Just Add Pilates: Developing a Dancer’s Toolbox

Guest writer: Jaclyn Youngblood, Houston Ballet Academy Intern

Dancing isn’t the only intensive aspect of the 2011 Summer Intensive Program. One of the goals of the program, especially under Academy Associate Director Shelly Power, is to offer students a comprehensive variety of classes and tools that will enhance their life experiences, even if they don’t pursue careers as professional dancers.

One way the program seeks to provide that balance is through the Pilates program. Students can sign up for five half-hour appointments throughout the course of the summer with one of four Pilates teachers. I spent a few minutes with one of the teachers, Jo Yost Ulrich, a former Houston Ballet company member, to find out more about the Pilates program and what makes it so successful.

Ulrich said the classes are kept small—no more than 3 students are scheduled at a time—on purpose; each student receives meaningful attention and an opportunity to work one-on-one with the instructor. This summer, 75 students are taking advantage of the Pilates program.

Body Conditioning Room at Houston Ballet Center for Dance
Body Conditioning Room at Houston Ballet Center for Dance

As with all cross-training programs, Ulrich said the Pilates training enables students to strengthen already developed muscles while targeting harder-to-reach muscles, too. It also balances out the muscle-work they do in the studio to prevent over-training and injury.

The students are shown some basic Pilates exercises, a sort of “highlights reel” of tools they can use on their own.  It is helpful for the dancers to see they don’t need to have expensive equipment to take care of their muscles and bodies.

 “The ability to do self-maintenance and have these tools to take home is invaluable,” Ulrich said.

It’s clear the dancers appreciate the opportunity to have small-group appointments. I intercepted three dancers, each of whom participated in the Pilates program last summer, on their way out of their appointments. Charlotte (TX) said having an instructor coach her through the exercises helps her understand how each muscle works. Erica (TX) looks forward to her Pilates appointments because she knows they will be tailored to the needs of her body and muscles. Alana (TX) said she likes that the training in her Pilates appointments translates to the work she does in class.

“This year, we have a packet with explanations and pictures of the exercises so we can work on things on our own, too,” Charlotte added.

Ulrich said the Pilates training in its current form has been part of the Summer Intensive Program for about 10 years. She has been a Pilates instructor for seven summers and has enjoyed seeing the extracurricular offerings grow during that time. She mentioned one newcomer to the alternative class list this summer: Dance Fitness with Sarah Irvine. The class is a way to develop strength, flexibility and cardiovascular health. Ulrich said the goal is to create a stronger base so dancers can focus on what’s most important: for example, focusing on technique in technique class instead of working on baseline breath capacity.

“The more we give them new knowledge, the better they can take care of themselves,” Ulrich said.

Championing health and wellness is the best way to prepare dancers for the future, whether that future is on or off the stage.


Ms. Youngblood is interning with the Houston Ballet Ben Stevenson Academy for the summer. She is currently a senior at Rice University, studying history and political science. She will be posting blogs about the 2011 Summer Intensive Program twice a week on a range of topics, like career studies and nutrition classes. You can also look forward to a video interview series with some of the dancers participating in this summer’s intensive. You can stay updated via our “Meet the Dancers” series on Twitter at www.twitter.com/houstonballet.


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