Will Silly Archaic Art Form Turn Beloved Daughter into Quasiomodo?
December 30, 2011 12:58 AM   Subscribe

My 4-year-old daughter is getting really into ballet. I've observed her standing in fifth position at home, on the train, etc. Is this going to screw up her musculoskeletal structure at some point? Should I prevent her from taking these highly-unnatural positions when not in the context of actual ballet practice?
posted by zachawry to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I did ballet and then gymnastics in childhood, and yes, I ended up walking like a dancer. In my teens I injured my ankle and went to see a physiotherapist. He told me that (unrelated to the injury itself), my splayed gait was really bad for my back. I had to re-learn how to walk, with my feet parallel and hip-width apart. It felt weird for a month or two until the muscles adjusted, but I don't seem to have any lasting ill-effects.
posted by embrangled at 1:30 AM on December 30, 2011

Browsing Google scholar, it looks like the issues associated with ballet are much more largely related to overuse injuries (let her take a break when it hurts; teach her to distinguish between ok hurting and time-to-stop hurting) and lower back issues associated with excessive flexion of the lower back. The latter is a bit more insidious, because sedentary humans have really poor strength in their cores, which leads to sloppy back bends under fatigue.

At age 4, I'd go with teaching good form and when to stop and rest for safety, rather than trying to augment the flexibility with stability in supportive joints through strength training. If you want to monitor her closely on ranges of motion and flexion technique, I'd recommend Stretching Scientifically. It covers both form and range of motion. It will also show you that 5th position is extremely functionally similar to the position of the feet in a full side split.
posted by bfranklin at 1:34 AM on December 30, 2011

I think you're right to be concerned. It's really easy for some girls, especially young girls, to be super-flexible (I was, in those particular joints), and it's fun to do something you're good at -- especially if you're the only one in the class who can do it 100% right. However, I know lots of dancers have messed-up hips and knees, and I don't think it's all from high-impact activities.

If you can encourage her to be proud of her strength instead, it might be good.

Related info that might be relevant: there have recently been studies indicating that girl athletes are more prone to certain kinds of injuries, particularly knee injuries. I think I read that girls' higher flexibility might be a contributor to this.
posted by amtho at 1:49 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of the most important things she needs to do before and after any ballet exercises, whether on her own or through a class, would be to stretch.

I took ballet when I was younger and didn't stretch as nearly as much as I should have, nor once or twice during the day when I started getting into more advanced classes as I got older.
I don't take ballet anymore, but I do have to workout three days a week and stretching once or twice a day really helps with the workouts as well as daily life.

Just make sure she's stretching safely (no bouncing or bobbing while she goes to touch her toes, for example) and drinking plenty of water (since even kids who exercise can become dehydrated).
posted by DisreputableDog at 2:05 AM on December 30, 2011

Young dancers have to be really careful that they are "turning out" from their hips. They may try to force their turnout to get their feet perfectly placed, without realizing the stress they are putting on their knee or ankle joints. If your daughter is holding her positions correctly, practicing frequently should help to strengthen her muscles rather than cause her harm. One thing to look for is whether her knees are pointing in the same direction as her toes. Another thing is whether her feet are flat on the floor or rolling inward. Toes pointing in different directions than her knees, and feet rolling in on their arches are signs that she's forcing her turnout, and may be developing a bad habit that could result in injury as she continues dancing.

To keep her healthy and dancing for as long as she wants to, make sure she has a good teacher who emphasizes proper technique over looks or showiness, and doesn't push students into doing things they're not technically or physically strong enough for. For example, a good teacher would favor a lower, but correctly placed arabesque over one where the kid's leg is way up in the air, but her hips a totally unsquare and her legs are turned in. There are a lot of "Dolly Dinkle" types of dance schools that may be fun, but teach kids bad habits that put them at risk for injury.

I admit that I don't remember how serious ballet teachers are with four-year-olds, and perhaps your daughter's class is still too young for the teachers to be making these types of technical corrections. Maybe you could sit in on some of the slightly older kids' classes and see how the quality of instruction rates.
posted by keep it under cover at 2:08 AM on December 30, 2011 [13 favorites]

This seems like a slightly over-zealous worry you have. She's in ballet for four year olds. My sister's school, an all girls school, required all their students to take ballet. It was very effective in teaching the girls grace and poise. There were no students who injured themselves as a result of their ballet training.

Be glad she's getting into a physical activity rather than becoming a couch potato. The couch potatoes are the ones who are in physical trouble.
posted by jayder at 2:30 AM on December 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

Seconding Keep it under cover - not only will solid technique lessen the chance of injury, it will also give your daughter a solid foundation, so that if her enthusiasm persists, and she wants to continue serious ballet study later on, she will have the foundation in place to do so.
posted by Wylla at 3:53 AM on December 30, 2011

My only concern would be if she's doing it wrong. Just casually standing (NOT walking) in that position is a normal dancer kid thing to do.
posted by SMPA at 4:19 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the technical tips, keep it under cover. I wish I were sophisticated enough to tell how good the teachers are, but I know nothing about it.

All I do know is that they are much more demanding than I thought they would be. I thought that it would be pretty much fun and games (4-year-olds!), but the teacher is pretty darn specific and demanding that the little tykes do everything the way it should be done. Now whether or not this is good teaching of the fundamentals, or teaching them bad habits, I'm not qualified to say.

And, I'm probably over-reacting, but I figured that since it was something my daughter is doing *outside* of class on her own, it bore some measure of concern.
posted by zachawry at 4:22 AM on December 30, 2011

One thing I remember from when I was a kid is being able to tell which kids were taking ballet, because they would walk with their toes pointed outwards instead of forward, and it looked really awkward. I don't know if that particular walk was damaging, but it didn't seem very graceful.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:00 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

"I wish I were sophisticated enough to tell how good the teachers are, but I know nothing about it."

You might look at where students from that school are going after - do they all quit, or does the occasional one go on to more serious study elsewhere? Is the school signed on to any larger training scheme or technique? Where did the teachers train themselves? Having danced or trained with a recognisable company in the US or abroad or having gotten a dance degree at a university are good..."I was a serious student here when I was little and then just took it on as a job," or "I loved ballet lessons when I was little, and decided to set up my own school after I retired from accountancy" not so much. (Lots of US teachers have Russian backgrounds...and it sounds like yours might, too, judging by the seriousness of classes for 4 year olds!)

Do the students from the school (older ones than 4!) participate in events or competitions with other schools? What classes are offered to older/more advanced kids? Do they include contemporary dance and/or folk or 'character' dance? Do they include partnering (boy/girl dancing)? All of those are signs of preparing kids for serious study and the requirements of current dance companies, so good signs.

What about the students - are there any boys at all? (A school without a single boy is a bad sign, particularly among the older students - schools that are set up to give suburban girls 'grace and poise' aren't likely to be paying much attention to technique.). Do the other parents seem to know their stuff, do they talk about having been to see performances recently, and seem knowledgeable?

Finally, ask the teacher the questions you asked us, and listen to her answers - is she talking about technique, injury prevention, and preparing for more serious study later, or is she saying things like "your daughter is so cute and talented!"
posted by Wylla at 5:04 AM on December 30, 2011

ask the teacher the questions you asked us, and listen to her answers - is she talking about technique, injury prevention, and preparing for more serious study later, or is she saying things like "your daughter is so cute and talented!

Personally, I think this is the best metric. The best ballet teachers I had would not have met most of the criteria Wylia outlines (they were single-person operations in small towns, not schools), but they were experienced and knowledgeable dancers who had been instructed well themselves, and who cared about their students. They weren't thinking about preparing students for careers in dance, but they were concerned about imparting good foundational technique and not pushing students to the point of injury -- which would be the other thing to watch out for: if the teacher just says, "it's fine" without paying attention to your concerns or your daughter's form, that's every bit as much a flag as gushing about cuteness.

I think paying attention to this now is a good thing -- as a four-year-old, your daughter probably has sufficient flexibility not to cause herself injury immediately, but if she enjoys dance and seems like she'll want to keep doing it, it's best that she learns to do things the right way, because the possibility of injury later on, or the frustration of having to re-train herself on the basics to avoid injury, are legitimate concerns.
posted by EvaDestruction at 6:06 AM on December 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Totally agree - my brain is in the suburbs and major cities - if you are in a smaller town, some of my questions above may not make sense to ask.
posted by Wylla at 6:21 AM on December 30, 2011

I think, like with any activity, if you only practice during specified practice times you'll never get better. So, just standing around on a train or at home once in a while won't do anything. If, however, you find her ALWAYS standing like this then step in.

If she wanted to play the guitar 24*7 would you complain or push her into her passion?
posted by zombieApoc at 6:27 AM on December 30, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everybody! It's one of the major ballet schools here in Kyoto, so they're certainly "serious" (if that's a good metric), but now with some of the good information I've gotten here I have a good basis to ask the teacher about stuff, and to make sure that my daughter isn't hurting herself outside of the watchful eye of the teacher.
posted by zachawry at 6:57 AM on December 30, 2011

I wouldn't necessarily ask the ballet teacher as their job is to teach proper ballet form. I would ask a pediatric physical therapist. Every woman I met who took ballet and is now an adult says they have long term joint/knee/leg pain. We're talking women under 30 years old.
posted by stormpooper at 7:15 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I started dance at around that age. I am now in my early 30s and I have arthritis and a multitude of injuries in all the joints below my waist, and this is going to last the rest of my life.

A "serious" ballet school may not necessarily have the best interests of your daughter in mind. I've seen too many teachers focus on perfection in form over physical well-being, and that kind of attitude absolutelycarries over onto the students. I knowingly and willingly hurt myself to be a better dancer because I had no fucking understanding of how soon I would be older and how badly it would suck to have constant aches and pains for no damn reason.

The worst part is that had I known back then what I know now, I still would've done the same thing.
posted by elizardbits at 7:31 AM on December 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

nthing what keep it under cover said about making sure her hips are properly turned out.

In terms of her ballet school, another good sign to look for is if the focus of the school is ballet instruction (not one of those schools that teachers 10 different kinds of classes, plus zumba, pilates, step or whatever is the newest exercise craze), and how recital-focused the school is. The best schools i attended were not focused on having a recital with as many expensive costumes as possible, and had teachers who were trained with ballet companies and had students who continued to dance professionally.

Yeah, it might seem kind of ridiculous to worry about serious ballet instruction for a four year old, but good technique and habits can prevent injuries as she gets older, even if this is just a fun hobby for her. Anecdotally, the worst suburban school I knew of had older girls learning pointe in shoes that were not fitted for them--the school would order all the students the exact same type of shoes, and did not encourage the students to practice more than once a week. I can't even imagine the injuries...
posted by inertia at 8:13 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

This book, Inside Ballet Technique: Separating Anatomical Fact from Fiction in the Ballet Class, is very helpful for understanding dance injury prevention.
posted by invisible ink at 8:49 AM on December 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just to add a positive story to the arthritis horror stories popping up here - I took serious dance classes from age 7-15 (many times a week, ballet, contemporary, and tap all at 'serious' places, though more serious for contemporary, along with some less 'serious' jazz), and continued as a hobby through my teenage years (daily classes at school, which had a good teacher). I think this was a huge benefit for me, both in terms of physical fitness for a generally bookishly-inclined girl and in terms of focus and positive habits.

I've done dance classes as an adult on and off and my husband also has gotten to like ballet and contemporary from going to watch them with me. We both hope to send our kid/kids (regardless of gender) to dance lessons because of how much I've gotten out of it and how much he's enjoyed watching dance as an adult. Having a background in dance (even though I was never really any good, just serious) has also helped me get involved in other things I've enjoyed as an adult, like yoga and general gym stuff, and the pregnancy pilates exercises that have helped me a lot recently as a giant, ungainly pregnant person.

So dance was a huge positive for me, and I wish your daughter the best of luck!
posted by Wylla at 8:53 AM on December 30, 2011

Make sure that it's actually because of ballet and not something else physical that she's walking like this. My leg bones are actually rotated within my hip sockets to such a degree that my natural stance is in fifth position. I've had people try to get me to "correct" it, but those efforts have generally caused more physical harm than good.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:02 AM on December 30, 2011

You might also want to see if you can find any Alexander Technique practitioners where you live, which will help your daughter be conscious of alignment issues and can help you understand what can and can't affect her. I found it very helpful in my 20s to correct turnout issues from childhood dance, which definitely improved things like ankle stability and overall balance.
posted by judith at 9:40 AM on December 30, 2011

Try taking a picture of her standing like this and showing it to the teachers. See what they say about it.

The way they talk about it will tell you something about how trustworthy they are, too.
posted by tel3path at 11:13 AM on December 30, 2011

Seconding Wylia - I did fairly serious ballet from 3 years old to 15, as did my little sister. That includes a few years at the end doing point. Other than the extra flexibility in my lower back (especially as compared to my upper back) that was mentioned above, I don't have any joint problems from the ballet. The wonky back flexibility is a pain for pilates sometimes as it can be hard for me to keep good form in some exercises, but not anything serious.
posted by lyra4 at 1:49 PM on December 30, 2011

For what it's worth, I only took ballet when I was 16 or so in a six week class that met twice a week with a friend. Once in a while, I find myself standing in fifth position at the bus stop or in my apartment. I don't realize until my husband points it out. It's not an issue for me.
posted by kat518 at 6:23 PM on December 30, 2011

Regarding women athletes and injuries, women are more likely to suffer knee injuries because our hips are set wider so unless you strengthen your inner and outer leg muscles, you risk making one stronger than the other, putting pressure/stress on the knee. But I don't think it sneaks up on you -you notice when your knees ache.
posted by kat518 at 6:29 PM on December 30, 2011

Wow, I had no idea that was a ballet position. I've been prone to standing like that as long as I can remember. I have some minor problems with my left hip, but I don't think it's related. So as long as she's careful with everything else, I don't imagine this specific thing will cause long term problems.
posted by windykites at 10:13 AM on September 6, 2012

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