with more confidence, strength & true understanding of her body, Joy tapped into deeper reserves of balletic ability & expression


We’re all familiar with the idea that to master something, you need to practice…a lot. To reach some level of mastery requires laser focus, the desire to ‘become one’ with the very thing you’re doing, and tons of dedication and energy. And those who’ve succeeded at such mastery, all preach the power of focusing on just one thing, and letting that one thing be ‘your all’. 

As dancers, we know all about that. 


Dance is an art that takes years to cultivate, perfect, and execute in a way that makes our heart sing. But in the same way that athletes cross train, shouldn’t we too as dancers (and not just focus on the ‘one thing’?) Some classic examples of athletes cross-training include runners using cycling to build endurance, swimmers rowing to work similar muscle groups, and soccer players lifting weights for bulk and strength.


And for us dancers? How about pilates?

I know if you had’ve said this to me a few years I would’ve rolled my eyes and thought to myself, “But it’s a bit boring, isn’t it?” (because us dancers like explosive and dynamic activities, right?) But it seems to me we’re entering an age where the power of supplementing dance with another physical activity is being felt…and the results seen. Speaking to Joy Millar, pilates teacher based in Cape Town, South Africa, this assumption of mine was confirmed. And her personal journey through the world of dance and pilates is proof. Cross-training can open a whole new world of physical possibility. And pilates could be the next best thing for you, if you’re open to it and curious about understanding your dancing body (and strengthening it!).

Naturally gifted, and pushed by teachers like Martin Schoenberg who saw her ability and potential, Joy stumbled across ballet thanks to her geography teacher suggesting she give it a try. This unintentional immersion in the dance world, and her unconventional way of learning ballet, was the foundation for her curiosity about the human body and how it actually works. This isn’t a post investigating how well ballet is taught, or how differently it was taught a few years ago, but instead a deep dive into the power of using another discipline to amplify ballet. All dancers ask themselves, ‘How do I do the pirouettes I dream of? How do I get stronger? How do I have more control over my body?”

For Joy, it turns out that pilates was the elusive key that unlocked years of ‘the mystery’ of ballet (despite her natural ability). Growing up, Joy was very much a tomboy climbing up trees and roofs (and falling off them!). Imagine her surprise when she found herself observing a ballet class, her first glimpse of this foreign world. Starting at the age of 10 was considered ‘late’, but she showed the physical facilities others dream of. Martin Schoenberg promptly told her she starts the following Monday. Joy was “not impressed” by this progression in her life, but off she went. 


Schoenberg put her behind someone. He said, ‘Can you tell the time?’


‘Okay, put your feet at ten to two. Now copy the person in front of you’

That was Joy being thrown into the deep end. She had to ‘speed learn’ to catch up to others her age. And that was the start of her life of ballet. 

Classes were intense, the learning curve steep and ballet took up every afternoon after school. The expectation was to commit herself entirely. The stress started to affect her physically, headaches and stomach ulcers signalled time to take a step back. Instead, she went to the National School of Arts. Still dancing, but less pressure. 

Again, Joy handled this new chapter in the way she knew – by copying the people around her to learn as much as possible. This unusual way of absorbing the ballet technique (but without a deeper understanding) meant she retained certain things, and didn’t retain other things. As she described, it was a very backward way of learning. But, that’s simply how it was for her.

After finishing school, Joy continued on her path of being a ballet dancer, but when she tried to change directions, somehow she was always pushed back to ballet. Plans to study English literature at UCT were put on the backburner as she found herself being convinced to do a Performer’s Certificate instead. No one was letting that natural talent go to waste!

“So I was kind of thrown into this world that I hadn’t chosen myself and wasn’t sure how to relate to it”

Even though she wasn’t entirely convinced by this life path, performing with Cape Town City Ballet as a contracted performer anchored the start of her professional career. And over the next few years, this wish for a deeper understanding of her dancing body grew stronger. 

Here’s how pilates wove itself into her life and boosted her ballet beyond imagining:

Unlocking confidence for more artistry 

With the right tools, Joy enhanced her technique allowing her to focus on creative expression

Joy remembers a few years ago when a group of dancers from the Netherlands came to Cape Town to present workshops. During this period, the persistent internal struggle Joy had with ballet was coming to the surface. Dancing came naturally to her, but she’d learned in such a “backward way”, and she didn’t know why & how she was able to do things. She couldn’t put her finger on how to control her body fully, in order to maximise her abilities. She was enamoured and intrigued by these foreign dancers’ relationship to the art of dance. To her, it felt more curious, exploratory and substantial. 

“It felt like there [was more] behind the process of learning how to move. They had a very strong focus on their own individual relationship to movement.”

Questions that came up during these workshops included:

– If you have to explore movement outside of ballet, what does that mean? 

– And can you go there? 

– How do you go there? How does your body respond?

Her training and professional experience up until that point, hadn’t given her what she needed to answer those questions. Through the workshops, Joy realised that learning about yourself and the movement that lives within you as an individual was more important than a ‘superficial technique’ you try to assume & perfect. This theme of working from the outside in (the very trap she felt stuck in) was obvious. They highlighted this notion of creating a dancer from the inside out, where correct, solid execution of the mechanics led to building layers of expression and artistry. Joy was very hungry for that sort of process, because she’d never had it. 

“My whole history [of dancing] had been offside”

She realised how disillusioned she was. She recounted how people would say, “Oh Joy, you’re so lovely”, but she didn’t feel it…because she “didn’t know how [she] was doing it”. This experience with the Dutch dancers was the little seed of curiosity that germinated within her. On her dance journey, this seed developed through body conditioning and pilates. And the more she did it, the more confident she became within her own body.She felt she finally had a box of tools, and these tools allowed her to understand and work with her dancing body. 

Over time, by changing her approach to learning and training, her increased confidence meant she could focus on creating an expressive body (and a body that isn’t disconnected from itself). Instead a dancer’s deeper understanding creates security and that opens the door to exploring artistry. Joy loved being able to finally, confidently work with nuance and subtleties…from the inside out, and unravel the years of her “offside” training.

Going from strength to strength through pilates 

Joy discovered untapped physical abilities & witnessed the progress of fellow dancers through body conditioning 

According to Joy, today teachers and dancers are placing more importance on body conditioning and training the body in a variety of ways. This concept wasn’t really ‘a thing’ a few years ago. Sure, pilates and body conditioning were being taught, but there wasn’t enough of a relationship created, or an association made, when you were doing certain pilates exercises. Joy described how her experience over the years was quite superficial. You learn the exercises, but without creating a true mind body connection. And without understanding what should be accessed during each moment of movement to get maximum value.

As her professional career progressed (injuries, rehab and all) she found her way back in class with Martin Schoenberg. For her, it was like returning to some unexpected home base… She’d come full circle and only then, could everything she’d absorbed over the years come together and finally make sense. Schoenberg had always incorporated body conditioning into his training, and still does. This was her opportunity to dig deeper into the foundations and workings of a dancing body. Again, there was the theme of creating a ballet dancer from the inside out. So, that mental & philosophical exploration she experienced with the workshops earlier in her career, could now be brought into the physical reality.

Joy described how wonderful his wealth of knowledge (and obsession seeing it in action) actually was. For him, repetition of everything learnt through body conditioning was crucial. He created those associations between that and ballet itself. The dialogue between body conditioning and ballet was forged, translating directly into dancing. This approach went to the core of where a dancer’s true control and strength lies.Breaking things down to the essential mechanics, and how to build on that, added to Joy’s toolbox. She then had a way to access her own body and tap into stores of physical strength needed for ballet. 

By isolating the muscles and strengthening them, a new world of movement was opened. And this translated into small balletic movements. Then these small balletic movements translated into the more dynamic movements. Being naturally flexible, Joy never needed to enhance flexibility. But this did mean that strength was compromised. 

Finally, through pilates she could pull the reins on her flexibility and work from a place of true control and strength. She could finally tackle the details that she didn’t quite understand before – such as, how not to overextend, to not leave her arms behind, and to find extension in the back without releasing the pelvis. 

Uncovering true knowledge of what it means to dance 

Joy’s natural ability was overshadowed by not quite understanding the mechanics of her body

Dancing in Lisbon, Portugal, a knee injury brought this chapter in Joy’s life to a sudden halt. She returned home, and after an operation, was consigned to one year of rehab with a biokineticist. It got her back on her feet, but ended up being another example of how maybe something was lacking in the approach to the dancing body. The rehab was localised and not as holistic as she expected. After making a full recovery, Joy was back in Cape Town City Ballet’s studio. 

“As I journeyed on, I realised that the body is a whole organism and everything affects everything. But when I went back [to dancing], I still didn’t understand the true mechanisms of the body

Joy knew that she was lucky enough to have a natural knack for ballet, but surely there were ways to increase the odds of doing something well every time (and not just hoping for the best)? The niggling thought of missing those crucial pieces of the puzzle, that true knowledge and understanding of the body, was in the back of her mind. She realised that dancers are taught, but not really coached. A subtle difference that can make all the difference. 

In her experience, if something in ballet wasn’t working, you just kept trying again and again, without understanding the mechanics of the body and how the movement should ‘work’. And without breaking it down and investigating the best way to achieve what you want. And when you’re stuck at this point, you can’t work on developing in any other way as a dancer. 

Luckily lots of things did work for Joy, but her uncertainty held her back. She described the whole process as “unpleasant”. But when she understood more of her body through body conditioning, everything her previous teachers had said finally made sense! She could connect the corrections with her own body in real time, and execute them with a sense of knowing exactly what’s happening…and what should happen to guarantee success. 

One classic example Joy shared was understanding what it meant to have her weight back. There are so many ways your weight can be back, but the details relative to her own body were never clear to her. She remembers having this epiphany with Schoenberg, thanks to doing a lot of floor barre and body conditioning. Finally she understood what it meant to be on her leg. And it was so simple! Once the alignment of the bones and the muscles was clear, and the training of the muscles to hold those bones in place was implemented…that was it. She was on her way to having true knowledge of what to do with her own body…so that she could be an even better dancer. Again, translating and articulating that information through her body needed repetition. 

“It’s a balance between training the body, and then playing around with where it is and isn’t working, according to your own proportion, ability, flexibility and strength.”

Slowly but surely, pilates and body conditioning were unlocking the mystery that had clouded her dancing career until that point. Her uncertainty about the how and why of ballet started to evaporate. After years of dancing and layering that with pilates, Joy had learned so much about the dancing body, and her own body. Her experience of being a ballet dancer was deepened and expanded, and she had reached a point of being satisfied with her abilities and artistry. All of this was unlocked through pilates and body conditioning. Now, as a pilates instructor, Joy takes others on this journey of discovery. For her, personally, the most important thing she had (and still has) is curiosity. 

“Your depth of understanding your own body is like a black hole. I think you can just keep going. And you’ve got to…[you can’t] assume that where you’re at is enough.”

Pilates gave her the chance to fill massive gaps in her knowledge about how her dancing body can perform, it gave her the confidence to be an expressive dancer, and gave her more control by balancing flexibility and strength. Cross training in this way changed her relationship to her ballet career for the better. 

Ché Maria



Joy teaches pilates in Cape Town at Arc Movement Studio and Swanbody. If you’re curious about exploring the world of pilates with her, email her at [email protected]