The Making of a Great Ballerina: Why the Russians Are Still the Best

Author: Melissa Engasser, MS, BCBA

Author: Melissa Engasser, MS, BCBA

It’s no secret that the best dancers in the world come from Russia (Anna Pavlova, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikahil Baryshnikov, and George Balanchine, to name a few). I've always wondered, just what is the secret behind their training? So I decided to begin dissecting this topic through a behavior analytic lens. 

First and foremost, the Russian ballet dancers train under what is known as the “Vaganova Method.” (Ayvazoglu, 2014)  This method of teaching was developed by Agrippina Vaganova, which focuses on a fusion between French and Italian methods, and is composed of a very detailed systematic approach that can be explained through a behavior analytic framework as a shaping procedure, often utilizing something along the lines of an in-the-moment changing criterion design (Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2007). For example, the first year is focused on working on the students turnout and (i.e. toes and knees facing away from each other from the hip rotation), which is done while facing the barre (i.e. wooden bar used for support and strengthening that may be free standing or attached to a wall).  Corrections usually take the form of verbal feedback and physical prompting in which graduated guidance and modeling are implemented, though physical prompts (Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2007) are widely used in order to help create muscle memory by providing appropriate placement (Vaganova, 1969).

Additionally, not only do Vaganova trained dancers result with impeccable technique, they are also less likely to get injured. Vaganova trained teachers are trained how to shape students responses from a systematic and observable standpoint. This approach includes the understanding of the dancers body from a physiological/kinesthetic view point, which can all be considered antecedents for the teacher to consider in order to appropriately shape the physical responses of ballet trainees (Laws, 1985).


At the renowned Vaganova Ballet Academy, attendees also complete a dense audition process, which implements antecedent protocols, such as taking children to be training that have natural physical attributes for successful ballet training. The Vaganova Academy examines torso to legs portions through measurements, hyperextension of legs (e.g. when legs are straight they go beyond the average range of motion), and a high in-step arch. They admit children as young as 10 years old to begin the rigorous Vaganova training curriculum. This curriculum often takes up to 8-9 years to complete and is composed of extensive pre and post examinations (Ayvazolgu, 2014). Many children do not graduate from the program, but those that do, are offered work opportunities at the best ballet companies throughout the world.

In all, Vaganova training, to my understanding, encompasses many strategies that are behavior analytic in nature, which may be why the Russian ballet dancers continue to be some of the best in the world. They understand the value of practicing something to mastery from a systematic and observable perspective, which can be easily explained through a behavioral viewpoint. The combination of their systematic teaching, pre/post examinations, and antecedent protocols for necessary success and their understanding of pedagogy leads to healthy and successful mastery of ballet. 


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Ayvazoglu, S. (2014). The First Level of Vaganova Ballet, Art-Sanat, 2014.

Laws, K. (1985). The Biomechanics of Barre Use, Kinesiology For Dance, 6-7.

Vaganova, A. (1969). Basic Principles of Classical. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Vaganova Ballet Academy. Http:// (Access: September 2017).

Opinion, ABA, BalletMelissa Engasser