't bring the hardcore fitness results you want. Improvements in alignment, strength, flexibility and speed take time and consistency. For measurable fitness gains, you'll need to take two or three classes a week over a period of months. When you're in class, maximize your time there by staying focused and paying close attention to your instructor's corrections. Staying after class to stretch, work with resistance tools and practice steps or combinations you find challenging will help boost your fitness level more quickly.