The old-school ballet masters believed that the barre exercises were all that a ballet dancer needed to improve her technique. Modern ballet instructors know better. Professional organizations such as the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science suggest supplemental training with the Pilates method, named after Joseph Pilates, or the gyrotonic exercise system created by Juliu Horvath. The method you choose depends on your specific needs as a dancer.
Pilates developed his method in late 19th century Germany as a means of surpassing the physical limitations that plagued his childhood. He studied yoga and other forms of exercise techniques, and came up with a plan. He moved to the United States in 1926 and opened a studio in New York City. Romanian born Horvath danced principal roles with the Romanian State Opera Ballet. He defected to the United States in 1970, was hired by the New York City Opera and toured with ballet dancers Margot Fonteyn and Jacques d’Amboise. While working as a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet, he ruptured his Achilles tendon and damaged his lumbar discs.
Evolution of Pilates
Adversity inspired Pilates and Horvath to create their exercise systems. Pilates was working in England during World War I. His German citizenship landed him in a British internment camp on the Isle of Mann. During his stay, he treated injured prisoners of war by rigging the hospital bed-springs to create resistance training. The idea of spring-based exercise equipment inspired the apparatus he would eventually invent. Unlike Horvath, Pilates was not a dancer, but when he came to New York, his methods were used by Mikhail Baryshnikov, George Balanchine, Hanya Holm and Martha Graham. Some of the exercises allowed dancers to strengthen the muscles used in specific ballet movements. The circular leg movements of the “rondejambe,” for example, appear in the Pilates side leg series.
A Pirouette Machine
Horvath retreated to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands after his injury. Like Pilates, he studied yoga and other forms and came up with a method. His technique was specifically aimed at dancers. If fact, the class he eventually taught at the Steps exercise studio in New York was called Yoga for Dancers. Hovrath dreamed of creating a pirouette machine, which would allow the dancer to spin perpetually. His discovery of two discarded ball-bearing plates from old swivel chairs helped him realize his goal. Horvath took them home and immediately created six exercises. The Gyrotonic Expansion System evolved from the exercises.
The spiraling movements used in gyrotonic exercise resemble those typical of modern dance. In contrast, the linear movements of Pilates seem more suitable for ballet. Despite these distinguishing features, dancers make their choice based on personal preferences, their bodies' specific needs and the type of choreography they perform. Many dancers, for example, have spines that are too flexible. The deeper core work used in Pilates helps them stabilize their spines. Instructors who teach both methods often suggest that their ballet dancing clients begin with Pilates, and progress to gyrotonic exercise.
- Pilates Digest: Pilates vs. Gyrotonic Expansion System
- IDEA Fitness: The Gyrotonic and Gyrokinesis System: A Primer
- Elle Canada: Benefits of Ballet
- Kona Pilates: Which System Is Right For Me: Pilates or Gyrotonic?
- Dance Magazine: Mind Your Body: Pilates or Gyrotonic? Don't Be Systematic
- Shuriulo Lo: Pilates vs. Gyrotonic Exercise
- Pilates-Pro: Continuing Ed: Gyrotonic
- Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images