As exercise, ballet is surprisingly complete. In a standard 90-minute class, you accomplish three of the four types of exercise recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine. Holding your arms à la seconde, performing developpés and rising onto demi-pointe count as resistance exercise. All of those stretches you do at the barre and in the center fulfill the flexibility recommendation, and working on your balances and traveling steps counts as neuromuscular exercise. What’s missing is a cardiovascular component, and that’s where swimming can be a valuable addition to a ballet dancer’s training.
Simply swimming laps can give a ballet dancer a good cardiovascular workout. Ideally, you should get 150 minutes of cardio each week. If you get bored with freestyle, throw in a few laps of backstroke, breaststroke or butterfly. And, you don’t have to get all of your cardio from one activity. Swim a couple of times a week and go for a brisk walk or use the elliptical machine the other days.
During your swimming workouts, grab a kickboard and give your leg muscles a more intense workout while still improving your cardiovascular fitness. The kickboard helps you keep your body on top of the water so you don’t sink. As a ballet dancer, you likely have flexible ankles, which will make you a natural at swimming kicks, and your strong external rotators that help you with your ballet turnout will come in handy during breaststroke kicks. To avoid overtaxing and developing your shoulder and back muscles, avoid arm drills.
Swimming is not a weight-bearing activity: The water supports your body weight. Because of this, you won’t get any of the bone-building benefits of physical activity. However, as a dancer, all of your jumps work on this aspect of physical fitness. If you are a serious ballet dancer, keep your swimming training to a recreational level. Don’t overdo the laps or drills. The muscles built in swimmers, particularly the shoulder and back muscles, do not fit with the aesthetics of ballet. That said, you’d have to swim a lot of laps to build that kind of muscular bulk.
Practice Your Ballet
While you’re at the pool, take advantage of the buoyancy and resistance of the water to practice some of your ballet steps. These steps work best when the water comes up to your shoulders. Développés on one leg really challenge the muscles in your supporting leg and your core as you try to keep your balance. Your working leg, however, will float up with ease. If you have problems staying upright, use the side of the pool as a barre. Beats are also great steps to practice in the water. The resistance of the water will give you more time to do the beats before your feet land on the bottom of the pool, and it will also make your inner thighs works much harder than they do in the ballet studio to get your legs to cross. You can also work on your port de bras. Moving your arms in the water engages your back muscles and helps you feel the sensation of the movement coming from your back.
- American College of Sports Medicine: ACSM Issues New Recommendations on Quantity and Quality of Exercise
- Strength Training for Faster Swimming; Blythe Lucero
- Aquatic Exercise for Rehabilitation Training; Lori Thein Brody and Paula Richley Geigle
- IDEA Health & Fitness Association: Build Better Bones
- Osteoporosis International: Dancing for Bone Health -- A 3-Year Longitudinal Study of Bone Mineral Accrual Across Puberty in Female Dancers and Controls
Kat Black is a professional writer currently completing her doctorate in musicology/ She has won several prestigious awards for her research, and has had extensive training in classical music and dance.