A new paper says that current practices for grouping and evaluating young dancers in ballet can be counterproductive, because it places late-maturing girls at a significant disadvantage during important phases of their development and at greater risk for injury.

The authors endorse an approach to training known as 'bio-banding', which groups individuals by their biological rather than chronological age and is popular in sports like football. 

Dancers in vocational training are grouped by age and can begin full-time training from as young as 11, often training for up to 6 days a week. Girls of the same age do, however, vary greatly in biological age with some maturing in advance or delay of others. Therefore, differences in the timing of maturity have important implications for talent identification and development, as well as self-esteem.

Ballet traditionally favors late-maturing girls, who tend to be slimmer, have lower body fat and comparatively longer legs relative to their torso, but, as the new study highlights, late maturation poses challenges for dancers too whereby auditioning and an increase in training intensity often coincide with key developmental stages. This in turn can place young dancers at increased injury risk at a crucial point in their development.


Lead author and graduate student Siobhan Mitchell in the University of Bath's Department for Health and ESRC-funded South West Doctoral Training Centre, says, "Traditionally many people have assumed there is a bias in ballet towards late maturers, but the reality is less clear.

"Of the teachers we spoke to, many saw late maturation as a disadvantage, as later maturing girls experience their growth spurt at a point where training schedules become more intense and when auditions take place, which can often make performance difficult. Similarly, others considered early maturation as advantageous, as those dancers had already 'got most of the growing out of the way' and were better placed to perform and cope with a heavier training load during this time. These findings point to the importance of further research in this area with the aim going forward to apply these findings to enable dance teachers to better support young dancers as they transition through puberty."

Co-author from University of Bristol, Dr. Anne Haase, commented, "The ability of dance teachers to manage maturation in dancers can reflect through the girls' self-esteem and confidence in their own abilities. By finding more positive approaches for dance teachers to support girls through this stage will allow for development of improved self-esteem and confidence in dance."

Dr. Sean Cumming, also of the University of Bath, is currently working with major sports teams and the English Premier League in developing new bio-banding approaches to selection. He explained, "We think there is potential for vocational dance schools to apply some of the elements of bio-banding not only to improve the experiences of dancers and reduce injury risks but also to ensure talent is not wasted.

"This is not about favoring late or early maturing girls, but rather leveling the playing field and providing the most developmentally-appropriate learning contexts so that dancers, irrespective of physicality, have the same opportunity and aren't put under undue stress at the wrong points in their development which can cause injury."

Published in the Journal of Adolescence. Source: University of Bath