Figure Skating and Ballet: A Critical Link
By: Anne Bak Marine, Coordinator for the Dance Academy at the Detroit Skating Club, BFA in Dance; and Jodie Balogh Tasich, National and International Coach and Choreographer at Detroit Skating Club

Who Knew — Ballet for Injury Prevention?!
By: Anne Bak Marine, Detroit Skating Club Off-ice Dance Coordinator, BFA in Dance; and Alexandra Patterson Tichy, PT, DPT, Beaumont Physical Therapy

Figure skaters often make their way into a ballet class for one of two common reasons: 1. Improve posture, or 2. Develop graceful, “pretty” arms. In fact, ballet technique class serves an additional incredibly important purpose: injury prevention. This article seeks to further the understanding of exactly how ballet class strengthens the skater’s body and improves flexibility to avoid common skating-related injuries.

The sport of figure skating places high demands on the athlete’s body often leading to the development of overuse injuries. A study by Fortin and Roberts looked at the incidence of injuries in competitive figure skaters and found that the most common site of injury was the ankle.1 Increasing strength, stability and proprioceptive awareness in the ankle can help prevent ankle injuries. Proprioception refers to the ability of the body to know where it is in space. Proprioceptive awareness in the ankle is an important preventive measure against ankle sprains.

So how does ballet impact ankle strength, stability, and proprioceptive awareness? Ballet class follows a codified tradition and structure. All ballet classes involve barre exercises and center exercises each building upon the one before to develop optimal strength and flexibility in the body. The tendu, dégagé (also known as glisse), and frappe barre exercises in particular develop foot and ankle strength by activating the musculature from the top of the leg through the tips of the toes. These exercises call for complete articulation of the whole foot and ankle with each movement. Moreover, these exercises are performed in three directions (front, side, back) AND on both sides of the body. Proprioceptive awareness develops by properly executing the movement to the side and back without visual referencing.

In addition, petite allegro exercises performed in the center of the room without the assistance of the barre further develop power and strength. These exercises involve small jumps on both feet or one foot in a quick and repetitive motion (i.e. petit sauté, changement, echappe, jete, temps levee). Moreover, grande allegro exercises performed traveling across the floor involve jumps with large, full body locomotor movement (i.e. grand jete, tour jete, foutte sauté).

Finally, prolonged balancing (10-15 seconds) on one or two legs also improves ankle strength, stability, and proprioception. Balance positions in ballet class can be performed either flat-footed or on the ball of the foot with the heel elevated as high as possible while balancing on the ball of the foot (releve). Most barre exercises conclude with a prolonged balance typically in releve position and often on one leg. All of the center exercises also require a significant balance component within their structure.

The study by Fortin and Roberts also determined a high incidence of low back injuries in competitive figure skaters.1 Common low back injuries in figure skaters include lumbar strains, facet pain, posterior iliac crest injuries, spondylolysis, spondylolisthesis and sacroiliac joint dysfunction.2 These injuries are often the result of repeated unilateral loads from always landing jumps on the same leg, and repetitive axial and torsional loading in a hyperextended posture as required by the sport of figure skating.1,2 Correct posture and alignment with activation of the pelvic/spinal stabilizer muscles allow for better distribution of forces throughout the spine and pelvis when performing elements on the ice and can therefore lead to decreased chance of injury. Dynamic single leg balance exercises, as performed in ballet, require activation of the deep pelvic/spinal stabilizer muscles.

The focus on correct posture and alignment in ballet demands activation of the pelvic/spinal stabilizer muscles. Ballet technique requires constant activation of these muscles throughout the entire class. Too often, skaters and young dancers believe that the ballet teacher asks them to “pull in your stomach” because a small waistline is attractive. The real reason couldn’t be further from the truth. Ballet teachers ask their students to activate the abdominal muscles (a.k.a. “stomach muscles”) so the students can effectively execute the exercises at the barre or center. Ballet class then serves as an effective bridge between the weight room and the ice. In ballet class, skaters learn how to effectively activate and utilize their abdominal muscles leading to improved translation onto the ice.

Ballet class also provides a safe environment for improving flexibility. Many figure skating elements require extreme flexibility, and skaters often push themselves to achieve these positions by sacrificing correct alignment and technique. Ballet focuses on improving flexibility while maintaining the correct alignment and technique. Just like a yoga class, ballet class barre exercises are designed to provide both a strength-building and a flexibility-building component. While the skater activates part of the body through a movement sequence (i.e. high leg extensions as in develop and fondue), the core body muscles are engaged for stability. Additionally, the stabilizer muscles of the standing, or non-moving leg, get a workout especially when this type of barre exercise is performed in releve.

Finally, figure skaters often develop muscular imbalances secondary to the demands of the sport. Some of the imbalances are a result of skaters spending numerous hours training jumps, spins and footwork elements in one direction. Landing jumps always on the same leg further exacerbates the imbalance. Ballet offers the opportunity for skaters to train evenly on both sides of the body and practice turns in both directions to help offset those muscle imbalances. EVERY exercise in ballet is trained on both sides of the body.

A well-balanced off-ice training program including ballet and strength and conditioning classes can help prevent many of these overuse injuries by developing strength and flexibility in the body to offset the sport specific muscular imbalances. A well rounded on and off ice training program should include weekly ballet class.

1. Fortin JD and Roberts D. Competitive figure skating injuries. Pain Physician 2003; 6:313-318.
2. Porter EB, Young CC, Niedfeldt MW, Gottschlich LM. Sport-specific injuries and medical problems of figure skaters. Wisconsin Medical Journal 2007; 106(6):330-334.

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