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The discipline of performance in ballet.

Q&A with professional ballet dancer Leonora Voigtlander.

10 min read · Published on 13.09.2021

If you’ve ever sat in the audience of a professional ballet performance, the graceful and seemingly effortless movements on stage can fool you into thinking that ballet is a gentle activity. But ballet dancers are without doubt elite athletes.

Behind the curtain, as with any professional sport, you will find many long years of hard training and discipline to perfect those precise movements, positions and gestures. Professional ballet dancers place significant demands on their bodies through the combination of intensive strength and flexibility training together with the rigour of repetitive practise and rehearsal.

Musculoskeletal injury is common in professional ballet and is mostly caused by overuse, rather than by acute injury. Women have a greater injury prevalence than men due to the higher technical requirements of their movements. The repetitiveness of movement or lack of adequate rest periods in between these repetitions is a contributing factor to injuries in professional ballet.

Of the ballet disciplines, overuse injury is more common in classical ballet due to it's demanding technical constraints. Specific gestures in classical ballet that increase pronation of the foot such as pointe pliés or cambrées are thought to significantly contribute to overuse injury. In contemporary ballet, overuse injuries are more associated with mechanical overload due to the athletic demands, footwear, twisting and the forced postures that extend beyond the body’s centre of gravity.

The most commonly reported overuse injury in studies of ballet dancers is patellofemoral pain syndrome. Also known as ‘runners knee’ which causes pain in the knee joint and surrounding soft tissue and is aggravated by compressive force when the knee is in a bent position.

Second most common is Achilles tendinopathy, or pain, stiffness and swelling of the Achilles tendon due to jumping and running movements which affects male dancers more than female. Next on the list is patellar tendinopathy or jumper's knee, where the tendon that connects the kneecap to the shin bone becomes inflamed and weakened.

Lower back pain and injury is the fourth most common overuse injury in ballet with a recent study indicating that it could affect up to 79% of all dancers, independent of gender, age or level of experience. Of the ballet disciplines; lower back injury is more prevalent in contemporary ballet due to its athletic nature and extended postures and movements.

The risk of overuse injury in all forms of ballet shows the need for robust preventive practises in training together with professional support from strength and conditioning experts and rehab specialists. As in any professional sport, good physical conditioning and correct technique must be supported by a disciplined approach to preparation and recovery to prevent injury.

Myovolt has been helping out Leonora Voigtlander, a dancer with the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company based in Wellington. Leonora joined the RNZB in 2014, originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico where she studied at the School of Ballet Chicago and the Miami City Ballet School.

With the RNZB touring schedule currently on hold due to a second COVID lockdown in NZ, we managed to catch some time with Leonora to ask her about her training and the demands that being a professional ballet dancer places on her body.

“I am quite lucky that I’m naturally flexible. So my main focus is strengthening so I can control the flexibility.”

Q. How long have you been involved in ballet – and when did it turn professional for you? 

A. I started ballet when I was four years old. When I was 14 my family moved to Nelson New Zealand. At that stage I was just doing ballet as an after-school activity. At 15 I went to a summer school in Chicago. That’s when I decided this was the profession I had to do. I came home for about a month packed my bags and moved back to Chicago and from there onwards the goal was to become a professional.

I did two years at ballet Chicago and then moved to Miami to do full time ballet training with Miami City Ballet School. After three years there and some work with the company I got my first job with St Louis Ballet Company. I was there five years and decided it was time to come home
so I auditioned for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company and was fortunate enough to get a contract. I’ve been here now for eight years.

Q. Do you do any other types of dance disciplines other than ballet?

A. Yes! I started in gymnastics and jazz when I was younger. In order to be a well-rounded dancer in a ballet company you have to be able to dance every style of movement not just ballet. We have been asked to tap on stage and even use our voices. 

Q. What does a typical day look like for you when you are preparing and rehearsing for a show? 

A. We start every morning off with an hour and fifteen minute ballet class. It’s basically a warm up for the day to get your body in place and also work on bettering your technique. I also come half an hour before that to do my own gentle Pilates warm up. 

Then we have two three hour blocks of rehearsal with an hour lunch break in the middle. Sometimes I’m called to all of them and sometimes I might only be called to a couple depending on what we are working on that day. If I have a break longer than an hour I will go to the gym and do my own cross training. So an example is cycling weight training and my favourite I do a lot of weight and leg workouts on the bosu ball. 

Then we will slowly switch our time table to theatre week. We start getting our bodies used to working later in the day. So a normal day is 9:30am to 6pm and theatre schedule is 12:30pm to 10 or 11pm. 

Q. Muscle and joint flexibility must be a specific area of focus for ballet performance, what types of exercises or techniques do you use to maintain or increase flexibility?

A. I am quite lucky in that I’m naturally flexible so my main focus is actually strengthening so I can control the flexibility. I do roll out my muscles on a foam roller quite a lot. And daily stretching is just something I always do. 


Q. What other approaches do you use to keep your body in good shape for performance?

A. I do quite a lot of Pilates and gym training. Anytime I’m not called to rehearsal I am training something. Usually I am strengthening general weaknesses of mine or our physio a lot of the time gives us exercises to help little injuries.

Q. What does your typical warm-up and recovery routine look like? 

A. I usually do an active warm up, so a gentle cycle or some squats. Abs are always a must. I do 100 abs every morning no matter what the day is just switching up exercises. Recovery is usually rolling my muscle on a foam roller and stretching. Sometimes icing or heating depending on if I have and injury. 

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September 2021

The discipline of performance in ballet.

Q&A with professional ballet dancer Leonora Voigtlander.

If you’ve sat in the audience of a professional ballet performance, the graceful and seemingly effortless movements on stage can fool you into thinking that ballet is a gentle activity. But ballet dancers are without doubt elite athletes.

Behind the curtain, as with any professional sport, you will find many years of hard training and discipline to perfect those precise movements, positions and gestures. Professional ballet dancers place significant demands on their bodies through the combination of intensive strength and flexibility training together with the rigour of repetitive practise and rehearsal.

Musculoskeletal injury is common in professional ballet and is mostly caused by overuse, rather than by acute injury. Women have a greater injury prevalence than men due to the higher technical requirements of their movements. The repetitiveness of movement or lack of adequate rest periods in between these repetitions is a contributing factor to injuries in professional ballet.

Of the ballet disciplines, overuse injury is more common in classical ballet due to it's demanding technical constraints. Specific gestures in classical ballet that increase pronation of the foot such as pointe pliés or cambrées are thought to significantly contribute to overuse injury. In contemporary ballet, overuse injuries are more associated with mechanical overload due to the athletic demands, footwear, twisting and the forced postures that extend beyond the body’s centre of gravity.

The most commonly reported overuse injury in studies of ballet dancers is patellofemoral pain syndrome. Also known as ‘runners knee’ which causes pain in the knee joint and surrounding soft tissue and is aggravated by compressive force when the knee is in a bent position.

Second most common is Achilles tendinopathy, or pain, stiffness and swelling of the Achilles tendon due to jumping and running movements which affects male dancers more than female. Next on the list is patellar tendinopathy or jumper's knee, where the tendon that connects the kneecap to the shin bone becomes inflamed and weakened.

Lower back pain and injury is the fourth most common overuse injury in ballet with a recent study indicating that it could affect up to 79% of all dancers, independent of gender, age or level of experience. Of the ballet disciplines; lower back injury is more prevalent in contemporary ballet due to its athletic nature and extended postures and movements.

I am quite lucky that I’m naturally flexible. So my main focus is actually strengthening so I can control the flexibility.”

The risk of overuse injury in all forms of ballet shows the need for robust preventive practises in training together with professional support from strength and conditioning experts and rehab specialists. As in any professional sport, good physical conditioning and correct technique must be supported by a disciplined approach to preparation and recovery to prevent injury.

Myovolt has been helping out Leonora Voigtlander, a dancer with the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company based in Wellington. Leonora joined the RNZB in 2014, originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico where she studied at the School of Ballet Chicago and the Miami City Ballet School.

With the RNZB touring schedule currently on hold due to a second COVID lockdown in NZ, we managed to catch some time with Leonora to ask her about her training and the demands that being a professional ballet dancer places on her body.



Q.
How long have you been involved in ballet – and when did it turn professional for you? 

A. I started ballet when I was four years old. When I was 14 my family moved to Nelson New Zealand. At that stage I was just doing ballet as an after-school activity. At 15 I went to a summer school in Chicago. That’s when I decided this was the profession I had to do. I came home for about a month packed my bags and moved back to Chicago and from there onwards the goal was to become a professional.

I did two years at ballet Chicago and then moved to Miami to do full time ballet training with Miami City Ballet School. After three years there and some work with the company I got my first job with St Louis Ballet Company. I was there five years and decided it was time to come home
so I auditioned for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company and was fortunate enough to get a contract. I’ve been here now for eight years.

Q. Do you do any other types of dance disciplines other than ballet?

A. Yes! I started in gymnastics and jazz when I was younger. In order to be
a well-rounded dancer in a ballet company you have to be able to dance every style of movement not just ballet. We have been asked to tap on stage and even use our voices.
 

Q. What does a typical day look like for you when you are preparing and rehearsing for a show? 

A. We start every morning off with an hour and fifteen minute ballet class. It’s basically a warm up for the day to get your body in place and also work on bettering your technique. I also come half an hour before that to do my own gentle Pilates warm up. 

Then we have two three hour blocks of rehearsal with an hour lunch break in the middle. Sometimes I’m called to all of them and sometimes I might only be called to a couple depending on what we are working on that day. If I have a break longer than an hour I will go to the gym and do my own cross training. So an example is cycling weight training and my favourite I do a lot of weight and leg workouts on the bosu ball. 

Then we will slowly switch our time table to theatre week. We start getting our bodies used to working later in the day. So a normal day is 9:30am to 6pm and theatre schedule is 12:30pm to 10 or 11pm. 

Q. Muscle and joint flexibility must be a specific area of focus for ballet performance, what types of exercises or techniques do you use to maintain or increase flexibility?

A. I am quite lucky in that I’m naturally flexible so my main focus is actually strengthening so I can control the flexibility. I do roll out my muscles on a foam roller quite a lot. And daily stretching is just something I always do. 


Q. What other approaches do you use to keep your body in good shape for performance?

A. I do quite a lot of Pilates and gym training. Anytime I’m not called to rehearsal I am training something. Usually I am strengthening general weaknesses of mine or our physio a lot of the time gives us exercises to help little injuries.

Q. What does your typical warm-up and recovery routine look like? 

A. I usually do an active warm up, so a gentle cycle or some squats. Abs are always a must. I do 100 abs every morning no matter what the day is just switching up exercises. Recovery is usually rolling my muscle on a foam roller and stretching. Sometimes icing or heating depending on if I have and injury. 

Q. How does warm-up and recovery differ between rehearsals and when you are travelling on tour? 

A. Opening week is usually the hardest week and the most important to stay healthy fit and smart. So I do less cross training and mainly focus on ballet sleep and getting the right nutrition. Once we start tour the ballet work load tends to drop off because we have less rehearsals during the week and shows on the weekends. During the week I mainly focus on keeping a balance between recovery and keeping my stamina at a certain level so the show weekends don’t smack me in the face. 

Q. What are the recommended approaches typically used in ballet to prevent injury?

A. The most common thing I think everyone does is maintenance. So making sure every muscle in your body is working properly, and then taking care of all your muscles. Making sure they are not too tight. And if they are over worked finding different muscles to help support. 

Q. If you started to develop a niggle or early signs of an injury how would you manage this to stop it getting worse?

A. I would see our physio immediately. And she would recommend what to do next. For me personally it’s usually muscle related and usually I need to strengthen. 

Q. Are there any sports or activities you avoid in order to prevent the risk of injuries that could affect your ballet performance?

A. There’s actually quite a few things we are not allowed to do. Skiing, snowboarding and horse riding are just a few. You just have to be smart I suppose. We work so hard to get on stage you don’t want to risk an injury doing something else. 


Q. What is the difference between modern ballet and classical ballet in terms of the demands on the body?

A. In most ballet companies we do a variety of work. We do everything from classical to contemporary. You definitely use different muscles for different styles. I find my legs get a lot more sore when doing contemporary movements.


Q. In what ways has Myovolt been able to help you in your prehab and recovery routines?

A. I have a lot of lower leg and back issues. This tends to come from the different surfaces and stages. Unfortunately not all the stages are sprung and some are harder and more painful to jump on causing pain in my lower legs that tends to trickle up my body. I love using Myovolt actually after shows. I am so tired and to be able to strap it on my calves or back and just lay there or even roll out another muscle while I have it on is amazing. 

I really appreciate that I can use Myovolt during the day... it helps my muscles recover but it doesn’t relax them to the point that I can’t use them.”

Q. Where and when would you typically use Myovolt during your day?

A. I bring it on tour with me and I keep one in my black box (a box that goes to every theatre with our personal belongings). After class or even if I have a break in a rehearsal before a show, I find it helps keep my calves feeling good before. And then I have one in my suitcase for the hotel after the show. I really appreciate that I can use it during the day and it helps my muscles recover but it doesn’t relax them to the point that I can’t use them properly. 

Q. What does your ‘off-season’ generally include in terms of practice and workouts?

A. We get four weeks off at Christmas. That is our only break during the year. I will usually do a guest show with a school in Nelson for the first week off. Then I’ll take one to two weeks off where I don’t do any physical activities. I love to do long walks with my family so maybe I’ll do a couple of those. Then I start to get back into a routine. Usually it will be at the gym starting with my cross training or biking and lifting weights. 

Q. This is the second time that The Royal New Zealand Ballet has had to stop performances around New Zealand due to COVID lockdowns. How does this affect your ability to keep training? 

A. Full lockdowns are always really hard. We know what to do now though, so it wasn’t as scary as the first one in 2020. We have zoom ballet classes every day and we do Pilates and work out classes. Because we are at home though, ballet classes are not full classes and we don’t jump. 

Q. Will the company be able to reschedule performances and finish the current tour once lockdown is lifted? 

A. We usually can’t reschedule performances. Our year is very strategically planned out. It comes down to theatre hire and if we can change the dates with them and then moving forward into the next season will we be able to prepare for the next show if we go back to the old show. We do however usually broadcast our shows online during lockdowns. 


Q. What is the rest of the year looking like in terms of performances?
Will it be business as usual and straight back to shows after lockdown ends? 

A. Yes! No time to waste now! We will go straight into the next season and prepare for a mid-summers night’s dream. 

Thanks Leonora, we hope to see you back on stage soon!

Q. How does warm-up and recovery differ between rehearsals and when you are travelling on tour? 

A. Opening week is usually the hardest week and the most important to stay healthy fit and smart. So I do less cross training and mainly focus on ballet sleep and getting the right nutrition. Once we start tour the ballet work load tends to drop off because we have less rehearsals during the week and shows on the weekends. During the week I mainly focus on keeping a balance between recovery and keeping my stamina at a certain level so the show weekends don’t smack me in the face. 

Q. What are the recommended approaches typically used in ballet to prevent injury?

A. The most common thing I think everyone does is maintenance. So making sure every muscle in your body is working properly, and then taking care of all your muscles. Making sure they are not too tight. And if they are over worked finding different muscles to help support. 

Q. If you started to develop a niggle or early signs of an injury how would you manage this to stop it getting worse?

A. I would see our physio immediately. And she would recommend what to do next. For me personally it’s usually muscle related and usually I need to strengthen. 

Q. Are there any sports or activities you avoid in order to prevent the risk of injuries that could affect your ballet performance?

A. There’s actually quite a few things we are not allowed to do. Skiing, snowboarding and horse riding are just a few. You just have to be smart I suppose. We work so hard to get on stage you don’t want to risk an injury doing something else. 


Q. What is the difference between modern ballet and classical ballet in terms of the demands on the body?

A. In most ballet companies we do a variety of work. We do everything from classical to contemporary. You definitely use different muscles for different styles. I find my legs get a lot more sore when doing contemporary movements.


Q. In what ways has Myovolt been able to help you in your prehab and recovery routines?

A. I have a lot of lower leg and back issues. This tends to come from the different surfaces and stages. Unfortunately not all the stages are sprung and some are harder and more painful to jump on causing pain in my lower legs that tends to trickle up my body. I love using Myovolt actually after shows. I am so tired and to be able to strap it on my calves or back and just lay there or even roll out another muscle while I have it on is amazing. 

“I really appreciate that I can use Myovolt during the day... it helps my muscles recover but it doesn’t relax them to the point that I can’t use them.”

Q. Where and when would you typically use Myovolt during your day?

A. I bring it on tour with me and I keep one in my black box (a box that goes to every theatre with our personal belongings). After class or even if I have a break in a rehearsal before a show, I find it helps keep my calves feeling good before. And then I have one in my suitcase for the hotel after the show. I really appreciate that I can use it during the day and it helps my muscles recover but it doesn’t relax them to the point that I can’t use them properly. 

Q. What does your ‘off-season’ generally include in terms of practice and workouts?

A. We get four weeks off at Christmas. That is our only break during the year. I will usually do a guest show with a school in Nelson for the first week off. Then I’ll take one to two weeks off where I don’t do any physical activities. I love to do long walks with my family so maybe I’ll do a couple of those. Then I start to get back into a routine. Usually it will be at the gym starting with my cross training or biking and lifting weights. 

Q. This is the second time that The Royal New Zealand Ballet has had to stop performances around New Zealand due to COVID lockdowns. How does this affect your ability to keep training? 

A. Full lockdowns are always really hard. We know what to do now though, so it wasn’t as scary as the first one in 2020. We have zoom ballet classes every day and we do Pilates and work out classes. Because we are at home though, ballet classes are not full classes and we don’t jump. 

Q. Will the company be able to reschedule performances and finish the current tour once lockdown is lifted? 

A. We usually can’t reschedule performances. Our year is very strategically planned out. It comes down to theatre hire and if we can change the dates with them and then moving forward into the next season will we be able to prepare for the next show if we go back to the old show. We do however usually broadcast our shows online during lockdowns. 


Q. What is the rest of the year looking like in terms of performances?
Will it be business as usual and straight back to shows after lockdown ends? 

A. Yes! No time to waste now! We will go straight into the next season and prepare for a mid-summers night’s dream. 

Thanks Leonora, we hope to see you back on stage soon!