Photo by Angie Gray
As one of the most physically and mentally demanding sports, ballet promotes muscle growth, improves balance and sharpens problem-solving skills.
When it comes to tough workouts, ballet takes center stage.
Want to tone muscles without the gym membership? You might be surprised to learn that one of the hardest workouts can be done right in your living room. A study published in 1975 in the Journal of Sports Medicine that examined more than 60 activities ranked ballet as the most demanding physically and mentally (followed by bullfighting and football). Subsequent studies show similar findings, affirming that ballet improves strength, stamina, balance and agility, plus it sharpens coordination and problem-solving skills.
For Sara Neal—a lifelong ballerina who founded and directed the mid-Atlantic Ballet, and created her own collection of ballet accessories under the Green Ballerina label—ballet has also been a much-needed escape. “I use dance as my happy place,” says Neal, who likes to combine ballet with yoga, Pilates and meditation when she’s in her home studio. “Dance requires you to check your problems at the door and be present in the moment.… There’s something new and different every day, so it’s never boring, and always physically and mentally challenging.” Enjoyed one too many Dogfish brews at last night’s barbecue? “It’ll also sweat out the toxins,” Neal promises. Here, she demonstrates four key moves people of all ages and fitness levels can practice routinely to build better posture, poise and confidence. Mais C’est un pas de deux—so grab a chair as your partner.
Start in second position, with toes pointed outward and heels shoulder-width apart. “Essentially, it’s a bend and stretch,” Neal explains. As you raise your free arm over your head (the other one resting on the chair), bend—plié—so that knees extend just to your toes. Do four sets of eight, then add a relevé rise, coming up on your toes as you plié. Do another four sets of eight, then switch legs. “This is great for glutes, quads and calves, and also tones arms.”
Starting in first position, heels together and toes pointed outward, you’re going to extend your leg to the front, side and back, locking hips in place.
With toes pointed, sweep the floor as you move your leg to the front, then sweep your foot back to starting position. Repeat by sweeping leg to the side, back to starting position, then to the back. Do four sets of eight, then switch legs. Kick things up a notch by starting with a flexed foot, then lifting your leg to each side and pointing toes as you lower your foot to the ground. Hold your free arm above your head, across your chest or on your hip.
An important bar exercise for coordination, Neal says, fondu— from the French verb fondre— means “to melt.” Starting with your left foot turned outward and the right resting between the ankle and calf of your opposite leg, plié, then extend your right leg in front of you as you straighten your left leg. As leg moves up, lift your free arm out to the side. Bring your right leg back to starting position, along with your arm, then repeat to the side and back. Do four sets of eight, then switch legs.
This “big kick” is also done to the front, side and back. Starting with feet in fifth position and arms overhead or in second position (out to the sides), kick leg high to the front, toes pointed. Return to starting position, then repeat to the side and back, bending slightly forward as you kick back. Do four sets of eight, then switch legs.