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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Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcracker.' Photo by Rich Sofranko

Catching a performance of The Nutcracker has long been a holiday tradition for many families. And now, more and more companies are adding sensory-friendly elements to specific shows in an effort to make the classic ballet inclusive to children and adults with special needs.

While the accommodations vary depending on the company, many are presenting shorter versions of the ballet with more relaxed theater rules. Additionally, lower sound and stage light levels during the performance, as well as trained staff on hand, make The Nutcracker more accessible for those on the autism spectrum and others with special needs.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's performance will take place on Tuesday, December 26th, and they are one of the pioneer companies in presenting sensory-friendly performances of The Nutcracker (their first production was in 2013). PBT also offers sensory-friendly versions of Jorden Morris' Peter Pan and Lew Christensen's Beauty and the Beast throughout the year.

See our list of sensory-friendly performances, and check out each site for all of the details regarding their offerings.

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Pilates hundred intermediate set-up, modeled by Jordan Miller. Photo by Emily Giacalone.

The Pilates hundred is a popular exercise used by many dancers for conditioning and warming up, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Pumping your arms for 100 counts sounds simple enough, but it requires coordinated breathwork, a leg position that suits your abilities and proper alignment. Marimba Gold-Watts, who works with New York City Ballet dancers at her Pilates studio, Articulating Body, breaks down this surprisingly hard exercise. When done correctly, the benefits are threefold: "If you're doing it before class," she says, "the hundred is a great way to get your blood flowing and work on breath control and abdominal support all at once."

To Start

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod your chin toward the front of your throat, and reach your fingertips long.

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At just 16 years old, the Bolshoi Ballet's Maria Alexandrova already had the makings of a great artist. In this variation from Coppélia, she portrays the carefree Swanilda with blithe, youthful ease.

When she bounds on stage in her perky pink tutu, you immediately notice her legs–they just go on forever. In the first sequence of steps she keeps her jetés and développés low, but then the phrase repeats and she lets her gorgeous extensions fly. She sails through Italian fouettés and whirls around in piqués en manège that get faster and faster. While she nails all the virtuosic movement, Alexandrova also pays beautiful attention to detail throughout the variation. Even the simplest steps become something exciting, like her precise pas de bourrées beginning at 1:03 that sing with musicality.

Swanilda has been one of Alexandrova's signature roles throughout her career. For a fun side by side, watch her perform the same variation almost 20 years later in this video. Although Alexandrova formally retired from the Bolshoi in February, she still performs frequently in Moscow and internationally as a guest artist. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


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Ingrid Silva and her dog, Frida Kahlo. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

You're probably already following your favorite dancers on Instagram, but did you know that you can follow many of their dogs, too? We rounded up some of our favorite dog-centered accounts and hashtags to keep you pawsitively entertained (sorry, we can't help ourselves).

Cora and Maya (American Ballet Theatre's Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda)

Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda's pups Cora and Maya update their profile pretty frequently. Often accompanying Lane to the ABT studios, they can also be seen using tutus or piles of pink tights as dog beds.

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Vladislav Lantritov and Ekaterina Krysanova in "Taming of the Shrew." Photo by Alice Blangero, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet.

If you haven't checked your local movie listings yet for this weekend, hop to it. The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema series and Fathom Events is broadcasting a performance of Jean-Christophe Maillot's The Taming of the Shrew to theaters nationwide on Sunday, November 19. (To see if it's playing near you and to purchase tickets, click here.) While the rest of the Bolshoi's cinema season features 19th- and 20th-century classics, The Taming of the Shrew gives audiences a chance to see the revered Moscow company in a thoroughly modern, 21st-century take on Shakespeare's famous play.

Aside from a limited run in New York City this July, American audiences have had little exposure to Maillot's 2014 production. To learn more, check out these two exclusive, behind-the-scenes webisodes below. Principal dancer Ekaterina Krysanova, who stars as the hotheaded Katharina, gives an intimate play-by-play of two major scenes in Act I. The first is her fiery rejection of three potential suitors (who all would prefer to marry Katharina's younger sister Bianca).

The second scene breaks down Katharina's first encounter with Petruchio (danced by the larger-than-life Vladislav Lantritov), the only man who seems to be able to challenge her. Here, too, we see the shrew's heart start to soften. (Don't miss her time-stopping attitude turn at 4:27.)

The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Series continues through June; for more details on upcoming screenings, click here.

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Smuin Ballet dancers Erica Felsch, Rex Wheeler, Mengjun Chen and Tessa Barbour in "White Christmas," choreographed by dancers Ben Needham-Wood and Michael Smuin. Photo by Keith Sutter, Courtesy Smuin Ballet.

Nutcracker-ed out? Or just can't get enough holiday ballets? These unique Nutcracker interpretations and non-Nutcracker productions will make your season bright.


The Hip Hop Nutcracker

Through December 30

Tchaikovsky's masterful Nutcracker score isn't just for classical ballet…

Hip Hop + a live DJ + an electric violinist unite in The Hip Hop Nutcracker, currently touring the U.S.

Familiar characters such Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker, Mouse King and Marie (here called Maria-Clara) dance through an updated New York City storyline with choreography by Jennifer Weber, artistic director of the Brooklyn-based theatrical hip hop company Decadancetheatre.

Premiered in 2014, The Hip Hop Nutcracker is produced by New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

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