This post originally appeared on Slate.
Answer by Joshua Engel:
Here's one way to look at it: Have a look at what happens to a ballerina's feet. I'm not going to post a picture, because it's not for the weak of stomach, but here's a link to a Google image search.
That kind of damage comes from spending hours a day training. They move as if they don't weigh anything at all, but that's a carefully crafted illusion: They move that way because they are intensely strong. They combine that strength with a grace that comes from practicing the same moves over and over and over until it looks as if it's weightless.
It breaks a body. Most ballet dancers are completely shot by their mid-20s, and many will suffer lifelong disabilities from the effort.
Pound for pound, ballerinas are some of the most intense athletes out there. Not only are they tremendously strong, but they have to do it while looking like little stick figures blowing in the wind. It will come as no surprise that eating disorders are rampant among ballerinas.
Do not let the ease and grace fool you. These are dedicated athletes doing an unbelievably hard thing.
* * * Answer by Melissa Stroud:
It is very physically demanding and hard on a dancer's body. I studied for about 11 years, three or four of them on pointe. By the time I stopped studying, I was wearing ankle braces and knee wraps on both legs during every practice. Moleskin and Nu-skin are a dancer's best friends and were always applied liberally on the toes before putting on pointe shoes. My feet never got quite as bad as the linked images above, but they were a bit ugly.
Have you ever walked up five flights of stairs? Know how your legs start to burn a little bit? Imagine doing a solid hour of exercises that constantly have you supporting your weight while trying to balance or continuously doing squats while balanced on your toes. The stair example is the best I can think of for people who haven't studied ballet. Leg strength and flexibility are key to preventing serious injury.
I'm sure you've seen dancers who do pas de deux, "dance for two." Looking at it, you would think it's the man doing all the work, lifting his partner, catching her, guiding her. It is just as hard for the woman and requires quite a bit of upper body strength for her as well. When her partner is holding her simply like so, she is keeping her upper body at the correct angle to help keep the balance point. Also, look at his hand holding her leg. She has to keep pushing against his hand to keep her legs at the proper angle.
And think of this iconic lift from Dirty Dancing.
I have personally done this lift, and it is very hard. Yes, my partner had to grab my hips in the right spot and use some of my forward momentum to muscle me over his head, but I had to have my arms and legs positioned and held correctly to help stop the forward momentum once I was up there. And that balance point is very hard to hold. Yes, we practiced on very thick mats for a while until we were sure I wouldn't face-plant. There were a lot of tumbles, though. Not fun.
People tend to misjudge how much strength, stamina, and sheer will are required to dance ballet because the best dancers never let you see anything but the ethereal image they are trying to portray.