Imagine negotiating the challenges that come with puberty while training to become a ballet dancer. You must attempt to remain coordinated, slim and graceful, despite the changes you are experiencing – and deal with the constant self-evaluation of your morphing body reflected in mirrors, dressed in leotard and tights. Not to mention cope with the inevitable physical and psychological obstacles, including periods of injury caused by imbalances associated with growth, and the self-consciousness triggered by very visibly maturing ahead of or later than your peers.
You soon recognise the features that are desirable and conducive to becoming professional, as my own training experience taught me. You are acutely aware, from a young age, of the desired aesthetic, and that those who more readily conform to the physical, social and psychological ideals are the dancers who tend to progress.
Young dancers can enter full-time, vocational training from when they are just 11 years old, training up to six days per week. Dancers in vocational training are grouped by age, but the age at which they reach puberty obviously varies. As a consequence, differences in the timing of maturity have important implications for health, talent identification and development, and those who mature later tend to be privileged in the current system.
Studies to date consistently show a trend towards later menarche among ballet students – between the ages of 13.1 and 13.9, compared to 12.4 in the general population. And studies also show earlier maturation to be characteristic of those who did not complete their professional training.
If not handled correctly, onset of puberty places young dancers at increased risk of eating disorders, body image issues, physical injury and can significantly reduce the likelihood of completing training. But our new research suggests that some of these problems could be addressed if ballet training followed the lead of rugby and introduced bio-banding. This technique involves grouping athletes according to physical size or, in this case, biological maturity.
The ballet ‘look’
One reason for the bias towards late maturing girls is that such girls tend to have slimmer, more linear physiques, lower body fat, and comparatively longer legs relative to their torso – all desirable features among ballet dancers. The psychological characteristics of later maturing individuals are also comparatively advantageous, with earlier maturation being more strongly associated with negative body image, low self-esteem and disordered eating issues. So when it comes to selection into dance programmes and the chances of completing them, later maturing individuals have several apparent advantages.
The bias of formal selection processes in favouring the physique of late maturing individuals and the self-selection of late maturing individuals into ballet are well documented. Researchers have suggested that delayed maturation is an indirect “product” of intensive dance training, with intensive dance training leading to weight control and subsequent delayed maturation. But intensive training itself has been shown to have no negative effect on growth and maturation in dancers.
Although this bias against early maturing girls may seem to be part and parcel of ballet, our latest study suggests that this doesn’t have to be the case. The structure of current training and selection practices could be altered so that earlier maturing individuals would be less likely to be assessed out of training.
The dance teachers interviewed in our study held differing beliefs about the advantages and disadvantages of early and late maturation. Some agreed with previous findings, arguing that later maturation gives a nicer “look”. But others perceived earlier maturation to be a potential advantage in terms of getting a lot of the “growing done” before serious training begins.
Teachers also highlighted that late maturation in itself was not necessarily an advantage as these individuals experience the most rapid phases of growth (and any injuries associated with that growth) at the time when training and testing intensifies. This suggests that while there is clearly a trend, and in many ways an advantage, towards later maturing individuals in ballet, there are also potential merits to earlier maturation which don’t tend to be explored.
Current formal selection strategies for ballet involve assessment which coincides with the physical changes of puberty. For those who mature earlier this may result in being assessed out of training due to less “conducive” physical developments. While for those who mature later, physical testing and increases in training load occur at a time when they experience the most rapid changes in growth. Arguably, neither circumstance is conducive to the healthy physical and psychological development of young dancers.
Researchers have recommended monitoring the intensity and volume of training to avoid overuse injuries during periods of rapid growth. But as yet no clear solution has been presented which addresses the significant differences between individuals in the same age group.
But the process of bio-banding, recently employed in football and rugby, may address some of the challenges experienced by the adolescent dancer. If grouped in terms of biological maturity, the problems of puberty experienced by dancers could be better addressed.
While it is equally important to consider a dancer’s technical and psychological development, the process of bio-banding has the potential to benefit both early and late maturing girls – allowing them to be assessed and experience increases in training loads at the time that is most developmentally appropriate. The need to consider individual differences in growth and maturation may be equally important in boys, especially with regards to reducing the risk of growth related injuries.
The application of some of these principles to dance training, tailoring programmes relative to the dancer’s stage of development, may provide a way to optimise training, minimise risk of injury, and enable schools to identify and keep the most talented dancers within the system. And ultimately, this would benefit both early and late maturing girls.