I was recently listening to an episode of the Rich Roll podcast where Rich was discussing the difference between someone exercising and someone training. It was fascinating. And for the record, there’s a big difference…

For those who don’t know who Rich Roll is, he’s an ultra-marathon runner who has overcome drug and alcohol addiction to start a podcast that interviews many people from all walks of life around the topics of human optimisation, athletics and nutrition. Similar to my own podcast minus the precursor of addiction – obviously!

Anyway, this discussion isn’t about Rich (although he’s pretty cool and you should listen to his wildly famous pod!) but it is about the pivotal difference between someone ‘exercising’ and someone ‘training’. To be honest, I’ve often used these words interchangeably but I’ve come to realise there is a huge difference between them.

Firstly let’s clarify these two words…

Exercise means to participate in a physical activity and is done for its own sake. Meaning that you’re moving your body for the sake of moving your body with little or no alterations to improve endurance, strength or mobility. Perhaps imagine attending the same spin or pilates class that maintains a good baseline of fitness but doesn’t necessarily escalate.

Training on the other hand refers to accumulative and specific stress adaptations that produce a specific and desired result. So if the program of physical activity is designed to make you stronger, faster or better then it can be called training. Training is being incredibly mindful of the movement and usually involves tracking and hitting markers.

In a nutshell, training is driving towards a specific goal whilst exercising is moving your body to stay active and healthy.

When I look back at my own experience with physical activity, I view any gym or classes I participated in as ‘exercise’ and that time I got into Crossfit as ‘training’. When I participated in Crossfit there was always a challenge or goal set. We often competed against one another or other Crossfit gyms and there was definitely always an aim of improving strength, endurance and mobility. We also tracked our speed, agility and weight lifted. Yes, it was a whole ordeal!

I think about this in comparison to attending the gym, yoga, pilates or an F45 class. I may have a goal about my baseline fitness and physique, but I’d be doing the same movements each time (with no tracking) and if I’m honest with myself I could hold a conversation with a friend before, during and after. So I guess it’s more social…

So how does this relate to the practice of ballet and why does it matter?

Well at first I was wondering where ballet even fits into this equation. The more I listened to Rich and his guest discuss the difference the more I kept swaying back and forth between the two. Oh ballet is definitely ‘training’! Oh wait, no it’s not…

I guess (like many things) definitions are defined by the user and however they’re using it. If that makes sense? For example, I’d consider a lot of my clients who come take class multiple times a week with goals and aspirations for their practice as ‘training’. Just like I’d consider some of my more recreational students (young and old) as ‘exercising’ because they don’t do any outside work, thought or preparation.

After discussing with a fellow ballet teacher, she said that the clear distinction between a ‘training’ ballerina vs an ‘exercising’ ballerina would be one training to becomes a professional and the other practising for the sake of learning ballet. However I tend to disagree, because I think you can definitely be a ‘training’ ballerina if you don’t plan on a professional career in dance. For example, no one questions the amateur triathlete who is training for their third or fourth triathlon. They make no money from their sport, but they are still referred to as ‘training’ by fellow athletes, friends and family.

Again, I guess it bings us back to what I’m constantly fighting for; ballerinas from all walks of life and ages being taken seriously. And this is why the distinction between a training and exercising ballerina is an important discussion in my mind.

Perhaps it’s hard to define the difference between a training and exercising ballerina because we don’t typically have easy bench marks or goals that others would understand. There’s no race to be won or medal to claim. And that’s why dance is predominantly considered an art. However ballet exams and performances (which aren’t often offered to adult ballerinas) would be the closest our industry comes to this idea of a tangible goal.

Although it could be argued that the leap from a demi pliƩ to a grande pliƩ or a single pirouette to a double could be considered quantitative data that we could collect. Progression could also be tracked through qualitative data to collect information on the quality of movement. Another could be the up skilling of a student from a Beginner to Intermediate or Advanced class.

To be honest, my head hurts just thinking about how to determine wether one is a training or exercising ballerina. However I’m going to try my best to define because I strongly believe that there is a portion of the ballet student population who deserve to be called a training ballerina.

So here’s my view on a training vs exercising ballerina…

I believe that a TRAINING ballerina is someone who is mindful, consistent and disciplined with their practice. Someone who is playing the long game with mental or tangible tracking, planning and patience. A training ballerina knows that the practice of ballet is a long journey of self discovery and muscle memory. The training ballerina takes her classes seriously, sources the best training on offer and then trusts her teacher explicitly. I’d also consider a training ballerina someone who participates in complimenting movement (eg. pilates, private lessons or a program like Progressing Ballet Technique…) to only increase their balletic performance, strength and mobility.

On the other hand, I believe that the EXERCISING ballerina is someone who simply comes to class to move their body, cleanse the mind and then leaves class with little to no thought about their next class until it rolls around. They may even absolutely love ballet, but have no ambition to excel, go en pointe, participate in examinations or give it more thought than an hour a week. And can I add that this is TOTALLY FINE! If not, sometimes preferable. An exercising ballerina still receives all the grace and mindfulness without the obsession with goal setting or chase of a triple pirouette.

When I look at my own pool of ballet students ranging from 3 years old to 83 years old I’d say that three quarters fit into the exercising category and the remainder in the training category. The problem I find these days, is that some students probably think they’re in the training category but are in fact definitely in the exercising category.

Why does it matter what category they think they’re in I hear you say… Well it can be problematic if they’re expecting the results of a training ballerina and practising like an exercising ballerina.

I have two perfect examples for you…

First example; I had a young student who did two ballet classes per week and absolutely loved it. Her parents wanted to have a meeting with me to discuss this particular students future to which I had no problems doing. I absolutely love knowing what a students long-term goal is and I thought she might want to assist with our tiny tots classes or pick up another genre of dance at the studio. But this particular students dream (as I found out in this meeting) was to be in The Royal Ballet…

Yes… The Royal Ballet. I couldn’t believe it. This is a student who’s parents didn’t want her to participate in ballet exams because of the additional costs associated. So not only did I have to explain that anatomically she wasn’t built for the world of professional ballet (unfortunately she had severe scoliosis, relatively flat feet and bent knees) but I also had to explain that two classes per week was not enough at fifteen years of age to even become a ballet teacher in the future. At minimum a fifteen year old who has their sights set on a career is training four-five afternoons a week in multiple genres as professional ballet dancers and most teachers are expected to be proficient in ballet, contemporary and jazz.

The parents (whilst lovely people) didn’t seem to be listening as I explained why this was a very unrealistic goal. They saw the past three years of their daughters ‘training’ as a waste of time if she wasn’t going to have the option of becoming a professional ballerina. And here is where I can recall the first time I encountered the word ‘training’ applied incorrectly!

In my eyes, this student was simply an ‘exercising’ ballerina. She wasn’t even doing the required amount of classes to qualify for ballet exams. However she was coming to class, enjoying herself and simply benefiting from the grace that ballet injected into her life. Why did it need to be more than that? Why did the investment in two ballet classes per week equate to a career in the industry? We all know mastery of anything requires at least 10,000 hours…

Moving onto my second example which was far more recent…

A potential client sent me an email enquiring about adult ballet classes. She was an actress that required ballet training for her next role. She wanted my professional recommendation for a training program that someone with little dance experience could convincingly play a ballerina in three months time. To be honest, I gave her a call instead of the replying to the email because I had to explain that even if I had three years it would be difficult to turn her into a convincing professional ballerina!

For example, when Natalie Portman (who had studied ballet as a child!) was preparing for her role in Black Swan, she trained for up to eight hours a day, six days a week for an an entire year in preparation for that role – and even then there are times during that movie that she doesn’t quite pull it off.

Anyway, back to my interesting adult ballet client with unrealistic expectations…

After a look at what I was working with (by the way, a ballet teacher can determine how much work needs to be done from the moment a student walks through the door, just by how they carry themselves!) that she would commence one private lesson and four group classes per week (eg. two ‘beginner’ and two ‘intermediate’ before commencing to one ‘beginner’, two ‘intermediate’ and ‘one advanced’ after two months).

So she showed up early to her first class and I started fitting her for a pair of ballet shoes. She looked very unimpressed and I couldn’t work out why. Turns out she didn’t want the ‘floppy’ pair of canvas ballet flats I’d just fit her for. She wanted, ‘Those ones!’ as she pointed to a pair of pointe shoes on the poster behind me. We then had a conversation where I started by kindly explaining why she couldn’t have a pair of pointe shoes that ended with me bluntly saying, ‘If you show up to my class in pointe shoes, I will not teach you!’

Remember when I said before that my definition of a ‘training ballerina’ is someone that trusts their teacher, the professional, the one with decades of experience? It would be like me hiring a trainer to help me reach the goal of running a marathon. Instead of following the slow progressive program they put together for me, I run out the front door and do 42 km’s in a pair of pink Nike high tops because they look prettier than proper running shoes…

Anyway, she did class. And as you can guess she was pretty hopeless, didn’t listen to a single instruction the entire class, annoyed everyone around her and walked out telling me how well she think she did and that a couple of lessons before her movie will be fine. I on the other hand recommended she find a different teacher.

Now these are two very extreme examples and I guess a more common example of an exercising ballerina who thinks they’re ‘in training’ is a student who begins at an advanced class level because the time suits them better or they feel like they don’t need to start with a beginner or intermediate class. These are always fun to deal with because they never fully understand the fundamentals of ballet technique and always complain about not getting the exercise or find something difficult.

So after sharing all those fun examples I think it’s important to revisit the concept that the truly training ballerina practices patience. The training ballerina understands that ballet is built with small incremental steps and decades of consistent practise. Real progress takes time and persistence – this is the key to raising the barre (see what I did there!) with your ballet practise!

Now one final point; I think teachers can also be separated into these two categories. Let’s quickly chat about the difference between a training teacher and an exercising teacher. Did you know that you don’t need any qualifications to become a ballet teacher? Anyone can simply open a studio, advertise classes and lead a group through a ballet class.

So in my eyes a training ballet teacher is someone that continues to seek professional development after becoming a qualified ballet teacher with an internationally recognised syllabus. A training teacher doesn’t stop learning. They read books on best teaching practices, different styles of technique and pass on this knowledge to their students. A training teacher also walks out of every class thinking, ‘How could I have improved that class…’ or ‘What could I have done better…’

That’s what I do. Every year I look back at my body of work, my students, my studio and think to myself how far I’ve come. Then the following year I do exactly the same thing. I’m a far better teacher now than when I first started teaching ballet. And in another twelve years time I’ll probably look back at this period of my teaching career and think, gosh I had no idea what I was doing back then.

And that’s the point isn’t it? A true ballerina, ballet teacher, human being never stops training because the goal posts never stop moving…

Don’t know if you’re an exercising or training ballerina? For fun, let’s go through this checklist…

Do you attend at least two ballet classes per week?

Do you do other activities outside the ballet studio to compliment your practise? (eg. pilates, floor barre)

Do you fuel your body with the intention of performing better in class?

Do you have clear goals in relation to your ballet practise?

Do you trust your teacher and allow them to guide you towards your goals?

Do you enjoy focussing on the fundamentals of technique just as much as an advanced class?

Do you achieve a goal (eg. one clean pirouette) and move quickly onto the next (eg. two clean pirouettes)?

If you answered ‘yes’ to most of these questions, then yes you’re probably a training ballerina. Now how about it your’e an exercising ballerina?

Do you go to class for social reasons?

Do you attend class and don’t think about it again until the next class rolls around?

Do you enjoy staying in the same level of class?

Do you have fun at ballet?

If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions then you’re probably an exercising ballerina. And I want to make something very clear; this is perfectly wonderful! Being an exercising ballerina can bring so much joy to your life and sometimes I wish I could just relax, think less about goal setting or leave a class and not critically analyse every part of it. If you’re an exercising ballerina, you’re just as deserving of a spot in class.

With all that said, no matter what kind of ballerina you are – how lucky are we to have found and reap the benefits of this beautiful, holistic practise?

Grit & Grace,