Posted on 7th November 2018

Ballet competition culture: are we putting young dancers at risk?

A statement from Christopher Powney, Artistic Director of The Royal Ballet School

Competitions have long been a platform where student dancers can enjoy positive experiences and learn from sharing with like-minded, passionate young people. Many top professionals speak of how competitions gave them life-changing opportunities and a place at one of the world’s most prestigious schools or companies.

Students gain so much more from their experience than just the chance of winning. Competitions are about meeting people, making new friends, comparing differing teaching and dance styles, measuring standards against international peers and being taught by some truly inspirational teachers and coaches.

In recent years there has been a huge growth in international ballet competitions. This should surely be a good thing, benefiting more students with the opportunity to compete and be seen. This is, for the best part, true. I have, however, been concerned about the impact it is having on the students and parents. A student's training is now so often being fast-tracked for these competitions in a way that I believe can be unhealthy. Ballet requires so much more than the physical and technical ability to execute a step or series of steps. I am not alone in feeling that some competitions foster a culture that fails to encourage the development of artists – where technique is emphasised over artistry and students seek to reach extremes before they have mastered the basics. We see audiences agog at the elaborate physical tricks on display. That audience should be looking for an expressive dancer trying to communicate emotion, dynamics, musicality, storytelling ability, alongside an accomplished, clean technique relative to their age. Isn’t this what the art-form is truly about?

This fast-tracking could potentially cause serious psychological and physical damage. Ballet institutions like ours are learning more and more about the body and mind of our students and constantly researching how to develop healthier and more resilient dancers. As educators, I believe we have a responsibility to these young people and as an industry, a duty to adapt or make changes when we see something potentially harmful is going on.

Alarmingly there are some teachers encouraging girls, as young as 9, 10 or 11 to perform variations en pointe, with some competitions permitting this. Pointe work is a defining addition to a girl’s ballet technique and requires great foundation strength. The top training schools only begin pointe work at the age of 11 (occasionally 10), after reaching the appropriate strength required. Ideally this follows three or four years of demi-pointe work and careful training, over several years, thereafter. Therefore, permitting 9 to 13-year-old students to tackle these variations, in a pressurised environment, is very worrying. There is a substantial difference between pointe work exercises in class and the level expected within a variation.

Some competitions permit young boys to perform a pas de deux at similar ages as well. Just consider how vulnerable the shoulder joint and back are when not yet fully developed or stable. In most good schools, boys start partnering carefully at 14. Why push these young bodies earlier when the risks of injury are so great? There is no good reason why the process should be fast-tracked for the purposes of the child to win a competition.

A young dancer can be pushed so hard that they burn out at 14 or 15 because they have been performing in so many competitions since they were 9, 10 or 11, sometimes travelling all over the world. I have seen this happen on more than one occasion; nobody gains from this.

I appreciate that some schools find themselves in a trap. Students and parents often believe that the schools producing the most winners of competitions are the best schools. Parents then decide to move their child, thinking that they will receive better training. This can be a total contradiction. To win a competition and subsequent recognition, a teacher/school has to dedicate considerable time to the training and perfecting of competition variations which invariably takes away from essential foundation training. Some schools require pre 16-year-old dancers to train between six and eight hours a day, six, even seven, days a week to perfect their solos. If all this time is dedicated to only a few steps within a particular variation, then the learning of other vocabulary and skills are neglected.

What about academic education? I have heard that some children have their academic education reduced to just a few hours a week. All children should have and deserve a good academic education. Fitting in any meaningful academic study surely becomes an issue if most of a child’s day is dedicated to ballet training. Not only will academic subjects help them after their dance career, but a thinking, educated dancer also makes for a far more successful artist.

Most top ballet schools schedule just three or four hours’ ballet training a day for under 16s, five days a week, encouraging rest at weekends. In order to grow healthily in adolescence, the body needs rest to avoid long-term and irreversible damage. If a child’s energy is used up training intensely for such long hours, then there is little left for growth and mental focus. Good training is about building the foundation blocks carefully and steadily so that dancers can achieve their full potential and longevity in their career.

Through years of experience, responsible competitions maintain robust criteria and approaches to ensure the expectations of a competitor are aligned with ethical and smart training and the latest research in physical and mental health.

A good example - the Prix de Lausanne competition only allows dancers to enter from the age of 15 upwards, making sure entrants are sufficiently physically developed to perform demanding vocabulary. This makes complete sense when the expectation is to practise and perform what is essentially a professional soloist or principal dancer’s variation. Even the best professionals can be challenged by these variations. At this competition the dancer’s classwork is also given great attention, offering another, possibly more informative and valuable aspect of the dancer’s standard and potential during their training years.

Competitions can be a great platform for dance students to gain valuable experience. However, we must, as an industry, review the expectations and pressures placed on young children, especially when this may impact on their health, growth and training cycle. While dancers will always be at risk of injury, I believe it is our duty to put in place strict criteria to protect children and to ensure that the artistic and technical vocabulary we ask for is age-appropriate.

I am encouraged that so many ballet leaders, teachers and coaches are proactively trying to address this. I hope that now, and into the future, we can all promote what we consider to be healthy, nurturing and in the best interests of the young people we care for.

Christopher Powney, Artistic Director, The Royal Ballet School

38 thoughts on “Ballet competition culture: are we putting young dancers at risk?

  1. Compelling and eloquently expressed. You mentioned the psychological impacts as well as of course the physical, but there are also the social affects. We notice a difference not just in the kids, but also in the parents/families of these kids. An elevated degree of consideration for how their child “compares” and unrelenting “hyper-competitiveness”. At one school that my son was at where no one participated in competitions (past or present), the kids and their parents were very friendly and the kids got along fabulously whereas we’ve found that isn’t always the case at schools with lots of former competition kids, whether the school supported competitions or not. In other words, some of the competition kids and their families had trouble returning to normal after leaving the competition world.

  2. I completely agree with Mr Powney’s article and now hope he will apply those principles in the training of students at his school and in recruitment to the school.

  3. Wonderful article and I completely agree. A dancer should also experience life as part of their developmental training. Guiding them in classes with physical exercises and artistic work, speaking of history and also of how technique has evolved through the years. Dancers should be encouraged to look at all art while training in ballet classes, and to most importantly keep the joy in movement.

  4. My daughter was lucky enough to star a contemporary dance class as a toddler in Hastings and then progressed to ballet with a non competitive teacher Elizabeth Palumbo. When we moved to the New forest only competitive ballet was available which never suited her. She still dances Morris and barn dancing and I still attend adult ballet now in my sixties. Dance is important for all to enjoy

  5. “Ballet requires so much more than the physical and technical ability to execute a step or series of steps. I am not alone in feeling that some competitions foster a culture that fails to encourage the development of artists – where technique is emphasised over artistry and students seek to reach extremes before they have mastered the basics. We see audiences agog at the elaborate physical tricks on display. That audience should be looking for an expressive dancer trying to communicate emotion, dynamics, musicality, storytelling ability, alongside an accomplished, clean technique relative to their age. Isn’t this what the art-form is truly about?”

    But you gave a scholarship to your Upper School (for 16-19 year olds) to a 14 year old girl, now 15, whose public Instagram is an example of everything you are saying here is inappropriate or extreme. I still do not understand how you are doing one thing and saying something almost completely different.

    1. Hi Anna, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Through the article Christopher Powney is hoping to raise awareness of the risks competition culture can pose for young dancers and he is calling for a change in the wider industry. The Royal Ballet School recruits dancers based solely on their potential to excel at the School and does not seek to penalise talented individuals for their training to date.

  6. As the mum of a daughter who never competed before the age of 16, I agree completely with all you have said. She retains her love of dance, is training professionally now, and has beautiful lines and finishes and now competes, but collaboratively with others on her team. She is hard-working, a rounded and passionate performer who gains joy from every day she learns. I’m so glad I was not keen for her to follow dance as a career path as it means she is making her way at her pace, for her pleasure, education and satisfaction and not for mine! Ignorance in this case has led to bliss!

  7. Nicely put Christopher Powney, personally I’ve never understood how Picasso could have competed with Dali, as I see all dancers as artists I’ve always felt putting artists in any sort of competitive environment inevitably achieves more harm than good to our industry. First and foremost it puts off anybody who isn’t competitive and that can’t be good. Some of the greatest dance artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing the stage with did not have competitive personalities, more a genuine joy of dance.

  8. Actually the Prix de Lausanne has lowered the age to 14 and not 15 as stated in the article. The USA IBC and the MOSCOW IBC are also 14. Varna and Helsinki are 15.

    1. The Prix de Lausanne has brought the age back up to 15 years old for the next competition in February 2019. It was 14.5 years old in 2018 but abandoned as not constructive towards the candidates.

  9. This is fantastic and much needed advice. It’s so difficult for mothers to question the professionals that we pay train our children. Can you please share your expertise on oversplits? Is there a safe way to do them? Are they necessary? Should we wait until a certain age?

  10. “That audience should be looking for an expressive dancer trying to communicate emotion, dynamics, musicality, storytelling ability, alongside an accomplished, clean technique relative to their age. Isn’t this what the art-form is truly about?” The adjudicators need to be better too. We just competed where an adjudicator said “I just went with what I liked”…that is a statement from an incompetent adjudicator, and there’s many. So instead of looking for solid technique & artistry (that they have no idea about anyway) they go for the show! Another issue I have noticed is the amount of pre-pubescent, anorexic looking girls being chosen over artistry, musicality and technique. Why? You think because they’re skinny and undeveloped that the other skills will just magically happen? We should NOT be encouraging underweight girls or indeed dancers in companies who have to lose weight to become Principals.

  11. This sounds very positive for child development and support. Except it comes from a man at the head of a school which brags on Instagram that it will be recruiting students from “selected international competitions”, and who himself spends considerable time on competition judging panels. I don’t understand.

  12. My daughter loves ballet but dreaded competitions. She had invested a lot of time and effort into learning and rehearsing her dances but the build up to competing caused her stress. As a parent moving in unfamiliar dance circles I felt that it was the norm to be competing. However as she has moved to the older age groups the other competitors were performing more advanced and complex routines than she was, causing more anxiety towards competitions. Over time we reduced the number of competitions and last month we made the decision to stop. The relief for my daughter was enormous. She is now so much happier and her love for dancing and weekends has now returned. As a ‘dance mum’ I have concerned myself as to whether more dancing, training and exposure is necessary to succeed in a ballet career, as her peers seem to doing so much more than she does. Thank you for this article. It has made me, as a parent, feel relief that I have made decisions that will not have a detrimental affect on the possibility of her being a ballet dancer.

  13. I completely agree with the principle behind this article; that those students who are not physically ready to push forward with pointe or pas de deux work should not be made to do so.

    However, I feel there needs to be more consideration and discussion regarding the definition of maturation and the use of appropriate skills and techniques. Using a certain age as a basis to begin certain skills does not take into consideration an individuals’ maturity/physical development status. You mention 10-11 as an age to begin pointe work; but what if the individual is not ready until they are 13? Or perhaps they have the prerequisite strength at 8?

    Further research into this would be beneficial in order to further understand the perceived/required criteria required to begin skills and to safeguard the students health long term. It may be useful to use the link between St Mary’s University and the Royal Ballet School Healthcare team as this should help find more answers.

    Jason Laird
    Lead Physiotherapist at British Gymnastics (previously Physiotherapist at the Royal Ballet Company)

  14. Thank you Mr Powney for sharing this valuable perspective which deserves to be as impactful as it is wise. Your students are very lucky indeed to be under your stewardship!

  15. Great article! When I returned to ballet after a break, trying to find a studio for my own children, I couldn’t believe what I’d returned to. Competitive studios are the norm now and it’s nearly impossible to find studios that just focus on exams, and also on fun. Dance should be fun. Dance also should be an art. That’s another problem the competitive world has created–they have erased the artistic component of dance. How can art ever truly be evaluated and recognized with trophies? It goes against the nature of creative expression. But what was most disturbing is what I might dare say is an element of child abuse–children should not be at studios all night long–eating their dinners there, not getting to bed, not doing their homework. These are children! There should still be time each evening for a dinner around the family table, for riding their bikes, for getting fresh air. All these things ultimately will strengthen them one day if they want a professional career in dance. Please keep speaking out!

  16. Thank you. Dancers in classes look very different to on stage in rehearsed variations. Dance is not a winner takes all. And we are breeding competition queens ……
    But in the eyes of a 16 year old how else does she get recognised if the to get into a company. It is a challenge and if Dance is to survive we need to address this..

    1. Agree/amazed/in/class/amazing/tricks/but. Terrible/arms./I/trained/with/Kathleen/Crofton/also/RAD/.scholar/We/had/every/day/port/de/bars/also/more/quick/footwork/Still/doing/class/at/73/to/keep/fit

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