How does a dancer get to know their body in a healthy way? What steps can a dancer take to minimize injury risk? For a professional ballet dancer, is being hypermobile an asset, a liability or both?
Read on for her story
-Linda Bluestein, M.D.
Photo Credit: Andrej Uspenski
More often than not, I see the creative and artistic aspects of ballet obscured, especially on social media, by the physical qualities one possesses - the hyperextended legs and feet, so desired for achieving beautiful lines - or the mastering of technical tricks - the endless balance or multiple spinning. What we don’t usually see is the amount of work and physical conditioning required to sustain a vigorous body, and the strength and resilience needed in dance. Dancers cultivate a mind - body connection, an awareness which enables us to understand our physical strengths and weaknesses in order to improve, protect ourselves from getting injured, and cope with the heavy workload of professional life.
I see classical training as an indispensable tool to acquiring knowledge of the body. That, for me, is the main purpose of it: to get to know our bodies and how it moves, and to gain ability and control. In ballet, one must follow a certain aesthetic, but when working on our technique, it must be functional and not just 'pretty'. We must work to surpass our limitations but not in a forced way. Young dancers with natural hypermobility are often the ones who immediately stand out because of the aesthetic appeal of hyperextended knees and hypermobile ankles, but they are also the ones more susceptible to injuries and need to be well-prepared for the professional world. A dancer needs a lot more than elasticity; they need a strong technique that encompasses balance, optimal alignment, coordination, and that, above all, allows him/her to develop artistically. I believe that can only be achieved by knowing your body well and working in a healthy way.
When I joined The Royal Ballet, known to be one of the busiest European companies with such a varied repertoire, I had to incorporate many things into my training that would help me handle the amount of work and performances. Even though I had already been dancing professionally for six years, I wasn’t expecting to be pushed so hard, rehearsing three to four ballets at once, six hours a day, performing, in average, one hundred and thirty shows a year in twelve different productions. When I got to the end of my second season, I was suffering with pain in my shins, and was to find out they were ‘stressing’. Luckily, I had discovered it just in time to avoid any fractures, and it dawned on me how vigilant I must be with taking care of my body. Without a well-functioning instrument, our bodies, we won’t get too far. Injuries are caused not only by trauma - an accidental fall or sudden twist of the ankle - but by fatigue and overuse, and by little imbalances we are not even aware of. The sooner we discover what is good for us, as everyone’s body is so unique, the healthier and happier our careers will be.
I did miss part of my third season with the company, which is not a nice feeling when you are still fairly new and trying to prove you are reliable, but doing my rehab programme was not time wasted. On the contrary, by slowing myself down and focusing on better understanding the mechanisms of my body, I managed to recover and come back even stronger. Since then, I have incorporated strength and conditioning sessions in my daily training, which helps me feel resilient and strong, where I can simulate jumping without suffering the impact on my shins. I aim to protect my bones by strengthening specific muscle groups that will support them. Some things could be prevented if we listened to the aching signs, if we sought the help of trustworthy physiotherapists and health practitioners sooner rather than later. I learned that no matter at what stage you are in your career, whether a student or professional, your body needs constant care, and it all starts with building a strong foundation in ballet class, working conscientiously through your training routine, and also making sure you sleep well, have plenty of rest, and maintain a healthy diet.
As a young girl living in Brazil, going from one ballet competition to the next, I witnessed dancers my age doing the most challenging steps and combinations with such fearless attitude and such skill. I wanted to be like them, but always felt a bit behind. I couldn't turn 32 fouettes (considered one of the biggest technical challenges for a dancer) and didn’t consider myself to have amazing leg extensions. I praised my hyperextended legs and arched feet, but didn’t possess the strength to hold my leg up or raise it above ninety degrees in arabesque. I just felt kind of... average. I would later discover that it takes time to polish and nurture your hypermobility, and in fact, my best qualities lied in my musicality and artistry, in inner aspects of my being that I could express in dance without feeling like I was doing gymnastics.
Back then, I was coached by a very strict Japanese teacher who demanded utmost discipline and effort. I worked hard until my muscles twitched and my leotard was soaked in sweat, but I wasn’t aware of the strain I was putting my body through when forcing turnout from the feet and locking into my hyperextended knees. I was to learn that technique isn’t about being flexible, flat turned-out, or whipping out eight pirouettes such as we witness every day on Instagram; it is about finding freedom of movement and letting your artistry shine. We soon realise that we each have our strengths and a unique physique that must be respected and nurtured, and by working sensibly and engaging the right muscles, we can thrive.
My competition days came to an end when, at fifteen years old, I left home to study at Canada’s National Ballet School. I would spend four amazing years there, but also had some difficult moments. Soon after I arrived in Toronto, I had to stop dancing for a while because of an old injury in my hamstring that had not healed properly. Being unable to dance (for the first time in my life) was hard for me, especially because I missed my family so much and ballet was the only thing keeping my mind busy; but while I couldn’t dance, I took piano and French lessons and learned how much dancing required patience and understanding. It is not an easy lesson to learn when one is so determined and ambitious, as ballet dancers are, but there is a silver lining to it.
While working with Northern Ballet, in Leeds, I learned about the importance of good training and body maintenance for injury prevention. There weren’t many of us in the corps de ballet, so all dancers were needed, healthy and reliable, ready to work. Booking massage and physiotherapy became a regular thing for me, as well as using a sauna, ice buckets after a long day, eating well, and keeping my technique in check. It is not unusual, however, for dancers joining straight from school to get themselves hurt in their first season. After that initial euphoria of signing your first contract, it is easy to fall into bad habits, not finish ballet class (or skip them altogether), and think that the hard work is over, when in reality, it has only just begun! Attending class every day is not mandatory in a company, but I believe it is fundamental for a healthy career.
The repetition of movement in ballet takes its toll on the body, especially when dancing at a professional level. To help manage the heavy workload, Royal Ballet dancers have on-site physiotherapy and massage, a pilates and gyrotonic studio, gym equipment and instructors, not to mention a nutritionist and sports psychologist. I must admit that it is a real luxury to have all these within easy reach, but I genuinely think that the company would not survive the demands of our job without it. More and more, contemporary training in dance is fusing with science and revolutionising how dancers prepare for performance and keep healthy. As professionals, we must take responsibility for ourselves, finding what works best for us as individuals.
Photo Credit: Andrej Uspenski
Besides the good maintenance of our bodies, it is important that we work conscientiously every day, aiming to maintain and improve our technique so that we can be free to portray any role. If I am extremely tired and busy at work (which is not the case in these pandemic times) I always make sure that I warm up properly and focus purely on correct alignment and coordination in class. Being in sync with your physical and mental needs will help you learn to pace yourself, especially in a professional environment, so that you can peak at the right time, perform your very best, and prolong your career. It is important to think of longevity in dance. We are asking our bodies to move in such unnatural ways that, if we don't work well and seek professional help, there will be a very high price to pay in the long run. I feel like I’m still improving and growing as a dancer, and the thing is, it will always be an ongoing learning process. When we come to understand our bodies better, we can use it more efficiently, and the work becomes more joyful and meaningful.
About the author
Brazilian dancer Isabella Gasparini is a Soloist of The Royal Ballet. She was born in São Paulo and trained at Ballet Marcia Lago (her mother’s school), with Toshie Kobayashi and at Canada’s National Ballet School. She joined Northern Ballet in 2007 and was promoted to coryphée in 2011. Roles with the company included Clara and Sugar Plum Fairy (The Nutcracker), Cecile (Dangerous Liaisons), Odile (Swan Lake), Beatrice (Ondine), pas de deux (Don Quixote) and Perpetuum mobile. She created the title role in Ugly Duckling, Northern Ballet’s first children's ballet. Isabella left Northern Ballet in May 2013 to dance with English National Ballet in Swan Lake in-the-round at the Royal Albert Hall and The Nutcracker. She has also danced with New English Ballet Theatre, for which she created the role of Wife in Andrew McNichol’s The Kreutzer Sonata.
Her Royal Ballet roles have included Clara, Fairy of the Song Bird (The Sleeping Beauty), Blue Girl (Les Patineurs), Amour (Don Quixote), cygnet and pas de trois (Swan Lake), Princess Louise (Mayerling), Justine (Frankenstein), pas de six (Giselle), First movement in Concerto, and in ‘Emeralds’ (Jewels), Rhapsody and Viscera. She has created roles in Flight Pattern, Untouchable, Symphonic Dances, Corybantic Games and Woolf Works.
Her awards include gold medal in the 2003 Youth America Grand Prix. She is also currently studying towards a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing with the Open University, London.