Your Best Body

Ballet Dancers Conquer Their Toughest Role: Running the NYC Marathon

From left: Erin Arbuckle in rehearsal for a new work by Richard Isaac. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy Arbuckle; running the 2015 NYC Marathon. Photo by MarathonFoto, courtesy Arbuckle.

When Erin Arbuckle takes ballet class wearing her New York City Marathon shirt, teachers often ask her, "You didn't actually run that, did you?" She did, twice, and she's running again this year on November 5.

Arbuckle, 28, a graduate of School of American Ballet and a freelance dancer who has performed with Ballet Next and Emery LeCrone Dance among others, is a rare ballerina who not only runs but has taken on the challenge of a marathon.

"If I can run 26 miles, I can handle a two-minute variation," she says.

Ballet dancers are taught to save their bodies for dance and avoid injury from other activities. While low-impact cross-training like swimming is encouraged, running is generally considered too high impact.

"I was told it would give me huge calves and thighs and damage my knees," Arbuckle says.

Her two foot surgeries were from dance injuries though, not running, and her body is holding up well despite what she was told to expect.

Marika Molnar, director of physical therapy at New York City Ballet, generally advises dancers to run only as a warm up. "Running for 5 to 10 minutes before ballet class to move the large muscles of the body is useful," she said. "Beyond that, you start to have risks."


Given the stigma, it's not surprising that many ballerinas wait to run a marathon until after hanging up their pointe shoes.


From left: Waters and Meredith Rainey in Hawley Rowe's "#3" while at Pennsylvania Ballet. Photo courtesy Waters; Running the France Run 8k in 2017. Photo courtesy Game Face Media.

Emily Waters, 35, who danced for 10 years with Pennsylvania Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet, is running her first marathon this year. She struggled her entire career with back pain caused by scoliosis and ultimately stopped dancing because of it. She's been training for the marathon since February and says her back hasn't bothered her.

Her physical therapist Prachi Bakarania, a back-pain specialist at ColumbiaDoctors, says that running can help with pain management. "The impact of running can improve bone density, as long as training is done correctly and ramped up over time," she says.

Though Molnar agrees with this in general, she maintains that the length of a marathon can break down the bones, and isn't necessary for building the type of endurance dancers need. "You dance in spurts, not constant low-low dancing. It's more like sprinting than a marathon," she says.

Waters, who now works at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in arts and culture granting and is a graduate student in arts administration at Columbia University, says that marathon training provides the physical exertion she's missed since retiring from the stage seven years ago.

"When you're dancing, you're always taking stock of your body, noticing your aches and pains and responding to them. It feels so good to have that back again," she says.

Arbuckle finds the satisfaction of the marathon similar to performing. "When you're standing on the Verrazano Bridge, you know what's coming, it's emotional," she says, comparing the start of the NYC marathon to waiting in the wings to perform.

Peter Boal, 52, artistic director of Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet and former principal dancer at New York City Ballet, took on the half marathon at almost 50 years old, 10 years after retiring from the stage. He's since run three of them.


Boal after the Belligham Bay half-marathon in 2016. Photo courtesy PNB.


He says that his body wouldn't allow him to dance anymore, even just for fun, and running helped fill the void. "I feel graceful when I run, and I don't always get to feel that anymore," he says.

Boal explains that the appeal of the half marathon came from the perfectionism ingrained by ballet. "Running for fun was nice, but I wanted a goal to work toward, to continually improve and measure my progress," he says.

Asked if he'd recommend marathons to PNB company members, he wasn't sure if the ballet season was the right time to take it on. "I'd probably recommend swimming at the moment," he says.

Molnar agrees with him. "The amount of wear and tear and training required, I can't imagine you could maintain a career as a dancer and train for a marathon," she says.

Though Arbuckle is freelance, she maintains a busy schedule and said that she was in rehearsal two days after her second marathon. "I actually slipped on a banana peel toward the end of the marathon and got a little banged up, but in rehearsal two days later, I just took it a little easy on kneeling work," she says.

Waters is undecided on marathon training while performing. "It's not that it would've been bad for me, I just wouldn't have had time," she says. After a pause she adds, "But my body feels better than ever now, so who knows?"

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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

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