The Pareto Principle in Adult Ballet? How to Build 80% by Focusing on 20%

Standing on one leg. Developé on flat. Back activation. Classical 20% exercise!

Standing on one leg. Developé on flat. Back activation. Classical 20% exercise!

For a long time, I seriously doubted that the Pareto Principle could be applied to ballet.

This principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. It was originally applied in the area of politics and economics, but has come a long way since then. It does sound quite crude, and it certainly is not exact science. But it has been surprisingly predictive.

I started thinking about it soon after taking up ballet, as I was following Tim Ferriss’ writing and speaking about metalearning and lifestyle building. He quoted it for several areas, including instrument learning, productivity, and physical activities, and the more I thought about it, the more fascinated I became. What a simple and powerful concept. Instead of getting lost in everything, you could achieve a pretty good level (= 80%) by working on a core selection of skills (= 20%).

But what about ballet, I thought. Could it work? I was very skeptical, and also not experienced enough as a ballet student. My impression was that there was this vast amount of individual movements, steps, and positions in ballet, and you could master them only by working on all of them.

But there was a certain charm to the 80/20 idea, just considering the time it might save. So I kept thinking about it in the back of my head.

And with time, my experience changed. My insights as a ballet student grew, and my background in building athletes in a variety of sports helped me see patterns.

This pattern-seeing intensified when, about three years into learning ballet, I kind of turned my back on the advanced classes that I had been taking for a while and went back to beginner and intermediate classes. With one of my teachers (still) taking me through gruelingly detailed work on the most fundamental ballet movements. It couldn’t be any simpler, while it’s the hardest ballet work I have ever done.

It also meant that we left out or barely touched most of ballet’s movements and skills. Instead, we would focus just on a very small number of exercises over and over again.

Interestingly, I saw improvent not only in what we worked on, but also in the areas we didn’t touch.

So while this is a bit of a bold claim to make, in the following, I will take you through what I consider to be the 20% input that - when sufficiently mastered - will build 80% of the skills you need as a dancer. Now, there is quite a bit of room for interpretation: Who determines what is 100%, and consequently 80% in ballet? Is an internationally successful professional ballerina the ultimate frame of reference? Or simply the total amount of skills within the full ballet syllabus? For simplicity, let’s say it’s approximately the level of a ballet dancer after completing a professional training. But of course this is a bit of a debatable definition - if you have better suggestions, leave them in the comments! For now, let’s get started:

1 - Standing on two legs

It’s EVERYTHING. And after about 4 years of taking classes 5 times per week, I am barely starting to get an idea of it. Mostly, it is the foundation for standing on one leg, which is helpful, because ballet is mostly about standing/moving on one leg.

2 - Full leg extension and toe pointing

So for a long time, I believed I knew how to straighten my leg. Haha. So now, whenever I think it is fully straight and active, and I can’t do any more, I tell myself (or, more likely, my teacher tells me) to straighten and activate it 50% more. Then another 20%. Ok another 10%! You get the point.

3 - Back activation and port de bras

Ballet comes from a well-coordinated back. By working on back activation and port de bras you are learning the interplay of the different areas of the back, shoulder blades and shoulder joint. This is what will enable fluid arm movement and a torso that will hold you no matter what.

4 - Demi-Plié in first, fourth, and fifth

So while I used to regard the pliés at the beginning of barre as something to wake and warm up the body, I don’t any more. It’s a big deal, a power exercise, and training/preparing you for any kind of bent-leg step and transition: Temps lié, tombé pas de bourré, chassé, jumps, relevés, pirouettes. If you nail your demi-plié pattern with fully activated legs and maximum turn-out all the way down and up - congratulations.

5 - Standing on one leg, tendu and degagé

This is the progression of standing on two legs, and, as already mentioned, almost everything in ballet is either standing or moving on one leg. The pattern that is crucial here is to learn how to not move anything while you are tenduing or lifting your working leg. Meaning the activation of your standing leg and your torso in such a way that you keep lifting your standing side, and get rid of any kind of inefficient patterns, like e.g. hiking up your working hip or leaning into the standing side.

6 - Passé developé/envelopé on flat

The pattern that is built here is how to keep an active leg and pointed toes even when you are flexing your knee and hip. Which is not trivial at all. It’s much easier to keep an active leg when it’s fully extended and pointed - much harder when you mix flexion and extension.

7 - Coming down from relevé on one and two legs

While relevés are a very common exercise in ballet classes, the twist I would add is that the coming down from relevé is the more important part. The pattern to learn here: how to keep the legs active and extended and work just the toes and ankle to come down.

8 - A strong front split on both sides

Not for the sake of the split. But rather because it teaches your body to use your hip joint in a wide range of movement AND have the strength for it. But also because the front leg and back leg have to work independent of each other and do something completely different. So it’s a coordination thing that you find in many ballet skills: Jumps, arabesque, penché, fouettés.

9 - Relevé from fifth to passé

This is a skill/movement in itself, but also a pattern-provider. It is a lot about building the speed and balance that you need for pirouettes and jumps.

So, the usual note of caution: This list is not exhaustive. And it will probably change for me over time. And it might be quite different if you ask someone else. So it is ambigous, as most things around the body. The point here is not so much the exactness of the 20% elements identified - but more the power of the approach.

Because in the end, the endless number of human movement abilities are guided by a limited number of biomechanical principles. Understanding this and designing your ballet work around this principle-guided idea saves you inefficiencies, overwhelm, tears, and fatigue. It can also ignite a lot of joy around the simplest exercises, and spark a huge amount of discoveries around how your body works.

So the actual benefit of the 80/20 rule may not be it’s exactness when applied to ballet, or that it saves you time. The real power is that it encourages you to think and work smart, and build a more solid foundation!

Have you ever applied the Pareto Principle to any area in your life? What do you think about the above list for ballet - anything you would eliminate, replace, add? Curious to hear your thoughts!