Is Ballet a Sport?

Though ballet is often thought of as an art form more than a physical pursuit, it is actually both. When examined carefully, it’s clear that ballet can be considered a sport that’s as difficult and potentially hazardous as any other. If you’re engaged in ballet or working with a young aspiring ballet dancer, it’s important to fully understand the challenges of this sport and how these are best approached to ensure good physical health and avoid potentially career-ending injuries.

What is a Sport?

Ballerina On Pointe
Image via Unsplash by @nihaldemirci

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a sport is defined as any activity where:

  • Skill is required.
  • Physical exertion takes place.
  • Individuals or teams compete against one another.
  • The activity is entertaining.

By this definition, ballet would not qualify as a sport unless some form of competition was involved. However, there are many other definitions of “sport” that are less specific. The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary offers a looser definition, calling a sport a source of diversion or a physical activity engaged in for pleasure. In this instance, ballet would certainly qualify as a sport.

The Time Commitment of Ballet

For some, the distinction between a sport and art is related primarily to the physical effort involved in the pursuit. Kansas City Ballet compares professional ballet dancers to the finest Olympic athletes, stating that students should be taking 10 to 15 classes a week by the age of 15 if they want to pursue this career path.

Professional ballerinas typically engage in a wide variety of exercises to equip them for their dance routines. This may include cardio, weight training, core exercises, and stretching. These ballerinas often practice daily for around 10 hours a day. The time commitment of pursuing ballet as a career is quite comparable to the time spent in professional sports like football or baseball, if not longer.

Ballet’s Physical Demands

Ballet requires a great deal of strength, flexibility, and control. This activity is as difficult as any sport, and in many cases is even more challenging. Consider Kathleen Martin’s performance in Swan Lake which involved 64 spins known as fouettes, or the “Waltz of the Flowers” which requires eight full minutes of standing en pointe.

Professional ballet dancers see notable changes in their bodies and physical capabilities from the strenuous training that they go through. Compared to non-professional dancers, those at the professional level of ballet:

  • Have greater hip strength.
  • Achieve higher vertical jumps.
  • Experience lower demands on their hearts during aerobic activity.
  • Have a higher degree of flexibility.

The physical demands of ballet put a great deal of strain on dancers’ bodies. Proper care is as important for these athletes as for any other. A preventative program can help ballerinas maintain flexibility and prevent injury. Dancer Madison Campbell said, “Our bodies are our instrument. Those are our tools. That’s the same as football players, they’re using their bodies as an instrument, as a tool, to get to where they need to be in the game.” Considered this way, it’s clear that ballet is very much a sport of its own.

Making Ballet Look Easy

One of the reasons that ballet is sometimes considered more of an art than a sport is the way that it’s presented. Ballet dancers strive to make the dance look easy, even though it’s very difficult. Part of the job of a ballet dancer is to maintain steady breathing and a calm facial expression. While those on the football field can readily show their exertion, it’s the job of the dancer to conceal this.

Professional ballet dancers also strive to maintain a certain physique that’s not traditionally associated with athleticism. While ballet dancers do perform strength training, they do so in a way that’s meant to keep their muscles long and lean. They strive not to bulk up because creating long slender lines is part of the art of ballet. Though this is a very athletic endeavor, it’s one that’s neatly dressed up to appear smoother, simpler, and easier than it actually is.

The Lifespan of a Professional Dancer

As with other types of professional athletes, dancers face a fairly short-lived career. The average career for a professional athlete is about 10 years, according to HuffPost. This sees professional football, basketball, and baseball players retiring somewhere in their 30s. The same is true of professional dancers, who will typically see their career end around the age of 35. Professional ballet dancers rarely work into their 40s.

These sports all leave their participants in need of a second career when their first career ends. Ballet dancers often go on to teach ballet, open their own dance studios, or work as choreographers to further the opportunities for others in this sport. 

Potential Hazards of Ballet

Ballet dancers are at a higher risk for many injuries due to the nature of this extremely physical sport. Ballet dancers are susceptible to:

  • Stress fractures.
  • Tendinosis.
  • Ankle sprains.
  • Lower back pain.
  • Ankle impingement.
  • Snapping hip.
  • Patellofemoral pain syndrome.
  • Disc injury.
  • Pars injury.

Professional ballet dancers often face barriers to treatment that prevent them from getting the care they need to keep their bodies in prime condition. Some of these barriers include the cost of treatment, fear of unemployment if they admit injury, time constraints, and judgment from others in the dance industry.

Physical therapy for dancers is a valuable tool that can help these athletes recover fully from their injuries and retain full use of their bodies. Many dancers begin young while their bodies are still developing, which makes proper physical therapy and medical care even more important for a long and successful career in dance. Specialists with experience working with dancers are particularly well-suited to assist those engaged in the challenging sport of ballet.

If you’re dealing with foot or ankle injuries as a result of ballet, contact Gurness Podiatry & Sports Medicine and ask about our dance medicine programs. Dr. Schoene can offer actionable advice to help you continue with this sport safely while giving your body the care and attention that it needs.