Tutu optional!
Ballet fitness, the dream workout

By taking the fitness and dance elements of ballet into the group exercise studio, you can help participants build strength while tapping into their pirouette dreams, says Kayla Duke.

The grace and beauty of ballet inhabits many little girls’ dreams. When a gym ballet program was tentatively proposed at California Fitness, the level of interest among members surpassed expectation. I quickly realised that it is not only little girls who dream of the ballet, but grown women and men too. There is no shortage of dance studios catering to children and teenagers wishing to learn ballet, but for adults, especially those without previous experience, opportunities are hard to find. They say that if you can’t find what you want, invent it: so I did. I created the ‘Ballet Flow’ program to give people of any age and experience an opportunity to live a little of their ballet dream in a fun, non-judgmental, stress-free environment. The program has now been established for almost five years, and continues to attract good numbers of both regular and casual group exercise participants.

Ballet in the gym is not just about dreams, however. For my classes I draw on the rigorous physical training and performances from my own years in full-time ballet. I instruct participants in the fitness and physical skills vital to a professional ballet dancer; strength, flexibility, balance, posture and overall body awareness. The classes are simple to follow for beginners, but provide great scope for practice, development and improvement for the more committed participant.

The Ballet Flow class plan

The Ballet Flow class goes for one hour, and is typically structured:

  1. Warm up/Stretch – 15mins
  2. Class work in the centre – 15mins
  3. Travelling moves – 15mins
  4. Dance – 15mins.

This plan can be amended if a group needs more work in a particular area, but it is a good overall guide when getting a gym class started.

Warm up/Stretch

Lasting for one hour, Ballet Flow classes commence with a stretch to loosen up the body, lengthen the muscles and prepare for turnout of the legs. It is also judicious to do some abdominal exercises and back work to get the centre switched on for balance sequences later in the class. A typical sequence might look like this:

  1. Rotation of the hip and a hamstring stretch forward (photo 1)
  2. Similar stretch but also lengthening the side and rotating the waist (photo 2)
  3. Loosening of the hips and rotation of the back leg (photo 3)
  4. Deeper hip stretch and back extension, half or a full lean back (photo 4)
  5. Quadriceps stretch (photo 5).

Class work in the centre

Next up is ‘centre practice’ which is similar to a traditional ballet class except that all moves are done in the centre of the studio with no barre work. Each exercise is first instructed in slow motion so that every participant can get to grips with the positions before moving on to ‘perform’ to the music. I always use classroom classical ballet music that can be purchased at most ballet or dancewear shops (for a free taster of music suitable for ballet classes visit http://balletclassmusicforfree.com).

We start with a plié sequence (plié meaning a bend and stretch of the knees), as seen in the sequence below. We then move on to tendu (to point) to strengthen the feet and legs, and also work on correct ankle and hip placement. Throughout, we continually work on posture and alignment – all ballet dancers have great posture! The sequence is thus:

  1. Plié (photo 6)
  2. Tendu (photo 7)
  3. Transfer the weight forward (photo 8)
  4. Lengthen for a tendu at the back (photo 9).

Next is pirouette (to turn) preparation and then, if they are feeling confident and able, participants can add the turns the second time the sequence is performed.

We move on to balancing work (adage), shown below:

  1. Prepare (photo 10)
  2. Attitude (bent leg) (photo 11).

Travelling moves

From here we progress to travelling moves such as waltzing down the room, and sometimes jumps and even travelling turns can be included. As with all group exercise, it is important to read your class, gauge participant’s ability levels, and not take them too far too soon, as this can damage their confidence and scare them off. Ballet movements require a lot of coordination, as most involve the entire body, with arm moves, leg moves and the constant maintenance of perfect posture. At a higher level, the position of the head and even the expression of the face can be focused on.

Dance

After we finish the ‘class work’ we move into a dance. This is the stage to feel the music, get into the flow and embody the spirit of a ballet dancer. I like to use well-known classical ballet music that people can relate to, like Swan Lake, Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty.

The dance is made up of steps that were practised and performed in the class work, with a few extra steps added here and there to connect them.

Getting started

If you are an instructor with a dance background, you may be inspired to create your own gym ballet program. Another alternative is to seek out the services of a lateral thinking teacher from a ballet school. As in any exercise form, there is potential for injury through inappropriate instruction and monitoring, and it’s important to be aware that ballet presents some specific risks not encountered in other dance and exercise forms.

Participants can go barefoot, or wear socks or ballet shoes, which are inexpensive and more comfortable but certainly not a prerequisite. I see a range of outfits in my classes too, from regular gym wear to leotards and ballet tights. Some even bring skirts and tutus!

As an instructor, I find Ballet Flow to be a very rewarding experience. It is gratifying to see adult beginners growing stronger, improving flexibility, posture and balance, and gradually developing some skills in this exacting dance form. It seems that once they get hooked on the class there is no turning back. Maybe it’s that brief moment of tapping into their dreams and feeling like Margot Fonteyn or Rudolf Nureyev that keeps them coming back.


Kayla Duke
Currently based in Singapore, Kayla is group exercise country manager with California Fitness. She choreographs and instructs many programs, trains and assesses instructors and presents nationally and internationally. Australian Fitness Network’s Author of the Year 2010, Kayla regularly appears on television and in print and online fitness media.