Lovely, lean muscle tone and perfect posture, who doesn’t want to look like a prima ballerina? Anthea Lau, company dancer at Edge ‘n Pointe Dance Centre in Tung Chung, talks fitness with Samantha Wong.
Just 5.5-foot tall and weighing in at 55 kilogrammes, Anthea Lau, company dancer at Edge ‘n Pointe Dance Centre in Tung Chung, is small and perfectly formed. She’s also killer fit – she can jump higher than the ballet barre (3.44 foot), walk en pointe and do the splits. Now 22, she’s been learning ballet since she was five, and practices five times a week. Some classes last an hour-and- a-half, others three hours.
Being a company dancer at Edge ‘n Pointe, Anthea represents the company in high-profile competitions like the Hong Kong Open Dance Contest, and she gets to join free classes and rehearsals with Edge ‘n Pointe director Verna Fajilan-Brazil. She’s a full-time physiotherapist and a part-time dance instructor, and she lives in Tai Wai.
Anthea’s passion for ballet has been going strong since she first saw The Nutcracker, age five. “I love ballet; it’s fun and enjoyable,” she says. “It’s a way for my friends and I to dance and get fit together. The fitness you get from ballet is not just physical, it’s good for your well-being too.”
Getting a ballerina body
The long and short of it is, if you want a dancer’s body you need to train like a dancer. Head to barre class and, over time, you will see improvements in your flexibility, balance, agility and coordination. Mastering ballet’s complex movement combinations, quick turns, fast footwork and high leg extensions will further boost your fitness profile.
So how fit do you need to be to take up ballet? “It’s actually not as demanding as people think. And classes and rehearsals always start with barre exercises to warm up the body,” Anthea says. “It’s a safe form of exercise, even for older people, since it doesn’t put too much weight on your legs and it helps with your balance. Ballet is good for sedentary people, since it’s a workout in itself and it involves stretching and strengthening as well.”
At barre class, what you get is a leg-and-butt workout par excellence. Barre movements boost flexibility and strength in your lower body, since one of your legs performs controlled and precise movements, while the other supports you.
“When practicing ballet, you work on all the muscles in your body, from your neck down to your toes,” says Anthea. “It takes years of work to get the right amount of ankle and foot flexibility combined with the strength to be able to stand en pointe. It is also important to be aware of all the muscles that are being worked to avoid injuries.
“There’s a lot that ballet dancers could teach other athletes about jumping,” Anthea adds with a grin. “We put a lot of thought into it! Unlike other athletes, dancers have to think about suspending or splitting in the air, while remaining poised. We also learn strategic ways to land to avoid injuries.”
When you consider that dancers are able to perform power activities, such as jumping, for long periods of time, it’s clear that ballet builds muscular endurance. Anthea, who sometimes performs for 30 minutes straight, points out that recitals last approximately two-and-a- half hours, with various different numbers presented.
Ballet’s muscle-building benefits are largely limited to the lower body, so does Anthea work with free weights, or do yoga to gain upper-body strength and muscle mass?
“Female ballet dancers work on upper-body strength mainly for shoulder and back alignment,” says Anthea. “Ballet and Pilates work well together because we want our muscles to be strong, firm and elongated. Pilates also works muscle groups that we rarely use. It’s not about building muscle, because we need to stay light in order to be lifted.
“For male dancers, it’s a different story. They must build muscle mass and have a good amount of upper-body strength as they are the ones doing the lifting,” she adds.
Aerobic fitness and diet
Picture a ballet class and you don’t immediately think of it as a hardcore workout. Certainly, there’s allegro, which involves fast movements, usually jumping steps and sequences, but all this is interspersed with time spent on slower movement combinations at the barre. How then does ballet rate in terms of cardiovascular and aerobic fitness?
“Dance in itself is actually already cardio,” Anthea says. “Classes involve a long, high-intensity warm up and reps. When we are rehearsing, we do the dance numbers again and again, without too many breaks in between. And when we do get breaks or our teacher demonstrates a move, we don’t have too much time to rest.”
It has to be said that few people have more stamina than a prima ballerina, and that’s because they work at it. Improvements in alignment, endurance, flexibility and speed take time and consistency. Anthea shares that ballet will get you fit if you regularly take three classes a week. “It’s critical that you pick the right level class,” she says.
“It’s important to stay active, whether simply through dance or by incorporating other activities you find enjoyable,” she adds. “Find ways to exercise that you like because this makes it easier to sustain the lifestyle. And there must also be a change in lifestyle, in terms of daily activities and food intake.”
And so to the thorny subject of diet. Dancers need to be super thin and they’ve been known to follow punitive diets to get that way, with many succumbing to eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia. Anthea, however, is quick to point out that this is now less common. “Traditionally, to be a ballerina, one should have a good physique with long limbs. However, the industry has become more accepting of different body types,” she says.
While she doesn’t necessarily stick to a diet, Anthea tries her best to eat healthily. “I need to have a big breakfast so I have energy for the day. I don’t really count calories, but I make sure my meals are very colourful with a variety of vegetables,” she says. During the day, Anthea brings packed meals and snacks with her so she can avoid eating fast food.
“On weekends, I sometimes pig out and have cheat meals. I’m not too strict or limited when it comes to food because eating is a big and important part of life,” she says with another megawatt smile.
• Edge ‘n Pointe, www.edgenpointe.com
Photos courtesy of Edge ‘n PointeTags: ballet, barre, dance, edge n pointe, fitness, workout