Ballet postures have become more extreme over time

By Ed Yong | March 31, 2009 8:30 am

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchClassical ballet is one of the more conservative of art forms. Dancers express emotion and character through the same vocabulary of postures that was originally set in 1760, and often with entire choreographies that have been handed down for centuries.

But even amid this rigorous cascade of tradition, there is room for change. Over the years, successive generations of ballet dancers have subtly tinkered with positions that are ostensibly fixed and limited by the physical constraints of a dancer’s body. The only changes ought to be a result of the dancers’ varying abilities. But that’s not the case – over the last 60 years, the position of a dancer’s has become increasingly vertical, with the moving leg in particular being lifted ever higher.

Elena Daprati from the University of Rome thinks that these tweaks have been driven by social pressures from audiences. When she reduced pictures of dancers to stick-figure drawings, she found that even people who have never seen a ballet prefer the postures of modern dancers to those of dancers 60 years ago. The results suggest that art can change very gradually because of constant interactions between performers and their audiences.

Almost more importantly, they show that the usually unquantifiable world of artistic expression can be studied with a scientific lens. In this case, the formal nature of classical ballet gave Daprati a rare opportunity to do so. Body postures could be objectively analysed, movements are standardised enough to allow for easy comparisons, and most of all, performances have been carefully archived for decades. That provided Daprati’s group with more than enough raw material for studying the evolution of ballet postures over time.

Daprati raided the archives of London’s Royal Opera House for photos and videos of dancers from 1946-2004. She focused on a single piece of choreography from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty (“The Rose Adagio” in Act I), and on productions by a single company – the Royal Ballet. All in all, she gathered 153 images of six standard positions, such as arabesque sur la pointe, where the dancer stands on one leg and extends the other behind her, and developpe a la seconde, where one leg is extended smoothly into the air. 

She reduced each image to a stick figure and calculated the angle between the raised “working leg” and the vertical supporting one. For each position, Daprati found that this angle increased as the years went by. Take developpe a la seconde – in the 1940s, dancers held their moving leg just above the 90 degree level, but today’s dancers effectively extend it straight up with an incredible 180 degree gap between their two legs.

Sceptics might argue that these trends could just reflect a sampling bias, where later images were chosen for their more extreme postures. But Daprati actually found that individual dancers are actually quite consistent in any given production. The variation in their postures is substantially smaller than the variation in leg position across the years.

This change in a supposedly established position must have demanded ever-increasing feats of balance from ballerinas over the years, especially since the angle of their trunks was the same. In short, they were lifting their legs higher and higher without compensating by lowering their bodies. A dancer’s ability to do this depends on her skill at rotating her hips – a basic but essential technique called turnout, which has clearly been perfected across the years.

It’s easy to think that the increasingly extreme postures of classical ballet simply reflect a trend towards increasingly dextrous and showy dancers. But to Daprati, that’s not the whole picture. For a start, she points out that the trend towards increasingly vertical legs also applied to postures where the leg isn’t lifted very high or where  a male dancer provides support. In these situations, the leg could actually be lifted even higher and presumably by dancers much earlier on in history. But that wasn’t the case. And even younger, less experienced dancers performing Sleeping Beauty’s simpler “Fairy of Purity” movement showed the same trend over time.

Daprati suggests that these postures have responded to subtle pressures from the 20th century’s ballet-going audiences. She converted her images into stick figures or four-sided shapes with corners at the ballerina’s hands and feet. For both types of images, she found that 12 recruits with hardly any experience of ballet were more likely to prefer those taken from more recent years, than those hailing from the post-war period.

Of course, we have no way of knowing if audiences from the 1940s felt the same. But even without that knowledge, it’s clear enough that the postures modern dancers have gradually shifted towards are those that modern people find most appealing. To Daprati, this suggests that the changes have been affected by aesthetics as much as by the physical prowess of the dancers.

Reference: Daprati, E., Iosa, M., & Haggard, P. (2009). A Dance to the Music of Time: Aesthetically-Relevant Changes in Body Posture in Performing Art PLoS ONE, 4 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005023

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Comments (22)

  1. Scott Belyea

    To Daprati, this suggests that the changes have been affected by aesthetics as much as by the physical prowess of the dancers.

    Or it could be almost the exact opposite (or so my daughter, a professional dancer, suspects).
    Call it the Tiger Woods syndrome. There seems little doubt that dancers have become better conditioned over time, and that they train more intensively for longer hours. As someone is able to do something just a bit better than others (lift the trailing leg a bit higher or hit the ball just a bit harder), that becomes a competitive advantage which others will chase.
    Getting and keeping a position in a professional company is a very competitive activity, and anything that gives you even the slightest advantage is worthwhile.
    It may well be that audiences prefer the more extreme positions, but that their development was driven more by dancer competitiveness.

  2. Charlotte

    Scott’s point is a good one, but unlike most sports ballet has been a professional occupation (with intensive training from childhood) since before 1946. The training may have changed substantially, of course, it’s not exactly my field!
    The most interesting result to me is that the arabesque sur la pointe now seems to be following the same trend, after a long period when 90 degrees was apparently the ‘correct’ angle.
    O/T – the link to ‘Brain of the Beholder’ isn’t working for me.

  3. Not long ago I saw some old re-runs of the Ed Sullivan Show. What surprised me was how lame the acrobats looked compared to current standards. Similar to the ballet trends, but more so, acrobats’ performances have become far more extreme. I wonder if it’s an even trend over time or whether the advent of Cirque de Soleil had the greater impact.

  4. Art

    I suggest that this may be the result of novelty seeking behavior of the audience mind and the desire to maintain a strong positive reinforcement for the dancer, the favorable response from the rapidly jaded audience, as a ballet move becomes commonplace.
    Related to an addict needing increasing doses to get the same effect and desensitization to violence and the ever increasing gore in video games to stimulate the rapidly acclimating video player.

  5. This is a very interesting write up. What is amazing is the sheer level of stress that this puts on the performers feet. I know several ballet dancers who have retired due to injury. I am curious if these new techniques increase this stress.
    Brendan
    http://www.wildramblings.com

  6. much of this strikes me as analogous to steve gould’s 1996 analysis of the demise of the .400 batting average in baseball… as he demonstrated, it wasn’t so much the fact that there were giant’s in baseball’s past, so much as a refinement of the game over time… as batters, pitchers, and gameplay improved, the variance around annual mean batting averages systematically decreased over time… decreasing variance makes .400 averages unlikely, even though overall hitting improves…
    what makes the daprati, et al study so interesting to me is that it’s not the intrinsic game (ballet) “improvements” that are driving performance so much as the extrinsic audience expectations… but there must be a finite “ceiling” on performance based on the physical constraints of bone, muscle, and gravity… i wonder if the burnout rate or body failure of ballet dancers has had a compensatory march to earlier retirement ages?

  7. natural cynic

    Something that needs to be injected into the discussion is the advancement of Sports Medicine – the increased knowledge of training techniques, injury rehabilitation, biomechanics etc. Better rehab of inevitable injuries allows dancers to prolong careers and make performances more extreme. A better understanding of training techniques reduces injury and allows the body to approach biomechanical extremes. This improved knowledge base has certainly been a major factor in changing performances. Another point is that these techniques involve hip flexibility while career-ending injuries in ballerinas involve in the foot and ankle [too much en pointe].
    Another factor that has been seen in other athletic endeavors is a widening of the population for recruitment of stellar performers. The greater number of people that now see various athletic endeavors as a career should increase the number of individuals at the extreme ends of athletic potential. Add to this cross-cultural influences such as the introduction of things like chinese acrobatics.
    This kind of imrovement can be seen in an even greater extent in gymnastics. The kind of performances that astounded everyone by Olga Korbut and Nadia Comenaneci in the 70′s probably wouldn’t even get you invited to a national meet nowadays.

  8. cynic raises an important point, but there’s still the inevitable limitations based on materials strength… certainly training and physio expands those limits to some extent… and who knows if performance enhancing drugs in ballet are as prevalent as professional sports…
    but even before the extremes in ballet performance today, ballet was considered a punishing art form on the human body… a cleveland clinic analysis of ballet related injuries, for example, concluded that, “Professional dancers may create artistic and beautiful movements but, compared to the 61 common sports, only professional football is more physically demanding than ballet.”

  9. Zea

    The same thing has happened in other areas as well. A great example is figure skating. #1) it used to be no one really gave a rat’s bum about figure skating anyway, but #2) the moves have become progressively more difficult. 50 years ago, no one believed it possible to do any sort of triple jumps, yet these are the things judges today really look for to impress them.

  10. Thomas

    This is very similar to what is happening to any sport or art or profession. Over the years people get better at their crafts. When they figured out ways to do amazing things and do them over and over again they passed it down to their students. Football players have gotten increasingly better as compared to the early football players. Same thing with skateboarding, The tricks have become so much more complex yet people can still pull them off with the same relative ease that early trick skateboarders pulled off whatever tricks they did. I think it’s very interesting how humans are become masters at everything we do because of increasing knowledge, passed down from generation to generation with additional information added as people unlock new secrets.

  11. The issue is one of the lack of classical education…..I’m all for extension however there is something called LINE as in an arabesque which is a soft curve…..Gelsey Kirkland would be a prime example of a dancer who had miraculous ability but somehow kept her line pure and restrained.
    When I worked with Margeret Craske in the early 80′s [not fun at all] her concern was that ballet was no longer classical….it was like burlesque. While Ms Craske took her views to extremes, no stretching nothing higher than 90 she did have a point on the vulgarization of line. There is a difference between art; high/ low and sport and there should be an awareness of style and technique which dictates the hight of the leg….not all arabesques [used to mean hope] are equal.

  12. Palmyrah

    “It may well be that audiences prefer the more extreme positions, but that their development was driven more by dancer competitiveness.”
    There is no difference, really. Dancers compete for the approbation of the public.
    I believe what we are seeing here is a selective feedback loop of the kind known as Fisherian runaway. Usually, it’s sexually motivated. A preference for a particular physical attribute or behavioural trait manifested by one sex comes to be preferred by members of the other, causing that trait to be selected for and spread through the population – along with the preference for it. Runaway sexual selection can lead to the creation of energy-consuming phenotypical ornaments – fitness advertisements – like peacocks’ tails and, some claim, human language and culture. It could well be the cause of ballerinas’ increasing defiance of the natural limits of muscle and sinew.

  13. Congratulations, this is indeed a very good article.

  14. MattK

    Congrats on winning the PLoS One blog post contest!

  15. Patrick Haggard

    These comments are all very stimulating. Our conjecture in the article is also of a feedback loop (as Palmyrah comments), but an aesthetic one rather than a sexual one. Artistic culture seems to sustain these kind of feedback processes rather well. In our case, it’s interesting that these changes happen even though the choreography is supposedly fixed.

  16. Fascinating shit, holmes!

  17. Congratulations! Great article. I was reminded of a news story about how the demands of the crowd have pushed professional athletes to new breakthroughs in speed, dexterity and strength. Of course, this has also led to many of the abuses in professional sports today. The only “juicing” that Babe Ruth ever did before a game was five fingers of rye.

  18. I’ve now read the full article Mr. Jong refers to. Although the authors use scientific jargon, their actual premises – and arguments – are anything but scientific.
    The first, and most obvious question, is whether what we are seeing on stage now is still “classical dance” – which is an art form, or SOMETHING ELSE masquerading under that name, but which is actually a SPORT.
    Words – “artistic”, “expression”, “tradition”, are just ciphers. But what do they MEAN? I am not at all sure that the authors have a clue.
    Secondly, they appear to live in a value-free zone. The most obvious value, in anything that has to do with MAN, is the integrity of that temple of the soul, the body. Thanks to these “extreme postures”, the career of a professional dancer has been shortened by ten to fifteen years, over the last decade. We are seeing accidents of a kind, and of a severity, such as pelvic and spinal fracture, hitherto unknown in the profession. This is not an “epiphenomenon” – it is a phenomenon at the core of what currently passes for “classical technique”, and that I would venture to suggest is neither classical, nor, in terms of its teleology, technique.

  19. jane goodall

    Given the growing interest in epigenetic change, and some of the more recent research findings – see for example article by Emily Singer Feb 4, 09 at http://www.technologyreview.com – has anyone looked into the factor of hereditary capacity in dancers, acrobats and gymnasts?

  20. Fascinating post, Ed, which I found via the PloS competition, which I found via your tweet today.
    Sceptics might argue that these trends could just reflect a sampling bias, where later images were chosen for their more extreme postures.
    There are other things sceptics might argue, though, including this: how do the authors know the photographs were always taken at the posture’s climax? Maybe the postures have stayed the same over the years, but photographers are now better at capturing the precise moment when the leg is at its most extreme angle.

  21. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that gymnastics and cheerleading have also become more extreme just in my lifetime. To me it seems that grace falls by the wayside while athletics takes over.
    My daughter was a cheerleader in high school, and she always wanted to emphasize doing the motions correctly and “prettily”. For example, with a toe touch, where you jump straight up and kick both legs out at once, your legs should be perfectly level and your toes pointed, your back straight, arms even. But most cheerleaders now tend to go past level with their legs because it looks more strenuous, and they don’t pay attention to their toes or to their posture.
    The problem is that audiences are wowed by athleticism and don’t seem to value the beauty of grace in performance. As Katherine Kanter points out, ballet has become more like a sport than a form of dance, and I would say this is true of other forms of dance as well. Just look at ballroom dancing, tango, even flamenco, to name a few.

  22. E. Brown

    Surely the development of contemporary dance over the 20th c has an effect on audience esthetics, and what they find attractive?
    One of the goals of contemporary dance was to question the assumptions and traditions of ballet, and to challenge conventions – from basic postures onward.
    While conservative, I don’t think folks as creative as dancers, choreographers and musicians are completely static, and are bound to be influenced by the challenge that contemporary presented to ballet.
    Those who enjoy contemporary dance, both performers and audiences, would bring their tastes to the ballet with them.

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