Ballet Business | The Science Behind Ballet

Ballet Business | The Science Behind Ballet

Photograph by Cheryl Angear

Photograph by Cheryl Angear

The expert, professional ballet dancers you see on stage today have been through rigorous, deliberate and repetitive training to become elite athletes. They keyword here is expert.

‘Expertise’ is defined in a study (1) as “the result of intense practice for a minimum of ten years.” Any sort of practice won’t do, either. The study went on to describe the specific type of practice an expert needs to acquire this expertise as “deliberate practice,” which means getting the best instruction but also having several hours of focused practice every day.

What is missing from the study is that these ten years of deliberate practice must be completed before puberty, because of the exceptionally high level of flexibility required in classical ballet.

10,000 hours

Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers (2) explains that achievement is talent plus preparation, and that preparation almost always totals 10,000 hours.

So you might think it’s okay to practice for an hour a week for 10,000 weeks ? Not if you want to be an expert; the conclusion of the 1993 study – the requirement for “deliberate practice” – is fundamental.

An experiment in 1995 (3) concluded that it takes 180 practice trials for the human brain to consistently reproduce new, simple movement patterns. Classical ballet is far from straightforward.

Too late ?

That said, it’s not unheard of to start a vocational career in ballet at a later stage. Ex-Royal Ballet Principal dancer Johan Kobborg started his career with the Royal Danish Ballet School at the age of 16. Darcey Bussell had a lot of catching up to do in her early years at The Royal Ballet School and, initially at least, found herself behind her classmates in terms of technique. It’s been said that the classical Greek Philosopher Socrates learned to dance when he was 70 because he felt that an essential part of himself had been neglected.

New Tools : Sport Science

One of the tools now being used within ballet is sport science. Sport science is not new; within the sports industry it has long-been regarded as a route to success, but ballet has been slow on the uptake. Part of the problem has been the often self-imposed chasm between ballet and sport. While it’s true that ballet is an art and not a sport (ballet dancers can’t show the effort involved), the facts and figures behind sport science are hard to ignore. Professional ballet dancers share commonalities with top sports men and women : they are all elite athletes.  Until a few years ago, dancers were reluctant to admit to injuries, fearing that roles would be taken away and their careers would suffer.

Where sport science might have been seen as a ‘nice add-on’ or not used at all, now professional ballet companies are looking at it and working out how they can benefit. The Royal Ballet’s Clinical Director, Greg Retter, says “it has been well established in the areas of sporting prowess for quite some time, however I think it’s quite new in the world of dance.” Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet agrees, “it’s only in the last few years that we’ve realised there’s a lot we can learn from sport.”

At English National Ballet, Artistic Director Tamara Rojo has personal experience of sport science (acquired when her then Royal Ballet colleague Alina Cojocaru began working with Patrick Rump, Director of Sport Science, following a collapsed disc) and since taking over the directorship Rojo has focused on the support areas for dancers and hopes to have “quantifiable evidence” of the success of their investment within a couple of years.

There is a sports therapist at Scottish Ballet, and the practice extends worldwide. At The National Ballet of Canada, Athletic Therapist Paul Papoutsakis says, “As company Athletic Therapist I combine my knowledge of a dancer’s anatomy, physiology and the biomechanics they require while dancing, and apply the theoretical concepts of the movement science behind their flawless techniques, to correctly address any movement dysfunction or pain they might experience.  All of our dancers, who I treat regularly, have to take all of these variables into consideration no matter how minor their injuries are. Sports Science is what I do on a daily basis because I need to treat each dancer as a whole person, not just as an ‘ankle injury’, and deal with their current symptoms (typically pain and dysfunctional movement).  I then address any altered movement patterns due to their injuries and use exercise science principles to prescribe the proper exercises that will help them from having a reoccurrence of injury. All in all, Sports Science is a very general term that envelopes what we use here every day. Every dancer has seen great results when treated in this manner.  Now if ballet could only be less ‘stressful’ on their bodies!”

Ex Royal Ballet Soloist Brian Maloney, once injured himself, now works with Rump and has high hopes that in future the sport science training will be incorporated at school level so that every dancer in every ballet class can benefit from being a stronger, smarter dancer with fewer injuries and a longer career. Maloney says, “every dancer will have experienced some kind of injury and a fair number of dancers will have experienced a major injury.”

Rump concurs, “80% of dancers suffer a severe injury during their career. Half of them, 47-60% suffer a chronic injury.”

Sport Science uses tools & technology to prevent injuries from occurring in the first place. William Forsythe says “sport science is like the secret weapon we didn’t know we had. It’s expert. It’s not ‘sort-of,’ it’s ‘I know.’ This is just science.” Other beneficiaries of Rump’s training are Mathias Heymann (Étoile, Paris Opera Ballet), Federico Bonelli (Principal, Royal Ballet) and Nehemiah Kish (Principal, Royal Ballet).

So, how does sport science work in practice ? Rump explains, “it’s actually sport sciences. So it’s a collection of different sciences looking at sports or at movement in general. For example – biomechanics, which is physics for the body. It’s anatomy, physiology, training science, movement and exercise science, psychology, nutrition, focusing on the execution of performance.”

Using baseline measurements, Rump and his team work with the dancers to establish peak performance rates & comprehensive records which can, if needed, be used to plan recovery, so that the dancer returns to the stage with, for example, a jump at the same height as they had before the injury. This gives the dancers vital confidence, with a clearly defined recovery plan, and prevents them from experimenting with a premature return to the stage, which might result in a worsening of the existing injury, or a new one.

Alina Cojocaru says of Rump, “he finds the weak link in the way you move and if it’s caught early enough, that can prevent so much.” Indeed, Cojocaru feels that her injuries might never have happened if she’d been working with sport science earlier in her career.

Cojocaru wraps things up nicely :”with strength comes control. With control comes freedom. With freedom comes enjoyment. Overall it’s a win-win situation.”



1. The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer, 1993
2. Outliers, Malcolm Galdwell, 2008
3. Relative phase alterations during bimanual skill acquisition. Journal of Motor Behavior, Lee,T. D., Swinnen, S. P., & Verschueren, S. (1995).
4. Hot House Kids, produced by Neil George, presented by Deborah Bull, BBC Radio 4

Outliers: The Story of Success (Paperback)

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Find out more about Patrick Rump & his team at GJUUM

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