Pilates has long been part of the professional dancers supplementary training. In fact, Joseph Pilates Studio in NYC was in the same building as NYC Ballet! At the time this was under the directorship of the great Balanchine!

It should come as no surprise that Pilates has loads of benefits for dancers!

Whether it be in a rehabilitation capacity after injury, working towards your strength goals or for injury prevention, Pilates improves your stability, flexibility, strength, body awareness and coordination!

See, there’s a reason all major Ballet companies in the world have Pilates studios and teachers in house.

A ballet class is fantastic at teaching technique and coordination. However, Dance Science shows us that alone, it is not enough to recreate the demands of performance.

This leaves dancers vulnerable to injury, especially when tired. Commonly, this results in failures of coordination.

Most of the injuries dancers get are around the lower limbs and are due to overuse. Expressed another way, you can argue that dancers aren’t robust enough for their workload!

The only way to combat that is to get stronger and utilise active recovery strategies!

If you are a dancer, Pilates is a great way to do this!

My name is Lorien Slaughter, and I am a physiotherapist and Clinical Pilates instructor at Complete Pilates. I trained as a dancer at the Royal Ballet school before performing with the English National Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet. After spending time with K-ballet in Japan, I retired as a principal from the English Youth Ballet after 5 years. This is where I began my road to becoming a physio and trained formally in Pilates.

This article aims to address the benefits of Pilates for dancers and demonstrate why it could be an important addition to your training and recovery programme.

How does Pilates help dancing?

1. Pilates enables you to move with assistance or against resistance!

Pilates, particularly equipment Pilates, makes use of tension from springs. This means that the resistance can either add load, or take it away.

By taking away resistance, you can help the body get into positions it may not normally be able to. This makes it an excellent choice if you have an injury.

With an injury you are likely to decondition which is a major problem. By using the springs for assistance, it means you can keep moving from the time of injury, right up until your return to performance.

During your recovery, the equipment can support areas of your body which need it. This allows you to do other Pilates exercises which target different areas of your body to maintain your strength.

Pilates benefits dancers by enabling them to support their body, learn new movements and repattern painful ones.

Repatterning painful movements is key as most of us suffer from niggles which we cannot get rid of!

Using the assistance of the springs can help us break down any movement patterns which may be contributing to your pain and then build your movement back up. The key thing is, you can do it whilst you are still performing!

Further down the line, the springs can then be set to resist movements. This will challenge the muscles and stability of joints.

Increasing the resistance is a great way of building strength. This helps your body to be injury proof, particularly when you fatigue.

Pilates exercises on the equipment is also another great way for ballet dancers to stretch muscles in a safe way.

By adding assistance with the springs, we can stretch close to, but not at your end of range. Because it is more comfortable, it allows the body to relax which means you can stretch without putting your joints at risk.

There’s a lot of work being done around stretching for dancers!

Research has found that eccentric strengthening (lengthening the muscles under load), is recommended as a good alternative to traditional passive stretching.

Isometric holds (a static movement against resistance) near end of range, has the advantage of strengthening the body at the end of your range.

Both of these mean that you are more likely to be stronger through a greater range of movement allowing you to really show your splits in a grand jete.

Advice around stretching will come down to the individual’s needs.

Anecdotally, I see a need for strength and control far more than I see a need for actual increases in range of movement.

Later on, I will explain a few great Pilates exercises which will use resistance and are great for dancers!

2. Improve your balance and stability

Pilates also benefits dancers by improving balance and stability

Pilates works through a range of hip rotation positions, not just the classic external rotation found in classical ballet classes. For instance, during Pilates footwork on the reformer, we can work with the feet turned in, parallel or turned out.

These are all positions that come up in choreography, but are rare in a ballet class.

Consequently, it allows you to train all the muscles around your hips and pelvis and work through a larger range. This in turn creates balance around the joint, protecting you from injury!

It also means you will find it easier to achieve the positions actively during choreography.

You will also find moving around in everyday life becomes easier, as your body is used to these different positions!

It is also very easy to do single leg work in a variety of positions, add unstable surfaces and reduce feedback on the Pilates equipment.

Using the springs to aid squats (grand plie) at the end of the trapeze table for example. Start on two legs and progress to a single leg variation and then build up to doing them without any assistance.

I often see dancers are great jumping off two legs but lack the strength when jumping off one leg.

Exercises like this will really help to build strength unilaterally.

3. Improve your core strength

Answering honestly, have you ever had sore abdominals from doing Ballet?

In a decade and a half of dancing professionally I never did. But I definitely needed a strong core when lifting my partner over my head!

There is no better technique for improving deep core stability and awareness out there than Pilates.

Pilates teaches us how to use our core musculature and also breathe whilst we do it.

In previous blogs we have spoken about how your abdominals play a key role in breathing. So, to work them effectively, you also need to breathe!

I see dancers holding their breath in class all the time and it definitely shows in their dancing!

Not breathing creates strain throughout the body.

This shows as stiffer movements or harder landings.

As well as looking undesirable, it also stops your body from feeling the subtleties it needs to for balance and stability. It literally will deaden your senses.

Breath is the first principle of movement. If you can’t breathe well, something’s not right.

Joseph Pilates knew this and reinforced it when he first developed his guiding principles: whole body health, whole body commitment and breath!

Considering a lot of his initial clientele was the New York Ballet, he knew that Pilates was incredibly important and had lots of benefits for dancers!

Pilates exercise for dancers

1. Footwork calf raises

Calf raises are a variation within footwork and are brilliant for strengthening the lower limbs.

As we have talked about, the majority of injuries dancers get are lower limb and due to overload.

In this exercise, you can load the body beyond body weight, which is all we work with in ballet class. This will help to make you more robust by increasing your load capacity.

To make this Pilates exercise specific for dancers, I like to target both the soleus and gastroc muscles by performing the movement on a bent and straight knee in parallel and turnout.

Start by lying on your back on the reformer with the balls of your feet on the bar. You can also use the jumpboard here and go onto pointe.

Start with 2 legs on 2-3 red springs. Ensure the knees are straight (pulled up), exhale to engage the core and perform a calf raise.

Repeat 12x for 3 sets and then do the same with a bent knee.

With a bent knee the angle at your knee should remain the same all the time and the carriage should still move up and down.

The options here are endless. However, progress should be progressive with a focus as always on placement and control. Start on 2-3 red springs double leg and progress to single leg, increasing the springs as you can. All your reps should be performed with good technique. From here the sky’s the limit!

Calf raises should be part of every dancer’s strength and conditioning regime.

You might need to modify the exercise, but unless you have a broken bone, stress fracture, posterior ankle impingement or very acute tendinopathy that does not tolerate the loading, this is a must!

With the runners we work with, we build them up to 25 full range single leg calf raises before we let them go back to running.

Since the forces in grand allegro are higher than running, I’d argue we need to be doing at least that!

How many can you do? Is it different left to right?

For a lot of dancers, it is probably not 25 and not the same on each leg.

However, by looking at this you now know which leg you need to work on and have something to aim for.

Try to build up the reps. About 10% a week is safe if not a conservative place to start.

2. Jumping on the jumpboard

Jumping is an incredible Pilates exercise for dancers for a number of reasons.

If we spring this exercise lightly, we challenge the core musculature and it’s quite the abdominal workout!

It also gives us more airtime where we can practice technique and batterie. This makes it ideal for training and teaching beats.

If we add some heavier springs, we can work on rebounding. This trains the tendons to store and release energy quickly, a property required for petite allegro and fast footwork.

Warm up on a red spring and start with some saute’s in parallel. Repeat for 16 repetitions then move into 1st and 2nd position. Repeat a further 16 times for each position.

Next, move to echappe which means to escape. It’s the 5th position we are escaping from. Try to explode to second where the feet should stop crisply just wider than the hips. It’s this clarity of movement we want to train.

The leg muscles have to accelerate the leg from 5th, then slow them to a stop without overshooting into a perfect 2nd.

An advanced drill is to open the legs to a demi-second hold for a millisecond and then open to the full 2nd position. This trains the ability to decelerate the leg sharply and to precise positions.

From here move to 5th position with your feet and perform an assemble. Make sure to brush your working leg a la second and then quickly join your supporting leg into 5th position in the air. The assemble part!

You then have to allow the feet to return underneath the hips to land as there’s obviously no travelling when you’re lying down.

When the assemble can be performed with the correct technique we can add beats.

Here we want to make sure that the 5th position opens enough in the air for the thighs to cross not just the feet and shins. From here the possibilities are endless.

You can also do single leg jumps to really challenge the body here! 

These exercises should always focus on form when performing the ballet steps.

If you want to work on strength and there isn’t the form, move to simpler steps like saute and changement where the technique will be more easily maintained.

Avoid any combinations where the technique can’t be corrected or reduce the spring support to allow for more air time to think.

3. Short box turnout series – internal and external rotation

External rotation

Internal rotation

The short box turnout series is one of my favourite exercises for improving the strength of the deep external rotators of the hip when the leg is devant.

This Pilates exercise is so important for dancers as it leads to a much better turnout and control in tendu, attitude and developpe when the leg is in front!

Start by using one blue spring and place the long box in the short box position on the reformer. Leave about 6 inches between the box and the shoulder pads.

Sit on the box with the working leg dangling over the side. The opposite leg should be resting on the reformer carriage between the shoulder pads and the box. Place the loop around the working ankle and reach your arms out in front of you.

On an exhale, internally rotate the leg through its full range of motion against the resistance of the spring.

Repeat 12 times on one leg

It’s really important for stability that the internal rotators are strong so they can work as antagonists for the external rotators!

Next, change legs to kneel on the footbar side of the short box. and swap the loop to the other ankle. On your exhale, externally rotate the leg through its full range.

Repeat 12 times on one leg

Repeat the whole series 3 times before changing to the other side.

Top tips

  • Think of the femur rotating in the hip socket to focus the movement to the hip joint.
  • Try to keep the pelvis relatively still
  • You can place your hands on your thigh to prevent it from flexing or moving side to side. This will mean you get true rotation.

Remember, the springs are designed in this exercise to challenge your strength and endurance! Aim to slowly increase the resistance but not at the sacrifice of form!

If you can’t hold good form on a blue drop to a yellow but be very careful getting on as the carriage will move very easily. There shouldn’t be any pain in the hip, just the feeling of muscles working!

I love that we can work through the full range of the hip rotation from maximum turnin to turnout in both directions in this exercise.

This Pilates exercise can also be modified to add pulses at different points in the range to work on areas you may be weaker in.

This exercise is not appropriate for beginner dancers until they have a good understanding of pelvic neutral. Otherwise we will just train strategies to cheat our turnout.

4. Scooter

The scooter is a fantastic exercise and can be modified in so many ways to challenge power, strength and stability.

By changing the body weight on the supporting leg from the heel to the ball of the foot we can move the work of the exercise onto either the standing leg for stability or the moving leg for power!

You can also modify the foot position on the shoulder pad. If you move the ball of your foot half way up the pad and reduce the spring tension to a very light spring (1 yellow), you can really challenge your control into extension.

Start with the body weight in the ball of the standing foot and hip hinge so the shoulders are over the toes. Try to keep your pelvis and spine in neutral.

Gently touch the foot bar, but like a ballet barre, it shouldn’t be gripped. Once you can do the exercise whilst maintaining neutral, you can remove one hand at a time to reduce your support and further challenge stability and balance.

Place the ball of the foot nearest the reformer on the shoulder pad near the top. In this position you should be in hip and knee flexion and the ankle is dorsiflexed (toes up towards your nose). Press the carriage backwards by extending the hip then knee. When the leg is fully straight, press into the ball of the foot and plantarflex the ankle.

This helps with the jumping mechanics found in ballet and allows us to focus on toe off to get those feet pointing! In reality, the toe off is mainly aesthetic as the power for jumping comes from the glutes and hamstrings.

Scooter should always be done slowly and with control first.

Make sure that you can maintain good alignment of the hip knee and foot. Ideally, they should be in line with your second toe. This is the same whether you are slightly rotated or not!

Just like in a ballet class, the hips and shoulders should remain square. If your second toe and patella had a light shining from them, they would both shine in the same direction.

If you can do this, you are ready to try some of the variations but only if you can maintain alignment throughout.

Another benefit is you can change the resistance! Try adding heavier springs (1 red and 1 blue) and hold onto the foot bar lightly. Move the carriage out with speed and bring it slowly back in.

This control will help you with single leg force production. Excellent for building power on the way out and control on the way in. This makes it perfect when training for jumps and landings.

This exercise isn’t appropriate for people with knee injuries early on in their rehab and again the faster more powerful movements should only be done when the slower versions can be done with good form.

5. Standing arm series: butterfly and twist

Standing arms on is an amazing Pilates exercise for dancers and works an area we often overlook!

This movement allows us to work on the stability of the shoulder complex. Because it is a long lever (straight arms), the connection requires a huge amount of stability at the shoulder joint and around the core.

This Pilates exercise has excellent benefits for dancers, particularly in pas de deux, where often the partnering is done by the wrists or hands.

Because you move through a large range of motion against resistance, it strengthens the shoulder muscles in some of the more extreme positions the arms go through during pas de deux.

There are a few variations of this exercise which are more specific for dancers.

Start with your back to the trapeze table, holding two long yellow springs by the loops or handles. The cross bar should be the height of your shoulders.

Place your arms by your side and walk out till you feel gentle resistance on the springs. At this point the arms should still be by your sides.

Gently press your hands into the resistance of the springs as they move to bra bra and at the same time, lean forwards (dorsiflex) from the ankle joints. There should now be enough resistance from the springs to maintain and feel the activation in your core and maintain control.

The key is to maintain the slight lean from the ankle.

From here, float the arms up to first position and open out to second position. Allonge as best you can and float back down to bra bra. Do a por de bras up to 5th with both arms and open out through second and down to bra bra.

Now we can get a bit more creative with the choreography.

Remember to think about the scapular and how they need to slide on and around the ribcage. This allows you to shine the joint in the direction the arm is pointing during your movements.

As always with stability work go slowly and make it as smooth as possible. Single arm work here is very challenging and great for trunk stability as well. This work is suitable for those doing pas de deux or preparing for it.

Pilates classes for dancers with Complete Pilates

At Complete Pilates, we specialise in excellent 1:1 studio Pilates  but do have options for online 1:1 and group classes. These are all designed to work for a range of abilities.

Within our team we boast some incredible instructors and both myself and Laurent Liotardo are ex-professional ballet dancers. This means we really do understand the demands placed of ballet dancers and really believe in the benefits of Pilates for this group.

For any dancer who is struggling to return from injury, or has niggles they cannot get rid of, we recommend our new client offer of two, 55 minute appointments for £100. This gives us time to assess your movement and see how we can help.

We are lucky enough to also work with a wider multi-disciplinary team so can refer you on if we think this is appropriate.

If you are not sure whether we can help you, or simply have questions about the benefits of Pilates for dancers, get in touch. We are really happy to talk to you and see whether we can help improve your movement!

Otherwise, why not book your initial assessment in the studio or online!

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Education is key:

These blogs are designed to give information to everyone, however, it is important to remember that everyone is different! If you have not seen one of our therapists and have any questions about injuries, what you have read or whether this may be useful to you, please just ask. We are more than happy to help anyone and point you in the right direction. Our biggest belief is that education is key. The more you understand about your injury, illness and movement, the more you are likely to improve.

If you are not sure whether this is for you, simply get in touch. We are here to help!