To an audience, ballet may seem like a simple art, with dancers gliding across a stage in beautifully decorated tutus, jumping and twirling with grace and ease. However, it’s easy to be fooled — the art of ballet demands rigorous exercise and muscle building. From strength workouts to Pilates to ballet class, these male dancers at Ballet Austin manage to balance it all in a day’s time.
Morgan Stillman, who started dancing around age six, spent three years at the Nevada Ballet Theatre in Las Vegas before coming to Texas and joining Ballet Austin as a company dancer.
“The cross training really helps keep your body in good shape so that you can handle the extremities of ballet,” says Stillman.
Ballet Austin typically has a company technique class from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday. The class begins at the barre with pliés and tendus, which helps get the dancers’ bodies in alignment.
Halfway through class, the ballet dancers come center to focus on turning, leaping and executing tricks without the barre. Once class is over, 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. is allotted for rehearsal with a one-hour lunch break. The dancers are in rehearsal for parts of that time or for the entire duration.
“When we’re in season, we’ll start rehearsing for the rest of the day,” Stillman says. “So, it’s a nine to five job.”
Kevin Murdock-Waters, who began taking ballet lessons when he was around five years old, says he tries to find ways to keep moving throughout the day and in between classes. He will use the time to hit the gym or run errands.
“I do try to stay active,” Murdock-Waters says. “Maybe that’s when I go take a yoga class, because I’ll be keeping active, but it’s not putting so much pressure on my body. It’s more of a restorative workout.”
In the morning, Stillman, who is also active throughout the day, tries to get in a 20-minute run outdoors to help with his endurance. Every other day, he includes weight training into his routine, because it helps him support his female partners when certain movements require him to lift them over his head while they are dancing on pointe.
Prior to the company class in the morning, Stillman enjoys doing Pilates on a reformer to get his heart rate going. In addition to dancing, Stillman is also a Pilates instructor at Ballet Austin and will try to do Pilates after his ballet class.
“Specifically, Pilates is really good for everyone but very good for dancers of all kinds,” Stillman says. “You work on using the muscles correctly, and it’s very gentle. It can be like a rehabilitation practice after if you need to cool down.”
The hardest movement in ballet for Stillman is jumping. The dancers have various jumps they do, such as doing a full split in the air and coming down gracefully, or jumping in the air, spinning twice and landing in a particular position. Stillman says he works on improving his jumps during Pilates with a jump board.
“For me, this summer, because I’ve had time, it’s really been about working on my form and the way I use my leg muscles,” Stillman says. “A simple squat is really good to strengthen the backs of the legs and make sure you find the correct muscles. Then we do them rotated externally, so turned out, because all of ballet for the most part is turned out.”
Before dancing, Murdock-Waters, also part of the Ballet Austin company, likes to incorporate yoga poses to get acquainted with using his body weight. Throughout the week, he also likes to do Pilates and go for runs in addition to his ballet classes. When Murdock-Waters is able to go to the gym, he enjoys weight training with a bench press, free weights and pull-down machines. He purchased a 10-pound mace and uses it for a resistance workout by doing certain poses and working to balance the weight with his body.
“It helps when you have to do partnering. You have to be able to hold yourself before you hold someone else up,” Murdock-Waters says. “So, if I’m standing on one leg and trying to lift a woman up into the air, if my leg isn’t secure, if I’m not holding my core and I go to lift her, that’s probably not gonna happen.”
Recently, Murdock-Waters says he has been focusing a lot more on high-intensity interval training. This workout focuses on performing various exercises such as push-ups, crunches or leg lifts for 30-second intervals, then taking a short break before continuing.
“I do a lot of squats and lunges just to give my legs a workout in a different way that ballet doesn’t offer, because that also helps with our strength for jumping,” Murdock-Waters adds.
In addition to strength training, stretching is critical for ballet dancers. Stillman likes to do the quad stretch, where he grabs onto the front of his ankle behind his back to get a long stretch in the front of his leg. He also does the piriformis figure four stretch where he sits, crossing one leg over the other and leans forward, feeling it in his glutes. Murdock-Waters echoes Stillman and finds it imperative to stretch well.
“I like to do most of my stretching at the end of a work day as well, because that gives me a chance to relax and reset my body before the next day,” says Murdock-Waters, who joined Ballet Austin’s second company as a 19-year-old apprentice for two years before joining the main company.
In addition to constant activity and strength training, strong core muscles are necessary to be successful as a ballet dancer. Core strength allows dancers to steady their movements as they glide through the air and perfect various movements, Murdock-Waters says. Having a strong center enables him to secure his balance when doing a turn and keeps him in place while executing it, careful not to fall over from the momentum.
Strength and flexibility do not stop at the core for ballet dancers; it also includes their lower abs, back, glutes, hips, legs and ankles for optimal performance. Being a ballet dancer requires diligently working on their bodies daily, but their hard work and perseverance pays off when performing their beautifully executed routines.
“Especially the men do a lot of jumping and turning,” says Stillman, who is in his fourth year of dancing with Ballet Austin. “So we need really strong glutes, hamstrings and quads along with that nice, strong core to do our spins and look graceful and effortless at the same time.”