Embrace Your Inner Ballerina

Are online ballet based workouts effective and safe?

Posted Feb 14, 2016

Many of us are looking for an inspiration to start exercising, exercise more, or continue to exercise in the new year. So is my hairdresser, who asked me what type of exercise would be the best for her to begin an exercise program. While some hit the gym, she did not trust herself to exercise independently. Neither did she feel that she knew enough to exercise entirely on her own. We discussed the possibility of joining a group exercise class where an instructor assists with correct form and other participants can help motivate one to attend regularly.

There is definitely no shortage of choices with group exercise offerings ranging from cardio kickboxing to yoga. I suggested the barre class as one option, because these classes are particularly popular among women. The Sport & Fitness Association reports that of the 3.2 million American adults who tried it last year, 89% were women (Sport & Fitness Industry Association, 2015).

In her recent article, Archer (2015) suggests that one remarkable thing about the barre class is that it attracts women within a broad age range. This, I thought, would also appeal to my hairdresser who is new to exercise but no longer of college age. If 55% of barre participants are between the ages of 18 and 44, one can assume that rest are older (Sport & Fitness Industry Association, 2015). Archer’s article includes a testimony from a woman in her 60’s who found the barre studio ‘her home’ after unsuccessfully trying other types exercise programs. While specialized, barre studios attract younger affluent clientele, in health clubs and YMCAs, particularly, ‘an average age of 45-55 in classes is not uncommon’ (Archer, 2015, p. 67). Indeed, one my colleagues is teaching a barre class for seniors who absolutely love it!

I further advised my hairdresser to find a good instructor, because the barre instructors’ professional backgrounds differ significantly. Some barre programs such as Fletcher, Garuda, or Stott certify instructors, but most barre programs can be designed and taught by just about anyone.

Archer (2015) also emphasizes that barre exercises are safe only if the instructors modify the dance technique to suit a non-dancer. “If the instructors don’t,” she continues, “barre exercises may harm joints and connective tissue and can lead to injury” (p. 67). Archer particularly cautions against using the turn-out position, one of the core skills of dance technique, as its inappropriate use will result in problems, particularly in knees and hips. In my previous blog (Long, Lean Legs at the Barre, March 2014) I already cautioned against using exercises designed for learning dance technique, a time consuming process, in an exercise class where the purpose is not to create proficient dancers.

When the precautions are carefully implemented, Archer (2015) identifies increased muscle endurance particularly in the lower body, core strengthening, balance, and improved alignment as major benefits of a barre class. I also pressed the importance of improved alignment to my hairdresser whose upper back is under serious stress most of the day. Others continue to emphasize that “Barre classes use positions, postures and exercises that target muscles in the trouble-zone areas such as legs, glutes and abdominals, making people feel satisfied that they’ve challenged those ‘challenging to change’ body areas” (Olson cited in Archer, 2015, p. 66). In my previous blog, I believed that this was not the main purpose behind ballet exercises and exercisers should be careful with this type of promise.

No author/Wikimedia
Source: No author/Wikimedia

After considering this advice, my hairdresser revealed that she actually preferred to exercise at home using an online workout – she just needed some instruction of what to do. Although many women prefer to exercise in the privacy of their home at a time most suitable for them, I am suspicious about such exercise programs: anyone can post an exercise routine online. My hairdresser was not sure if her chosen exercise program did her any good at all. Indeed, there are very few studies that assess the quality of these types of workouts for large audiences. With this in mind, I with my colleague Marianne Clark, took a look at some of the barre exercise programs available online.

For our project, we selected online workouts on women’s magazine websites that targeted a general, female audience. We limited our sample to barre workouts published between 2010-2015 to capture the most recent barre trends. We reviewed the first ten exercise programs that appeared in our search results as we believed these would most likely appear to all women reading about fitness workouts online. We analyzed both the text and the photographs included in these workouts that we labelled as ballet inspired workouts.

All the workouts opened with a brief introduction that emphasized the benefits of the exercises. There were two main rationales: First, to achieve the desirable aesthetics of a dancers’ body, which was described as sculpted, lean, and toned; and second, to achieve this body fast. The efficiency of the workouts and the ease with which they could be performed (i.e., no special equipment, space, or skill requirements) emphasized that there was little excuse for women not to engage in these fitness practices, anywhere, any time.

All the workouts promised a slim, toned, lean, and sculpted dancing body, if the workout was performed regularly. Thighs, hips, butt, and waist were frequently identified as targets for improvement. 

The articles then continued to provide specific directions for each of the exercises (5-10 per workout). While most workouts included still photographs, one provided moving images that made it easy to follow the movement pattern of each exercise.

As indicated by their labels, these workouts combined ballet exercises (at the barre) with traditional fitness exercises (often performed on the floor) and cardiovascular activity. This combination was to result in physical fitness and build the fit feminine body. The texts indicated first, that workouts with a warm-up, cool-down, and cardiovascular exertion will result in physical fitness and second, that conventional fitness exercises such as ‘lunges’, ‘rows,’ and ‘curls’ were necessary for building a fit body. Some of the terms reflected controversial exercise practices that are now deemed unsuitable or even unhealthy (e.g., parallel quad burner or intensification of the burn in targeted muscles). There were no visuals related to cardio-vascular fitness activities.

We identified a significant portion of the pictured exercises (28 out of 59 exercises) as conventional fitness exercises. These were performed either standing, sitting, or laying on the floor and/or using weights (rather than at the barre). These sit-ups, lunges, and arm exercises with light weights were labelled with a ballet inspired name such as lower abs attitude, arabesques push up, plié port de bras, dancer’s twist, but could have been a part of any fitness workouts.

Only about a half of the exercises (31 of 59) used a ballet barre (or an equivalent support such as a chair). These were referred to by ballet-specific names (e.g., relevé passé, grand plié, arabesque attitude, reaching ronde de jambe, grand battement, degagé). The most visible ballet like characteristic was the ‘turn-out’ of the legs: 20 of 31 barre exercises were performed in turn-out. The accompanying texts often told the exercisers to position their feet with heels together and toes pointed outward (‘first-position’ in ballet) to describe the turn-out. The most common barre exercises were plies (bending and then straightening both knees) in first and second ballet position. These were often combined with relevé (raising up to one’s toes) which added significant work for calf muscles. Larger or more toned ‘calves’ were not, however, included in the list of body parts needing improvement. High leg extensions to the back (arabesques/attitudes) and forward (battement, degage) were also frequently included as barre exercises. With an emphasis on turn-out and high leg extensions, these online workouts were not necessarily modified for a non-exerciser and as cautioned by Archer (2015) could, thus, be harmful.

All the models were women, but they were not the uniformly young, toned, and very thin models common in the popular exercise media. While all wore tight, skin hugging exercise clothes, there were also more mature looking models, several of whom were instructors or program designers and thus, could be assumed to have significant ballet background. The texts revealed four instructors’ fitness, but not dance, qualifications. Almost all of them, however, demonstrated a very deep and wide plié in turned out second position—a demanding dance move—or an arabesque.

A thin looking body did not, per se, assure the movement quality called for in the texts. For example, some models had a lean body, but lacked dance training. One workout that aimed to illustrate ‘the best and worst barre exercises’ displayed a young woman who was so obviously a non-dancer that even the reader comments on the web page pointed to her inexperience. She was, however, probably the closest to an average exerciser who is unfamiliar with the arm positioning or leg turnout in these types of classes. This workout also elicited readers to comment on the justifications that assigned some exercises as ‘bad.’ ‘The best’ exercises were all performed in parallel position instead of in turnout and also closely resembled movements included in other types of fitness workouts (squat to lunge, leg lift back, squat with calf raise). Based on this assessment, the ballet movements—the movements that distinguish the barre workouts from other types of workouts—were, in fact, the exercises to avoid.

Based on our analysis, the online ballet inspired workouts can be divided into familiar floor exercises that were renamed or modified slightly for ballet inspired workouts and the barre exercises that provided the connection to ballet. When demonstrated by models with dance backgrounds, the barre exercises, while appearing effortless and graceful, were very difficult and potentially injury inducing (e.g., deep 2nd position plié) to an average exerciser at home. When demonstrated by models without a dance background, the exercises lost their dance quality. Probably the most dangerous exercises were the technically demanding ballet exercises (arabesque/attitude) when demonstrated poorly. This presents an interesting dilemma: if ballet exercises that require technical training are potentially too dangerous, and must be modified to resemble more closely ‘traditional’ exercise vocabulary (e.g., performed in parallel), or changed to more commonly used exercises (e.g., lunge), what is the role of ballet inspired workouts?

In addition, these magazine workouts were advertised as ‘easy’ exercises for the readers to do at home. It is important to keep in mind that ballet exercises were originally designed to improve ballerina’s performance and thus, are meant to develop a dancer’s technical ability. If re-assigned purely as ‘body-shapers’ without the detailed emphasis of learning ballet technique, they can easily turn dysfunctional. For example, an average exerciser does not immediately possess the range of motion in the hips or the dancer’s coordination to sustain the core and upper body alignment while also performing demanding leg extensions. While the text offered some safety precautions, the visuals tended to focus on the maximum range of motion in pliés and extreme extensions in arabesques. These movements require specific instructions on correct technique and/or modifications leading to the performance of, for example, proper turnout. The visual presentation seemed to imply that each exercise could be performed, to its maximum, immediately: as long as the exerciser ‘embraces one’s inner ballerina,’ it was possible to achieve ‘a dancer’s body.’

It is important to approach online workouts with care. Barre workouts with traditional ballet exercises can be particularly harmful if offered to non-exercisers without modifications. If Archer (2015) highlights the risks of attending barre classes, doing the same exercises at home without an instructor can be inefficient or in the worst case, lead to injury. Therefore, although barre classes can be fun, offer the dancer’s poise, improved balance and muscle endurance, it is important not to assign demanding ballet exercises as simply a means to challenge the non-dancers’ ‘challenging to change body areas.’