A pianist sits in the corner of a large, bright studio circumscribed by mirrors and windows that run from floor to ceiling on the 19th story overlooking State Street. His classical accompaniment sets the tone for about two dozen Ballet Chicago dancers rehearsing in perfect unison.
Each dancer, with one hand resting on the waist-high barre and the other raised gracefully above the shoulder, dip back until their heads nearly touch the ground. The stretch warms up their back muscles and preps them for a regimen of difficult steps that lie in the hours ahead.
The arabesque leaves the dancer standing on one leg with the other fully extended behind the body.
The fouette means turning on the toes of of one leg.
Yet beyond a legion of fans, ballet still faces stereotypes as a “weak” or “effeminate” form of dance.
It is often parodied in pop culture as the epitome of fragility: thin female dancers who don’t eat enough or male dancers who are incapable of playing a more “traditional” sport. Yet the demands, the sacrifices, the pain and the sheer toughness required of dancers at the elite level puts many other sports to shame.
“It’s absolute murder,” said Cyrus Bridwell, a second-year Ballet Chicago student who performs with the studio company.
Before he took up ballet at the age of 15, Bridwell, now 20, had excelled in baseball, soccer and snowboarding. Ballet, however, is a different animal.
“This is 10 times harder,” Bridwell said. “It’s the most physically demanding thing I have ever done in my life. Hands down.”
Dancers in the professional division at Ballet Chicago train six days a week, sometimes for six hours a day. Bridwell spends an additional two to three hours each day working out and strengthening his core in order to handle the rigors of classes, rehearsals and performances.
The precious few remaining hours of the day are spent recovering and preparing for the next day’s routine. Ballet Chicago student Talita Rubio regularly works with a massage therapist to soothe the pains that have become a constant in her life.
“It’s permanent,” Rubio said of the pain. “It doesn’t go away. You just need to deal with it. When I wake up, it’s like ‘I’m so sore, I’m so tired,’ and you’re like, ‘Why do I do this to myself?’”
Rubio, 27, quit her job and her college education in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and came to Chicago in 2010 to “follow the dream.” She spoke very little English, she didn’t have any friends or family in the city, and for the first year, she lived with other dancers in an attic.
While her English has certainly improved, she still hopes and waits for her first break in the business. A shin splint last year sidelined her for six months and she spent her recovery at home in Brazil.
“When I came back, my first week was horrible,” Rubio said. “I felt terrible. I wanted to do things my body didn’t allow me to do. It’s really hard to get back in shape.”
As a result, Rubio missed her chance to audition in February with professional ballet companies. She hopes to try again next year.
Dr. Lisa Schoene, a podiatrist, and Dr. Brian Marion, a chiropractor, work with Ballet Chicago to help dancers recover from injuries as well as prevent them. Depending on the severity of the injury, which can typically includes sprains, contusions and fractures, the doctors must determine the length of rest away from ballet.
“They’re very sensitive with us,” Rubio said. “They never rush us back.
“Here, it’s a school, so you can have all the time you need,” she added. “But if you’re in a company, if you are out for too long, someone is going to take your place. So that’s why dancers think, ‘I need to recover fast.’”
A study published in the February 2013 issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health revealed the climbing rates at which children are injured in all types of dance, including ballet, jazz, tap, modern, break dance and ballroom dance.
The study found that from 1991 to 2007, an estimated 113,000 youth, ages 3-19, were treated for dance-related injuries in the emergency room. Furthermore, the annual number of injuries jumped 37 percent from 6,175 ER visits in 1991 to 8,477 injuries in 2007.
Lead author Kristin Roberts, a senior research associate at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, said 12 percent of those injuries come from ballet.
“It’s estimated that millions of children participate in ballet,” she said. “And parents often enroll a young dancer in ballet first before any other type of dance.”
What’s causing the uptick in the number of injuries per year? Roberts said it might be the growing number of youth taking dance.
“We can speculate the increase in injuries is likely a combination of factors, including an increased interest as well as participation in dance,” she said. “In recent years, dance-related television shows and video games have become more popular, so that may have caused the increase in interest. If that interest is still high, the more people are participating and there’s more potential for injury.”
Roberts also noted that four out 10 dancers who reported injuries were between the ages of 14 and 19.
“We believe this age group was injured most because, as [dancers] gets older, they are able to get more advanced in their skills and are spending more time training and practicing,” she said. “With that said, we still want to encourage children and adults dancing. It is a great form of physical activity. We just want to make sure that they’re doing it safely. Staying hydrated, stretching, getting plenty of rest are all things that can help dancers avoid injury.”
Dan Duell opened the doors to Ballet Chicago as a professional company 25 years ago. A classical ballet dancer for 15 years in New York, Duell received tutelage under George Balanchine, widely considered the most influential choreographer of the 20th century.
In 1995, Duell opened a school for youth and burgeoning enrollment pushed him to focus more on teaching. The School of Ballet Chicago, which enrolls about 400 students ages 3 and up, is one of the few that’s licensed to instruct students using Balanchine’s techniques.
Children begin by learning to move to music while developing coordination, muscular strength, flexibility and balance.
“It looks like it’s only muscle development, but even as they just learn the basics, things about posture and how to stretch their feet and how to hold themselves, they’re always doing it in rhythm, they’re always working in groups,” Duell said. “They’re still learning things like patterns and rhythm and teamwork. All those are kind of a built-in part of learning how to dance at the very early stages.”
At age seven, students are taught the basic steps of ballet and by age 10, the girls are strengthening their feet, ankles and legs in preparation for pointe work – dancing on the tips of their toes.
Dancing en pointe opens the door for a potential laundry list of foot injuries: bunions, contusions, plantar fasciitis, hammer toes and tendinitis, among others. But Duell says that proper technique, exercise and rest will almost always prevent injury.
“A part of their education is learning to recognize the sore muscles that are just building and growing and the only way they can do that is to get sore and then get stronger, and then they’re used to testing their stamina on a daily basis,” Duell said. “You know that’s the only way you can become strong is to work yourself until you’re tired and then your body recovers. And when it recovers it has gotten stronger. They’re very used to doing that.”
Duell and his wife, Patricia, are in tune with their students enough to know how to spot whether a dancer is hiding his or her injuries. It’s also a dancer's responsibility to determine whether to perform through an injury or whether that injury presents too great a risk that they must shut it down.
“We can’t get inside your body to know everything every second, but we can see, for example, the dancers not lifting a leg as high or they’re not moving as complete as they normally do,” Duell said. “Generally speaking, we can tell if there is anything wrong.”
Ballet Chicago’s director of external relations, Bob Bondlow, enjoyed a mostly injury-free professional career in the 1980s. He observed that injuries were often tied to fatigue.
“Your body is pretty resilient and, in many ways, it just seems to avoid injuries,” Bondlow said. “But when you get tired, the reaction time of your muscles are probably just not there.”
Bondlow speculated whether injuries might be occurring more frequently toward the end of a long workout.
“You’re not doing 100-yard sprints at the end of a long workout,” he said. “You don’t do that. You tailor your workout accordingly, whether it’s rehearsals or performances.”
But ballet is different, said Jake Laub, a former Ballet Chicago student. It requires one to constantly push himself beyond bodily limits he didn’t know existed: performing three rotations in the air instead of two, extending the leg 120 degrees instead of 110 degrees, or vertically leaping 30 inches instead of 25.
“Every day pushes you to the max physically,” Laub said. “Dance is about extremes. I mean, you’re reaching to the end of your line and beyond. And that’s what makes it beautiful is that energy.”
For many dancers, particularly at the elite level, the “end of the line” is rarely a conscious decision. In other words, it only comes when their bodies tell them so.
“The point you say, ‘Enough,’ is when you hit the ground,” Bridwell said. “That’s about it – when you physically cannot go anymore.
“But that limit is a lot further than you think it is,” he added. “You can go for hours beyond what you think you’re able to.”
The 21st century is an exciting time for ballet, said Duell, because dancers have more resources at their disposal than ever before.
“Ballet dancers have always been incredibly athletic,” Duell said. “What I would say is, a great deal of knowledge about diet and nutrition, wellness and most injury prevention and the care of the body, all those areas of knowledge have progressed at a fantastic rate the past 20, 30 years.”
Rubio wishes she could speak to herself from 10 years ago and tell her what she knows now, such as how to position herself for different steps or how to pace herself and store her energy.
“Now I understand much more about my body and where I need to put the right amount of force or what I can manage to make things work,” she said. “Every year, every month, we learn something new about our bodies.”
At the end of the day, however, one thing never changes. When the music starts, the lights flash on and the cue is given, ballet dancers must step on the stage and perform with a smile. That’s the moment they live for, the moment they can forget everything else.
“Even when you have pain, and you have blisters and your toes are terrible or whatever, when you’re on the stage, you just forget about everything,” Rubio said. “You don’t feel pain. You don’t feel anything. It’s just magical. It’s really nice.”