For most people, the term "ballet student" is likely to conjure up images of thin young girls with their hair combed back in tight buns, puffy pink tutus and matching satin slippers.

True, a large majority of ballet students are young females who dream of leaping and spinning as prima ballerinas in productions like Swan Lake. However, a wider demographic mix is now being drawn to ballet not by the fantasy of dancing on the stage but by the rigor and hard work behind those magical shows.

It's no mistake that athletes, performers, professionals and retirees are now taking hold of ballet barres to practice this traditional art form.

Ballet classes for fitness

"Ballet is a discipline unlike any other in that it combines movement and musicality along with a tedious perfection in the placement of the feet, legs, arms, hands and head," says Megan Pepin, former dancer with the New York City Ballet and Los Angeles Ballet currently teaching in Mexico. "It is a perfect combination of both strength and flexibility."

The lean strength, agility and grace of classic ballet dancers not only inspires awe in hopeful young girls, but also in people from all walks of life. It allows people to use and strengthen a wide range of small muscles and tendons that they otherwise may never use in their whole lives, notes Pepin.

Ballet classes start slow with approximately 45 minutes at the barre, giving students a chance to find their center, build muscle memory and core strength. This is followed by practice moves in the center of the studio where students develop build their way up to jumping, which can be highly cardiovascular.

Ballet as cross training for athletes

For young athletes, practicing ballet helps them improve their flexibility, body awareness, agility and coordination. Add to the list improved balance, lateral movement, footwork, timing as well as leg and core strength. With all these benefits, more boys who play sports including hockey, soccer, karate, basketball and baseball are ignoring jeers from peers and taking up ballet.

One such student commented in a local news story in Florida: "As I progressed in ballet and baseball, my baseball got a whole lot better, once I started really learning how to jump and stuff. My coach said one time, 'I ought to make everybody on the team do ballet, because you've improved so much.'"

Increased attention span while playing soccer and basketball is among the positive changes observed by parents of boys taking a beginning ballet class taught by Steve Beirens, artistic director at the Ballet Quad-Cities School of Dance. The school is among the dance studios that have begun to offer classes aimed at boys and geared toward athletic cross training.

Ballet improves football players' game

The most widely documented athletes to benefit from ballet are professional football players, who have demonstrated significant improvements in the quality of their playing after incorporating ballet in their training schedules. Fitness writer Judy Fisk outlines specific benefits associated with the movements practiced in a ballet class. Here I’ve summarized some highlights that easily translate to other sports.

Ballet's emphasis on precision — the exact placement of the head, arms, hands, legs and feet as mentioned by Pepin — helps players tune into each muscle gaining a high level of control over the body that leads to greater self-control and self-discipline on the field.

The performance of complex movement combinations helps players develop quick sharp minds and fast foot work. Quoting Fisk, "They learn to transfer their weight effortlessly and find their new center of balance instantly, skills that translate into quick and accurate starts and stops on the playing field," writes Fisk.

Smaller, injury-prone muscles beneath the glutes and around the pelvis are strengthened by exercises with the feet in the turn-out position. The core, calves, ankles and feet are engaged when working up on the balls of the feet leading to better balance and stability "when rushing, pivoting and dodging."

Finally, Fisk cites John A. Bergfeld, medical advisor for the Cleveland Browns, who noted fewer groin strain injuries after team members participated in a 12-week series of ballet classes which heightened players' body awareness and increased the range of motion in the hip joint.

Ballet offers a low-risk alternative

Although overuse injuries are a real concern for the professional dancer, a moderate ballet practice with a qualified instructor is actually quite safe. My daughter's acrobatics instructor, a former professional gymnastics trainer and current circus performer, speaks highly of ballet which he uses to fine tune his alignment and considers a key form of injury prevention. Likewise, Pepin sees regular practice of ballet as a great way to prevent injury similar to Pilates.

"If you are over a certain age or have a previous injury and the jumping at the end of class begins to hurt your knees, back or any other body part, I would advise stepping that part out," advises Pepin.

A good teacher should always give students modifications for previous injuries or current ailments as well as correct any poor muscle patterns that could lead to injury.

Ballet promotes mental well-being

I recently met a retired Canadian woman in her late 60s who told me that she takes ballet classes twice a week for several reasons — one is to stay fit and another because she finds the music soothing. However, her main reason for choosing ballet over other exercise forms is to her keep her mind sharp.

Learning the choreographies and then performing them to the proper count in sync with her classmates is a challenging mental exercise that she believes is aiding her in the prevention of memory loss. She plans to continue to dance — trusting that it will continue to help her age gracefully.