Health through ballet: a pro weighs the pros and cons

Sunday, August 21, 2016 Stef dela Cruz, MD 0 Comments

Tutus, ballet shoes, leotards – I've worn all of them at one point in my life and I bet that many of you females out there have, too! Of course, I wear them only because they look great… not because I dance ballet.

Ballet Manila“Should I learn to do arabesques and pirouettes? Is ballet a great way to stay limber and fit, or is it too painful an art form?” I asked myself as I stared with awe at ballet posters in Aliw Theater.

Too many questions – and who better to enlighten me than the first Filipina to become a prima ballerina, Miss Lisa Macuja-Elizalde? (Spoiler: I'm also giving away one month’s worth of free classes at Ballet Manila!)


Bunions, broken toenails, and the beauty of ballet

I was given a certificate for a full month’s worth of free classes at Ballet Manila, which I will be giving away later. Meanwhile, let's get to what I've been itching to share with you the most: Miss Macuja-Elizalde’s answers to my questions about ballet!

Lisa Maguja-ElizaldeBad picture of a great moment: Miss Macuja-Elizalde shared how she wanted ballet to go mainstream in the Philippines.

If you've been wondering about whether to enroll your kids in ballet or not (or maybe you've been wondering if you could take classes yourself), her answers are exactly what you need to hear.


Q: Ballet comes with a lot of health benefits. What benefits does one enjoy as a ballerina?

“As a professional ballerina, you basically go to work to stay fit. Your job involves a lot of physical activity that generally results in a fit and trim body,” explained Macuja-Elizalde. “With dancers, you build leanness instead of bulk because of the stretching you do every day.”

As with most physical activities, endurance is improved. “You also develop stamina which, even after a dancing career, helps you with your work.”

Feeling good and de-stressing are added benefits. “Dancing is a stress buster. You get an endorphin rush every time [you] do a class, rehearse, or perform. Especially [with] performances, [you get] a lot of joy and fulfillment.”


Q: What injuries have you had in the past and how did these come about?

“Injuries are a part of a dancers life. I have had numerous sprains and strains that have sidelined my dancing because of either a fall or wear and tear.”

Macuja-Elizalde mentioned tendinitis and plantar fasciitis as common injuries. “I have [also] had stress fractures on my tibia from jumping. I have had to deal with shoulder tears as well from partnering and lifting.”


Q: There is a common notion in pop culture that the most common injuries in ballet include deformities of the toes. Is this an accurate assumption? What other injuries are common in ballet?

“It is normal to feel some discomfort when you are dancing, most especially as you age. Your muscles get weaker and the rate of recovery from a performance becomes longer,” she said.

“Ballerinas should expect to be able to live with pain. Painful or sore muscles would really be ‘normal’. Physical exhaustion is part of a dancer’s life.”

She has a good point: Living the life of a professional ballerina is tough. Principal ballerinas and dancers often push themselves to the limit to stay on top.

However, just because you dance ballet doesn't mean you have to suffer from physical exhaustion, especially if you're doing it just for fun without plans of dancing professionally. So, don't be too scared of being too tired after every class! You can do it at your own pace if it gets too hard for you – just don't expect to dance a really difficult Tchaikovsky number if you're not willing to take the proverbial beating.

There are many sources online that provide safety guidelines in ballet, including advice from on when to begin pointe work.

As for the common notion of deformed toes among ballerinas, Macuja-Elizalde begged to differ. “I wouldn’t say deformities of the toes, really, but calluses in your toes and feet, just as a construction worker has calluses in their hands from manual labor. Bunions also are quite common.”


Q: What injuries are feared most by ballerinas and dancers?

Dangerous injuries, such as twisting or tearing one’s knees or any other joint, can potentially end a career in ballet. “I once watched a dancer land from a jump and tear his knee apart. He had to be carried off the stage and straight to the hospital for surgery. I would think that joint injuries are the [worst] kind.

“Thankfully, I haven’t had any spinal or back injuries. The worse injury so far has been to my hip [when I developed] painful hipbone spurs that needed to be polished.”


Q: How can one enjoy ballet while minimizing these injuries?

“Any form of physical activity involves some kind of risk for injury to your body. It is part of life, really. You can’t enjoy your dancing if you don’t develop a strong technique, muscle strength, and control.”

Her message: It is worth the risk. “It is worth it. Dancing has brought me such joy and satisfaction. It has given me emotional – almost spiritual – rushes that made me forget the pain. [It’s kind of like giving birth: After you hold your baby in your arms, you forget all those hours of labor you had to go through.”

The best way to minimize injuries, she said, was to have correct and strong technique. “Prevention by being safe with correct technique is still the best way to dance.”


Want one month worth of free ballet classes?

Now, the fun part: free classes at Ballet Manila! Head over to Life and Fever for the mechanics.

Stef dela CruzAbout the blogger
Stef dela Cruz is a vegan doctor and writer. She received the 2013 Award for Health Media from the Department of Health. She is the editor of The Manila Bulletin's Animal Scene Magazine. Get in touch if you want to invite her as a speaker!