Ballet is a beloved art form that has been around for centuries and remained a popular part of culture. But there’s much about it that lots of people do not know. Here, then, we reveal some of the most surprising facts about the dance and the ballerinas that regularly perform it.
40. A lot of work goes into creating a tutu
The tutus that ballerinas wear for their performances take a lot of time and energy to make. In fact, they each involve 300 feet of material, take around four days of work to produce and can cost as much as $2,000 to own. And the high prices all adds up because dancers get through up to 150 tutus in their careers.
39. Ballerinas get through two or three pairs of shoes each week
One of the biggest costs in ballet is the shoes. Ballerinas typically go through pointe shoes at a rate of three a week. Sometimes, a pair won’t even last a night for a principal dancer in a production such as Swan Lake. The Ballet Theatre in Pittsburgh once revealed that it spends $100,000 each year on just shoes for its dancers.
38. No performance is ever the same
Dancers are used to performing the same ballet night after night. But far from being repetitive, it’s actually different every single time. Furthermore, the fact that each show is unlike the last is a major motivation for Scottish Ballet’s principal ballerina Sophie Martin. “It’s important to have the balance when you are performing so many evenings of the same ballet,” she told City Academy.
37. Ballerinas’ toes take three times their body weight
Being en pointe doesn’t just look impressive – it’s also an incredibly difficult skill to master. That’s because of the strain that it places on a dancer’s toes. Whenever a ballerina is en pointe, you see, she is carrying three times the weight of her body on just her big toe. Those are certainly some strong pinkies!
36. Audiences love tutus
There’s just something about tutus that adds to the magic of the ballet. Apparently, the elaborate garments have even been found to elevate the mood of an audience. It was determined that 60 percent of people watching a ballet production had a surge of elation upon seeing a tutu on the stage.
35. Ballerinas travel the globe
It’s not unusual for professional ballet dancers to go all over the globe for performances. For some, including Birmingham Royal Ballet’s former principal dancer Nao Sakuma, this is one of the best things about the job. But ballerina Alessandra Ferri admitted that as a mother of two children, traveling made achieving work-life balance difficult. “I had the guilt of leaving them,” she told The Telegraph in 2017.
34. An average ballet dance lasts four hours
A single ballet performance lasts approximately four hours on average. So it’s no surprise, then, that each time a dancer gets on stage, they need a lot of energy. In fact, for every show, ballerinas use the equivalent energy to running a whopping 18 miles or playing two whole soccer games.
33. Male ballet dancers lift between one and 1.5 tons during performances
Male ballet dancers have to be in peak physical condition, especially as far as their core, arms and legs go. That’s because the weight of ballerinas they lift is the equivalent of between one and one and a half tons each show. By contrast, a weightlifting competition would see the heaviest male competitors lift a total of around half a ton across two events.
32. Ballerinas have to eat well to refuel
Far from the idea that ballerinas hardly eat, they actually have to consume enough nutrients to refuel. And that includes plenty of carbohydrates. Ballet Black Senior Artist Sayaka Ichikawa explained to City Academy that dancers often go out for a big meal after the end of a performance. After all, they not only need to replenish, but they also require the energy for practice the following day.
31. Pointe shoes aren’t ready to wear
Before they can be worn, pointe shoes have to be broken in. And there are several ways to achieve this. Dancers typically smack the shoes against the floor, use a razor to shave the sole and squeeze them using a door. They also rely on one person to make every pair of their shoes so that they are always the same.
30. Male ballet dancers get through a lot of tights
It’s not just pointe shoes that get worn out at lightning speed. The tights worn by male ballet dancers also tend to last for a surprisingly short duration. In their professions, it’s estimated that male ballet dancers go through a staggering 4,000 sets of them. That’s a whole lot of lycra!
29. Only a minor number of ballet students make it professionally
Many people grow up dreaming of becoming a ballerina, but few actually make it as professionals. The Royal Ballet’s lower school, White Lodge, is one of the most elite educational institutes in Britain, with 1,000 applicants competing for just 25 places. And of those hopefuls that make it, only a quarter will go on to graduate from the upper school. From there, even less actually make it into the Royal Ballet.
28. There’s a lot of training involved
It’s no secret that a significant amount of training goes into being a professional ballet dancer. But did you know that ballerinas train for as many as ten years and often take over 20 hours of lessons each week? What’s more, getting ready for a performance can demand a whopping 5,000 hours of rehearsals.
27. Ballerinas can jump a combined height of 900 feet in a performance
Ballerinas are known for making impressive moves look effortless on the stage. That’s right: audiences often see them jumping to great heights. And they can leap a combined height of 900 feet during their shows. In fact, that is almost the height of the Eiffel Tower, which stands at 1,063 feet, including its antenna.
26. Women weren’t always allowed to dance ballet
Ballet existed for more than a century before women were able to perform it. That’s because it was only in 1681 that they were first allowed to dance in public. Until that time, the female parts in performances that are now taken on by ballerinas were instead danced by younger men.
25. Dancers can’t wash their costumes
Because so much work goes into hand-making tutus, they can’t be washed in between shows in case the intricate work gets damaged. So dancers have come up with another method to help keep their costumes fresh. Instead of being cleaned, then, the garments are hung up after each show and misted with freshening spray.
24. Ballerinas put rosin on their shoes to stop them from slipping
How do ballerinas keep from slipping on the stage in their pointe shoes? They use rosin, which is also favored by string musicians and baseball players to improve grip. Interestingly, the hard pointe of the footwear is actually made by packing cardboard and fabric tightly together. The tips are then strengthened with glue.
23. Police officers have taken ballet lessons
Have you ever thought that there’s a connection between the work that ballet dancers do and that of police officers? Well, that’s the belief in Romania. Members of the Romanian police force have even taken ballet lessons. Supposedly, it’s thought that this could help them conduct traffic while remaining elegantly poised.
22. Romeo and Juliet was the first ballet to win an Olivier Award
Every year, the Laurence Olivier Awards mark the biggest achievements in British theater. And the first-ever ballet to claim one of the prestigious honors was the London Festival Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliet that took place at the London Coliseum. The prize was awarded to the company in 1977.
21. Ballet productions started out in France
Ballet performances began in France with the establishment of the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661. But it didn’t take long for the dance to become popular in Russia and Italy. Which explains why the terminology used in ballet typically comes from French and Italian – as well as why Russian composer Tchaikovsky is behind Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. Other nations where the art form is popular include the United States, United Kingdom, Cuba and the Netherlands.
20. Ballet dancers used to wear heavy costumes
When ballet performances first started out, it was difficult for the dancers to move about the stage. That’s because they would wear heavy and ornate clothing. But ballerina Marie Camargo changed that in the 1720s by shortening her ballet dress so that it did not cover her ankles. That decision also allowed moves of greater complexity to be carried out.
19. King Louis XIV of France’s ballet master created these steps
King Louis XIV of France loved dance and enjoyed performing ballet himself. In fact, it was his ballet master, Pierre Beauchamps, who created the five core footwork positions still used today back in the 1700s. He came up with these moves to ensure the weight of a dancer could be equally proportioned around her body.
18. Ballet companies are focusing on health
Attempting to put an end to the association between ballet and dangerous eating habits, many dance companies are now focused on employing people with healthy body types. Others have also been working with nutritionists and physical therapists to ensure dancers have a positive diet and fitness regime. And the Royal Danish Ballet makes a conscious effort to support dancers seen to have an unhealthy relationship with food.
17. Getting pointe shoes is a major step
Going en pointe is a huge moment for any ballet dancer. But because the shoes can cause injuries to someone who is new to wearing them, it’s something that has to be approached with caution. Indeed, it’s advised that girls do not go en pointe until they are aged ten or 11 at least. Some individuals have even suggested that it’s better to wait until they are 12.
16. Most professional dancers retire between 30 and 40
Ballet dancers start training at a young age, but it’s typically a short-lived career. In the 1980s, for example, ballerinas retired at the age of 40 on average. And the following decade that number dropped to 29. This is because the job is just so tough on the body. But those who retire may go into choreography, teaching, running a ballet company or even dance photography.
15. Ballet first began as court entertainment
So how did ballet start out? Though it may have been popularized in France, the dance actually originated in Italy back in the 1500s. There, it was performed by courtiers to entertain members of the royal courts, rather than using professional dancers. It later became a formal dance in France after Henry II, the French King, married Italy’s Catherine de Medici.
14. The trapeze artist Jules Léotard gave his name to the leotard
Jules Léotard was a French acrobat known for creating the flying trapeze routine. Although he was only 28 when he died, he was nevertheless hugely popular in the 1860s. As a result, the leotard is named after him. He always wore a tight-fitting one-piece outfit to help him be streamlined for his act as well as showing off his figure.
13. Ballet rehearsals are always accompanied by a live pianist
Live music doesn’t just occur during performances. Instead, a pianist accompanies all classes and rehearsals held by ballet companies. Violinists did used to do this, too, but pianists took over in the 1800s. It’s not only beneficial for the dancers, mind you; it’s also a way for the musicians to become well-versed in ballet jargon.
12. Ballerinas have a high pain threshold
Wearing pointe shoes is extremely painful for a ballerina. And that’s why it’s said that ballet dancers have a pain tolerance three times than that of civilians. What’s more, they have to keep their toenails long while sporting the footwear, as in-grown nails occur more frequently when they’re short.
11. The Nutcracker was not liked by Russian audiences – or Tchaikovsky himself
Today, it’s a classic. But when The Nutcracker made its debut in 1892, the Russian audience was not impressed. Critics ridiculed the ballet and Tchaikovsky admitted that the public was “bored.” Even the composer himself was not in love with the show, and he lamented, “The ballet is infinitely worse than Sleeping Beauty, of this I’m sure.”
10. Ballerinas can perform a lot of turns
Fouetté turns come from the French word for “whipped.” The term describes what happens when dancers use speedy movements of the leg to turn. Prima ballerinas are able to do this action 32 times in a row during productions of Swan Lake. Rowena Jackson held the Guinness World Record for doing 121 consecutively, and Suzanne Farrell revealed in her autobiography that she could do 114, one after the other, at the age of 14.
9. Ballet dancers have a trick to keeping their balance
When performing turns, balance is key. So some ballet theaters have come up with a way to help dancers stay poised during difficult moves. They have in fact installed blue-colored lights, located to the rear of the audience, designed to be spots for ballerinas to place their focus on while turning.
8. Ballet dancers used to wear masks
Italy is famous for its masquerades and the commedia dell’arte – a type of theatre that involves masked characters telling stories without using their facial expressions. And in its early days, ballet took inspiration from the popular genre. That’s why ballerinas used to wear masks during their performances. However, it also meant that they didn’t perform such elaborate steps.
7. Ballet used to be mixed with opera
While some people prefer the opera, others love the ballet. But it used to be the case that there was no need to choose. When ballet started out in the royal courts, you see, it was frequently combined with opera. Nowadays, the art form stands alone, accompanied by just instrumental music rather than singing.
6. Ballerinas do their own hair and makeup
Hair and makeup for a performance takes a lot of preparation – but dancers have to do it all themselves. “We get a lesson when we first join the company, and then we’re pretty much just left on our own from there,” ballerina Olivia Boisson told Women’s Health in 2017. In fact, it’s believed to take a total of 400 hours to style all the buns for a single show.
5. Here’s how much ballet dancers earn
It may be a tough job, but becoming a ballerina does not mean earning a high salary right away. In fact, in 2009, the Royal Ballet’s second-year corps dancers earned only £22,000 ($30,600) per year. That is the equivalent of a starting salary as a holiday planner, nurse or marketing officer, for example.
4. The world’s biggest ballet school has thousands of students
Of the many ballet schools around the world, the largest is Cuba’s National Ballet School in Havana. Today, around 3,000 students are taught there – but that number can be as high as 4,350. Yet although the pupils are selected based on their dance skills, they don’t have to pay a dime to study there.
3. The oldest performing ballerina was 71
Although most ballerinas have retired by the age of 40, that was not the case for Charin Yuthasastrkosol. In fact, she only started learning ballet when she was 47 years old. She even went on to land the Guinness World Record in 2002 for being the oldest performing ballerina at the age of 71.
2. Misty Copeland made history
In 2015 dancer Misty Copeland received some news that would make her go down in history. That was the year she became the first ballerina of color to be made a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. Then aged 32, she landed the prestigious lead role in Swan Lake and called the appointment “incredible.”
1. Ballet dancers don’t say “good luck”
Ballet dancers don’t say “good luck” or “break a leg” before a performance. Instead, they utter “merde” – a French swear-word meaning feces. There are many suggestions around where this tradition came from. For example, some think dancers used to warn one another to be careful on stage when performing with animals. Another theory is that there would be many horse-drawn carriages outside if the show was a success. Therefore, animal droppings were a sign of good fortune.