Social Science

Research Shows that Ballet can Improve Exercisers in Every Arena

Research Shows that Ballet can Improve Exercisers in Every Arena

Advice about fitness geared toward older individuals has grown in popularity as the world’s population ages. Social dancing in particular has been seen as a beneficial form of exercise for people who are getting older since it can enhance posture, balance, mobility, and cognitive capacities.

But what about ballet, a type of dance widely thought to require extreme physical ability? Who would attempt to learn ballet in their later years?

However, and this may come as a surprise to some, a lot of older women prefer to enroll in ballet classes offered by professional ballet companies or dance schools, and academics are now beginning to look at their experiences.

Ballet is a classical dance form that originated in the Italian Renaissance courts and later developed into a highly technical style of dance. It is characterized by its graceful and precise movements, pointe work (dancing on the tips of the toes), and a strong emphasis on technique and discipline.

Using an approach called action research, Anja Ali-Haapala, Gene Moyle, and Graham Kerr studied a ballet class offered for women aged between 46 and 82 years with a professional company and professional ballet teachers in Australia. Likewise, Allison Jeffrey, Corrine Story, and I (Pirkko Markula) interviewed participants in a recreational ballet class offered to women 55+ years by a local ballet company with a professional ballet teacher in Canada.

Ballet classes are typically structured and led by a ballet instructor who guides students through various exercises and combinations. These classes focus on developing strength, flexibility, coordination, balance, and musicality. They also help improve posture, body alignment, and overall body awareness.

A third study, by Rachyl Pines and Howard Giles, included adult ballet classes at local studios in the United States. In this study, the dancers’ ages ranged from 23 to 87 years old, with some retiring from their ballet careers at an early age.

Although the participants’ ballet experience differed from retired professional dancers to total beginners, several main themes emerged across all three studies.

The Physical and Mental Challenges of Dancing Ballet

All of the dancers who were interviewed for these research valued the physical challenge that ballet offers. Although cardiovascular “exertion” was highlighted, many participants when evaluating ballet’s physicality alluded to the technical qualities of performing ballet. They claimed that the ballet method helped with flexibility and balance and trained muscles that weren’t typically used in daily living.


A typical ballet class included both barre work and exercises in the center of the floor. According to Jeffrey and colleagues, the participants thought the barre exercises in the leisure class was most beneficial. One dancer explained that her “favorite was the barre, some of the leg lifts, and the things that really got at those new muscles that I don’t often use” (p. 6).

The physical difficulty of the center work, particularly the planned sequences, appealed to the more seasoned ballet dancers. In Ali-Haapala and colleagues’ study, the dancers wanted to be “‘extended’ through ballet’s technique” (p. 5) and to continue improving their dance ability. Instead of a steady decline, the dancers believed they could keep developing their ballet skills. As one woman in Pines and Giles’ study explained: “I always felt like there was a chance to move and do something better… maybe this tonight or tomorrow I can do a pirouette that I hadn’t done in a while… or my extension is going to be better” (p. 87).

Remembering the movement sequences, changing directions, and learning the choreographed sequences presented further challenges to the dancers in Ali-Haapala and colleagues’ study. As one dancer explained: “The holding of the pattern, taking in that information and then getting yourself going with the music, and even remembering what’s the first step” (p. 4) required particular concentration.

The recreational ballet dancers in Jeffrey and colleagues’ study also found that their class was mentally stimulating. One dancer concluded: “those exercises help me to focus and to try to remember the sequence of things that I’ve done… the overall effect of exercise… is a really big deal” (p. 7).

Regardless of their previous ballet experience, all the dancers felt empowered to modify the exercises to match their own needs. Linda explained that in her recreational ballet class, “there were some things I just couldn’t do, and the balance pieces were really challenging for me, which shows me how much work I need to do… some days you’re better than others” (Jeffrey & al., 2022, p. 8).

Gaining a Sense of Self

Although the dancers were not always prepared to perform all the exercises in their classes, ballet increased their confidence. Recreational dancer Janice found that the ballet class improved self-awareness: “It (ballet) makes me feel more confident, it makes me feel like I can tackle more things. It makes me feel less like I’m aging. It makes me feel engaged and connected” (Jeffrey & al., 2022, p. 7).

Pines and Giles also observed that the dancers in their study self-identified as “ballet dancers” rather than “old.” The women explained that dancing ballet sustained their energy levels and added “more than 10 years to your life and to your health” (p. 87). For these dancers, ballet was a way of expressing feelings and emotions through movement and also a central aspect of their identities.

The Pleasures of Dancing Ballet

All of the ballet dancers across the studies emphasized the enjoyment of dancing. The recreational dancers enjoyed “learning a little bit of ballet” (Jeffrey & al., 2022, p. 6). The advanced ballet dancers in Pines and Giles’ study danced because “it was so pleasurable” (p. 85).

Ali-Haapala and colleagues emphasized that ballet offered multiple pleasures to their participants. The hard ballet sequences performed to music were well-liked by the dancers, who even requested more challenging workouts from their instructors. Additionally, they delighted in the chance to dance socially and took pleasure in the facets of ballet that best suited each dancer.

Finally, they enjoyed the social aspects of dancing with other women of similar age. The recreational ballet dancers in Jeffrey and colleagues’ study also emphasized this aspect. One participant explained that while there were women of “all different sizes, body types, backgrounds,” they “were the same age and we weren’t in amongst a bunch of young girls and men who were checking themselves out in their lululemon outfits… it felt comfortable being amongst everybody” (p. 6).

Pines and Giles also observed that some of their participants had become good friends with their fellow dancers. In the studio classes open to all adults, these ballet dancers enjoyed the opportunity for intergenerational interactions to dance with much younger (age 23) and older (age 87) ballerinas with significant experience in ballet.

Lessons to Learn

These research examined the experiences of older women in ballet courses, but we can also draw general conclusions about the fitness sector as a whole and senior exercise classes in particular.

Instead of offering only easy-to-follow exercise classes, including opportunities to learn new skills can add interest in physical activity participation.

The ballet dancers embraced the physical challenges of learning ballet techniques that also invited them to think about what they were doing. This gave the dancers a better sense of self that also defied some of the social stereotypes of aging as a process of decline.

A ballet class became a space that offered ways to think of new opportunities for joy. Therefore, adding skill learning to any exercise class can be an important challenge that helps all fitness participants to defy social expectations of femininity.

Instead of hard work, emphasizing the enjoyment of exercise is important for continued participation.

The ballet dancers enjoyed being in their dance spaces, doing their exercises to music, and dancing with other dancers. Maintaining health was important and the dancers were not immune to body concerns. For example, having mirrors in the studios troubled some dancers.

However, the actual ballet movements and learning to skillfully execute them was the predominant source of pleasure. Consequently, focusing on the enjoyment of moving during any exercise class is important for participants’ positive exercise experience.

Instead of one size for all, exercise modifications need to be included in fitness classes.

The role of the teacher was important for the mature ballet dancers: it was the teacher who determined the content of the class and also provided some modifications for different levels of dancers. It is important to realize that mature women, or any women, are not a unified group who needs only gentle exercise; many also enjoy physical challenges. A well-educated instructor with appropriate qualifications can cater to the needs of a diverse clientele.

Not only the physical but also the social aspect of exercise participation is important.

Getting to know other women in the ballet class was important for many participants. Some dancers felt the most comfortable in a class with participants of similar ages; others enjoyed having a wide age range, but a similar skill level. However, it was important to have the possibility to dance at any age. Offering classes for a specific target group can be very empowering, but it is also important to consider exercisers’ different skill levels.

Ballet dancing and learning new abilities can be pleasant as you become older and can boost your confidence and feeling of self. Other workout modalities that target a wide range of consumers and aim to further boost involvement in fitness can incorporate some of its unique traits.


  • Ali-Haapala, A., Moyle, G., & Kerr, Graham (2021). ‘Stretch’ cognitively and physically: A research on older adults’ experiences of taking ballet classes as an anti-aging method. Journal of Innovation in Social Science, 2(1), 1-7.
  • Jeffrey, A., Markula, P., & Story, C. (2022). Women’s articulations of aging: “Learning to be affected” through experiences in recreational ballet. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 4:795956.
  • Pines, R., & Giles, H. (2020). Dancing while aging: A study on benefits of ballet for older women.