Over the course of my career, I’ve learned that, for a ballet dancer to perform at their best, dance training must become a lifestyle. I have always been an advocate of the ‘ballet every day’ approach to dance training. As Rudolph Nureyev once said:
When I miss class for one day, I know it. When I miss class for two days, my teacher knows it. When I miss class for three days, the audience knows it.
So to maintain condition, hone technique and instil the self-discipline required to be a professional ballet dancer, it is essential to train every day with one, very important rest day in between!
Here’s what my training regime as a student looked like, with a few tips at the end on how this differs now that I have turned professional.
Stretching is fundamental before every training session, as it warms up your muscles, improves your flexibility and prevents injury that could otherwise occur during an intensive session. I aim to be in the studio, warming up, at least an hour before the start of class.
Over the past few years, I have developed my own warm-up routine, which focuses on articulating the joints, stretching the muscles associated with leg movements devant, à la seconde and derrière, and strengthening the abdominals. Always start a session by taking the time to stretch properly first; this time will help you to mentally prepare for the day and remedy any aches and pains you are experiencing.
Developing your ballet technique
Next, it’s time for an intensive session developing your ballet technique. Ballet class normally lasts an hour and a half. It begins with about 35 to 45 minutes at the barre, but sometimes can be much longer as this depends what your teacher wants to work on with you on a specific day. Barre work is followed by centre work which includes adagio, turning combinations and jumps. The class might end with some pointe work, too, although some styles of training provide a separate class devoted to exercise en pointe.
To add value to your regular ballet classes, you can also train on a one-to-one basis with a ballet coach who can analyse your technique and identify which areas you need to work on. Coaches are invaluable whether it’s to support you as a student for technique or competitions, or as a professional. One of the ways a coach can help you resolve any issues you are having with your technique is to rehearse variations.
Acting and character training
In the Russian style of training, character and acting feature very strongly. Character dance provides an array of rhythmic skills while also developing musicality. Plus, all the major classical works contain large sections of character dance. Acting reminds us that the real aim of a performance is to communicate with the audience; the movement is a means to convey a story, in whatever sense, to those on the receiving end of your creative expression. To help develop our skills, we had character and acting classes at the Bolshoi as part of our timetable and were also examined in these areas, alongside our formal ballet exams.
Character dances are traditional folk or national dance, mostly from European countries, and use movements and music which have been adapted for the stage. You’d normally wear long skirts and heeled character shoes for training. In actingclasses, we were encouraged to portray your emotions truthfully in our dancing and, hardest of all, to create emotions on stage naturally, as would happen without thinking in real life. The classes were invaluable to me and I draw on what I learned each and every time I am on the stage.
After a full day of training, your body will require some attention. This makes it imperative to stretch and warm down after any rehearsal or performance. Before I go to bed, I try to set aside 45 minutes to an hour to do the stretches that release the main muscles in the body. This helps prevent injury and keep me supple, strong and flexible, ready for the next day.
Whilst there is no exercise that works your entire body like ballet training, you can condition your body in other ways to maintain your fitness and strength. I found this particularly helpful when I was between semesters and not able to access regular ballet classes. The regular go to exercise for me is hot yoga. This really helps improve your flexibility, core strength and connection between mind and body. I also rely on the gym for cardio and floor barre (all the usual exercises at the barre, lying on the floor) for muscle memory of the correct alignment of the body. These forms of exercise are also helpful to bear in mind if you are injured and not able to do full class.
Food for every day ballet training
To get the most out of your regime, it’s important to maintain a balanced diet. With ballet, diet is a subjective thing – what works for another dancer may not work for you, so try to note what helps you gain the most value from your day and add this into your diet plan.
Eat plenty of protein-based foods, as these help to prepare and repair your body. Cut out processed food, and opt for plenty of nutritious fruits and vegetables, and snacks like nuts or raw chocolate to keep your energy levels up.
Rest and recuperation
Finally, at the end of each training day, it is essential to get some rest – both body and mind. Set aside five minutes to keep a journal – this can help you make the most of your training, and reflect upon your experience with ballet every day, allowing you to remember, analyse and develop your craft.
Then, of course, get a good night’s sleep if preferable – for me, eight hours minimum. Most importantly, always make the most of your day off!
How does this differ from training as a professional
Start and end of day stretching is still a must, as is ballet class, when you are working for a company. I now do all of my ballet class on pointe as this prepares me best for performances, especially those which require lots of pirouettes or quick footwork. When I was a student in training, I followed the Vaganova method of ballet class in soft shoes with separate pointe classes.
Performance rehearsals normally take place following ballet class and can run into the evening. The schedule will depend on what and when we are performing. We often do full run throughs the evening before a performance.
Rehearsals are essential for ensuring you have every moment and gesture of your performance memorised to the point of it coming naturally. They allow you to work up your stamina until you feel comfortable fitness-wise with what you are required to do. This is very important for corps de ballet members who have to perform often in synchronisation!
I still do additional forms of exercise, such as hot yoga, when I can, and ensure I maintain a balanced diet and get the right amount of R & R. I have more responsibility over my own training which is a shock at first after the rigidity of school, but very freeing once accustomed to. A professional dancer learns to understand their body and make decisions based upon what is right specifically for their own selves.
If you’ve found this article useful, why not head over to my main blog page for more tips on ballet training, my masterclasses and mentoring.