Why Studying Kinesiology Could Benefit Your Ballet Career, Whether You Dance, Teach or Choreograph

June 1, 2021

When it comes to the body, dancers seem to have a sixth sense about which muscles to use when. And yet many aren’t familiar with the actual science behind body movement. That’s where kinesiology comes in. Kinesiology is a science studied by physical therapists and athletic trainers that is becoming more common in university dance curriculums. Similar to anatomy, it examines the human body; however, kinesiology narrows in on movement and specifically looks at the skeleton, muscles and actions within the body that are required to initiate motion.

Though this science has gained significant traction in the dance world, many dancers are still unaware of how beneficial a kinesiology course can be when preparing for a ballet career, whether you dream of choreographing, performing or teaching ballet. We spoke with three professionals in the ballet industry who have studied kinesiology and have seen this knowledge enhance their own careers.

Ashley Simpson, professional dancer

Ashley Simpson, in a green leotard and brown pointe shoes, stands on her right leg on pointe and kicks her left leg behind her in a high attitude. She lifts her arms up high above her head.
BalletX dancer Ashley Simpson says studying kinesiology transformed her approach to technique. Rachel Neville, Courtesy Ashley Simpson

Professional dancers experience quite a bit of autonomy in the studio, so when they are struggling to execute steps, they need to know their bodies well enough to determine what changes need to be made. An understanding of kinesiology can provide that awareness.

“Kinesiology helps me help myself,” says BalletX artist Ashley Simpson. “I feel like I am working smarter, not harder.”

Simpson was briefly exposed to kinesiology during several summer dance intensives, but she received an in-depth understanding of the science while attending the Ailey/Fordham BFA program as a dance major. She says that taking the course transformed her approach to technique.

While her kinesiology and anatomy classes had some similarities, Simpson explains that the former was much more physical and hands-on. “We did a lot of high-intensity-interval-training research and had projects where we had to analyze dance moves that we found challenging and figure out which muscles were firing at each point of the movement,” Simpson says.

Understanding the fundamentals of movement mechanics has made all the difference to Simpson’s technique. “As a young student I would try the same thing over and over again without making any real internal changes and then wonder why it looked the same,” she says. “But now when I go into a pirouette thinking about where my turnout muscles are and where the force of the takeoff is coming from, and how my back is engaged, I get two more pirouettes.”

Simpson feels her knowledge in kinesiology has helped with injury prevention, too. “I have been lucky enough to not be injured thus far, and I contribute that to knowing what my inner muscles need to fire in the correct way.”

Gretchen Vogelzang, ballet teacher

Gretchen Vogelzang, in blakc T-shirt and pants and a blue face mask, stands to the left and coaches a group of young dancers during a conditioning class. The three teenage students stand on folding chairs with their right legs in parallel passu00e9 and holding a arm weight high above their head with their left hand.Gretchen Vogelzang assists her dance students with a cross training program that helps them improve their strength, agility and flexibility. Alan Price, Courtesy Greater Washington Dance Center

Having a background in kinesiology can be an effective lifeline for teachers hoping to instill a deeper understanding of ballet in their students. Gretchen Vogelzang, director of Greater Washington Dance Center, says that kinesiology provides the foundation to “become a really intelligent teacher who can train a dancer from the inside out.”

“A lot of us just learn dance from copying others,” she continues. “You can try as you want to make everything look good on the outside, but if those muscles aren’t functioning properly from the inside, then the technique is never really going to be there.”

She says it has also given her the vocabulary to accurately describe how students should be executing certain steps. “The more you can articulate what you need the body to do, the better success you’re going to have with your dancers,” says Vogelzang. For instance, a student who is struggling to balance may be told that they need to “stay up.” But a kinesthetic explanation might be more helpful, as it would describe the process, or the “how,” of the balance and name the correct muscles to initiate and engage.

Vogelzang also integrates her knowledge of kinesiology with other dance sciences to create cross-training programs for her dancers, organizing exercises and circuits that target different muscle groups within the body. She supplements this with her students’ technique classes to help improve their strength, agility and flexibility.

As a teacher, Vogelzang considers studying kinesiology to be one of the best decisions for her career. “Alongside anatomy and physiology, it provides in-depth knowledge of the instrument you’re working with and what makes your body do what it needs to do.”

Claudia Anata Hubiak, choreographer

Claudia Anata Hubiak, in black workout clothes and socks, lunges deelpy on her right leg and stretches her arms wide. To her left in the dance studio stand a cluster of two men and one woman dancer, who watch her intently.Claudia Anata Hubiak (far right) goes over her choreography with members of Boulder Ballet during a recent rehearsal. Mark Ragan, Courtesy Boulder Ballet

For Claudia Anata Hubiak, studying kinesiology throughout college, and then as part of her research in graduate school at New York University, strongly impacted her development as a dancemaker. “The science of the human body in motion is a powerful tool for any choreographer, and understanding the biomechanical and physiological structures of the body helped me to hone my craft,” says Hubiak, who works as both a choreographer and as executive director at Boulder Ballet in Colorado.

This knowledge has inspired and influenced her choreographic choices in the form of motion, shape and dynamics. “I work a lot with impulse and initiation in partnering, and the motion of how a shoulder joint can rotate or a limb can extend in relationship to another human being can speak volumes onstage,” Hubiak explains. It’s this integral, kinesthetic understanding of the process of body movement that Hubiak likes to play with in her pieces.

Kinesiology has played such a crucial role in Hubiak’s path as a choreographer that she encourages dancers to look for ways to learn more about the science. “The subject is not often offered outside a university setting, but I think even just seeking out some great texts or even an online course could be a wonderful supplement to a dancer’s education.”

To learn more about the science of movement in the human body, Hubiak and Vogelzang recommend these books:

  • The Anatomy of Movement, by Blandine Calais-Germain
  • Taking Root to Fly, by Irene Dowd
  • Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery, by Eric Franklin
  • Netter’s Moving AnatoME: An Interactive Guide to Musculoskeletal Anatomy, by Stephanie Marango and Carrie McCulloch
  • The Physics of Dance, by Kenneth Laws