The Perfect (and Painless) Ballet Bun – It Can Be Done!

With a host of experienced dancers and dance teachers reading this I am confident there is no need to provide any step-by-step instructions for producing the perfect ballet bun.  That said, there is one area often neglected:

…the student experience.
Three young dancers stand at the barre, their tiny hair buns perfectly poised on their heads.

© Colin Hutton

For generations, young dancers have endured having their hair roughly manhandled by parents and teachers – usually in a hurry to get the next student ready – and have tolerated the pain and discomfort of having their scalps scratched and scraped, hair yanked from the roots and pins stabbed into their crown, all the while being told to be quiet, stop whinging, and most of all sit still !  (Sound familiar?)

Beyond the often brutal act of screwing the hair into a bun in the first place, there are also other issues which may plague and distract the dancer throughout their exam/performance long after the bunmaker has moved on; the off-putting sensation of a not-centered ponytail, the distraction of painfully placed pins, the off-balancing effect of a bun-coming-loose.

Now, there may well be little lasting harm done to these dancers by putting up with this, yet, I advocate that a comfortable dancer is a happy dancer, and I believe in prioritising our students’ welfare.   Moreover, a happy dancer is more likely to perform better.

By making the bun-making process as painless and the bun itself as comfortable as possible, not only are we making happy dancers, but we may well indirectly boost their exam results.

Here are a few things that can be helpful to remember if acting as hairdresser, and tips on how to overcome regularly encountered problems:

Hypoallergenic Products

If you are providing hair products for the students, check in advance that, wherever possible, they are hypoallergenic to avoid any risks.  As this can be a more expensive option, perhaps officially add ‘hairdressing’ as a service you will be providing on the day, and charge a small extra fee to all students to cover costs.

Brushes & Combs

Make sure you have to hand a variety of brushes and combs to accommodate different hair types:

  • Curly, unruly and thick hair is usually best managed with brushes with strong/coarse wide-spaced bristles (the Denman styling brush is ideal), whereas tighter-packed or bendy bristles often generate frizz (read: knots) without managing to actually detangle.
  • Radial/round brushes and those with a small ball on the end of each bristle should be avoided for students with thick/curly hair as they often cause painful-to-remove tats and knots.
  • For lighter/fine hair, baby-soft bristles should be used, as the strong bristles for curly hair will be too painful.
  • Sparse-density hair requires soft tightly-packed bristles, so as to avoid separating the hair too much and leaving the scalp visible (which some dancers find embarrassing or even upsetting).
  • Lastly, it should be remembered that Paddle brushes, whilst versatile, are not the most suitable when attempting to contour the hair into a tight smooth ponytail – particularly on smaller heads!
Macro view of a hair brush with metal bristles tipped with bright yellow plastic

Photo Credit: paulscott56

Hair Ties/Bands

Have on-hand different types of hair ties (also called ‘hair bands’ or, in the UK, ‘bobbles’).  While useful for light hair, thin hair ties, particularly if they have a metal clasp, should be avoided for thicker hair as they tend to snag at the hair and cause knots.  Thin ones should also be avoided for thick or very long hair, as they usually have less elasticity, and are more prone to snapping under force.

Hair ties with ornaments or decorative pieces such as small plastic ballet shoes etc. should be entirely avoided as they can easily get knotted into medium-thick hair (especially if curly), and often need to be cut or ripped out.  For the same reason, avoid hair ties with a scratchy or rough surface.

Bonus Tip: A good home-made option is to cut up the legs of a pair of opaque tights into 1-2inch loops.  This is great as this material doesn’t snag at the hair, is easily put in/taken out, has great stretch for getting that ‘last twist’ you so often long for with the ‘bad bobble’, and you can pick colours which blend in very well with different hair colours.

Hair Brushing & Detangling

Often it is quickest and easiest to get the student to brush their own hair to get rid of any tats/knots, followed by your own quick pre-styling brush through.  This way they are in control, and when things get uncomfortable they can make accommodations to tackle difficult spots, rather than wince as an adult ploughs through.

If the student is too young to brush their own hair, avoid rough strokes and be mindful of their body language (if you have a quiet one!)  A good tactic is to start at the bottom and work your way up, rather than starting at the top and risk matting tangles by dragging them down-over. Also, when tackling big knots, hold the hair tightly near the scalp but slightly away from the head; that way, the pressure of pulling and tugging on the hair is against your own hand, and is not felt by the student. Spritzing with water or Detangler can also be useful tactics.

A father brushes the tangles from his daughter's damp hair

Photo Credit: larryvincent

The Ponytail

Invite the student to put their hair in a tight high ponytail themselves if they are able.  This is often the most difficult part for a parent/teacher to get right as there are so many variables, and only the student can sense where it feels most comfortable and secure.  If they are not old enough to manage it on their own, double check that they are satisfied before continuing to avoid whinging later when it’s too late!

Construction Errors

Do not underestimate the level of discomfort or distraction of a bad bun!  If mid-construction take the time to un-do any problems and remake so as to avoid hours of irritation.  If the bun is already complete, and the issue not as simple as removing a last-added stabbing pin, apologise to the dancer saying you will have to prioritise with other students but that you will try to re-do their hair if there is time before their session.

Pin Placement

When poking pins into a forming bun, it is tricky to avoid occasional head-stabbing.  While there doesn’t seem to be any tactic which is entirely fool-proof, I recommend aiming the pin downwards on an angle to push it in (towards the head, but slightly out/away from the bun), then press it up/into the centre of the bun in a sort of swooping ‘down up’ curve so as to catch the hair and anchor the bun, but avoid aiming the pin towards the scalp at any point.  Other than this I recommend practice, and patience!

Hair Gel

Be cautious when applying hair gel so that as little gets on the skin as is possible; its stickiness can be very unpleasant. Also, double check in advance that there are no sparkles or colouring in the gel to avoid messy accidents, or embarrassing skin staining.

A tin of white hair putty sits on blue and white flowered gossamer fabric.

Photo Credit: slightly everything


When using hairspray, always make sure you first tell the student to close their eyes and put your hand over their face to avoid it getting in their eyes.  This also helps reduce the amount of spray accidentally landing on faces.  Before hair spraying, always make sure you say “deep breath” (or some equivalent) to the student, so as to both warn them they are about to be sprayed, and make sure to avoid any miss-timed breathing accidents.

Finishing Off

The sensation of sticky residue on the skin from hairspray is disagreeable and unpleasant for many.  When the bun is complete, offer the student a wet-wipe/baby wipe to remove any excess sticky residue on their faces and ears from the hairspray.  While may wish to do this for students who are young (or less trustworthy), do remember that they are the only ones who can feel where the sticky spots are!

Bun Making Masterclass

Ultimately, the best solution to bun problems is to entirely remove the middle man, and teach the students to do their own hair as early as possible.  In a majority of recreational schools students might be asked to tie their hair up, but are rarely expected to wear their hair in buns for all classes, and certainly strict professional-level-tidy buns are usually only ever mandatory for exams or performances.

Ballet students in rust-colored costumes wait in the studio

Photo Credit: vidamarie

Because of this, students are ill-used to correctly putting up their own hair, so when it comes to exams and performances, parents and teachers are forced to step in to ensure students hair that is both well presented, and sufficiently secure.

Now, many teachers feel that despite this issue, they are not comfortable making ballet buns compulsory for all classes so as to accommodate for individual students home lives and circumstances etc.  Yet, an alternative option is to offer a free ‘Bun Making Masterclass’ at the start of each year, during which students are taught techniques on how to put their hair up to a high standard independently.

Possibly this could be developed into a competition as to who has created the strongest or neatest bun, either for the end of the workshop, or even continued throughout the rest of the year (the element of competition ideally helping retain interest and a desire to put their hair up for all classes).

This way, students will not only become proficient at their own buns for exams and performances, but they will be adopting the discipline of putting ones hair up for ballet like a pro, without necessarily even realising it.

A young dancer in leotard and tights bobby pins her classmate's bun in place.

© Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre School


Bonus Tip: As part of the ‘Bun Making Masterclass’, give out standardised instruction booklets for students to follow during the Masterclass, and to take home with them for future reference (and for their parents!).  Do include pictures of inspirational professional dancers as motivation, and include information like;

♦ what to do with fringes ♦ what to do with short hair ♦ what bun nets etc. do you want them to use (standardised, or blending with their hair colour for example) ♦ how high do you want them to place their bun (nape of the neck, back of the head, high on the crown) ♦ what partings you would prefer ♦ what decorations (scrunchies, ribbons etc) you permit, and of course ♦ advice on appropriate use of gel/hairspray/products etc.

This way you are most likely to have a studio full of beautifully matching, expert-standard ballet buns; not only raising the level of professionalism in class, but ensuring their skills are well honed for exams and performances.

Share your best bun-crafting tips in our comments!

If you have questions, post those, too.

Angeline Lucas

Angeline Lucas

Angeline Lucas is a freelance dance writer, teacher and lecturer based in England. She has been awarded Registered Teacher Status with the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) and is an Approved Teacher of the Council for Dance Education & Training (CDET). Angeline trained at Northern Ballet School (NBS) and holds a Certificate of Higher Education in Dance Education, validated by RAD and the University of Surrey. Previous roles have included working as head of department, outreach coordinator and curriculum manager, and she also has experience in dance research and arts administration. Angeline has taught and lectured at various private dance studios, schools, colleges and on community programmes, and is considered to be a dedicated, experienced and enthusiastic teacher. Angeline’s greatest passion is classical ballet, and is devoted to the advancement of the art form, the promotion of accessible high-standard dance education, and facilitating the achievement of her students.
Angeline Lucas
Angeline Lucas


  1. Emma-Jane Phillips says:

    Great article!
    As the mother of a child with very long, thick, wavy hair I have spent quite a few years watching dance teachers and well meaning mothers attempting to put my child’s hair into an ‘exam ready’ bun without considering the nature of her hair (it has a life of its own) and ignoring her wincing as the attacked with paddle brushes, gel and hairspray. Its also worth remembering that hair spray doesn’t wash out so if you smother the hair of a curly haired child in hair spray they are going to spend a good few days attempting to remove it while looking like they have really bad dandruff (a soluble Gel is the best way to go and never use anything that claims to be ‘extra hold’ on that type of hair its just asking for a marge simpson do the day after 🙂 )

  2. My daughters are African-American with thick, tightly coiled, natural, non-straightened hair. When they have ballet recitals, I have some one corn row braid their hair going straight back from the forehead and straight up from the nape. Then we gather the braids where they meet, wrap them with a thin pony tail holder and tuck the hair under bobby pins to form a ballet bun.

    • Thank you for your tip! I was dissapointed that the article didn’t include info about non-straight hair types!

      • Actually, Angeline does mention thick, curly hair types several times above, and gives tips on the brushes and bands that work best.

        However, I do feel that African American hair types, challenges, and processes warrant their own article. I’d like to find someone who’s got the experience to include tips on the site. I will add it to my list of to-do topics! Thanks ladies!

  3. Does anyone know of any good articles for faking a bun with short hair? I don’t mean shoulder length (I’ve seen some that claim that as how to do it with short hair, but the hair was all long enough to get in a ponytail without gel or anything!) Coming back to ballet as an adult, I fear I will need to be able to get it in a bun at some point, but I can’t really grow my hair out as my particular hair looks very unprofessional and young when long (not to mention it takes forever to dry, and is nearly impossible to put up once it is long enough to (my childhood memories of dance recitals consist of my mother putting my hair in a ponytail, braiding the ponytail, and then using an entire card of bobby pins, all of which would come out bent and un-re-usable at the end of the night! So I have no desire to go back to that anyway!) Thanks!

    • Angeline says:

      Hi Ally!
      If your hair is long enough to go into a small ponytail, but you cannot make a large enough bun to match the rest of your corps, you could try halving a doughnut (just like halving a bagel) and then using it as normal; by halving it less hair length is required to cover the net.

      If you have really short or cropped hair you will likely need lots of hair gel, hair spray and bobby pins in order to smooth it close to your head, but can then use a clip on fake ballet bun to compete the look should you wish (just google ‘fake hair bun’ for suppliers). Hope that helps!

    • Hi Ally –

      Sadly, I don’t have a solution for short hair, but if you ever do decide to grow it a bit longer, make sure to use hair pins (shaped more like a “U”) instead of bobby pins. I too used bobby pins and was unhappy for years until someone finally explained that hair pins are specifically designed for buns. They expand out and stick in the hair thanks to the ridges, much like an anchor does when hanging something heavy on a wall. Since then I’ve bought one pack and they keep my bun in place.

      Best of luck with your shorted hair! Hopefully Angeline’s advice will help! (:

      • Jennifer says:

        Just have to add that hair pins when bent out of shape (to the point that a Bobbi pin wound be useless) can be easily bent and re shaped back to usable condition. Insuring that (unless you snap or lose them) they will last forever

    • Can you do a sock bun?

  4. This was so thorough and I only wish that i had someone with this kind of advice when I was younger…I had hair that was down to my bum!

    Thank you, Angeline!
    Cathy yoshimura

  5. I like the bun making master class idea Angeline! Great to make this fun for dancers. And learning to be responsible for their own hair early in their training reinforces the discipline necessary for this career. Thanks for sharing!!
    Carol Schwarzkopf

  6. This is a great article about making a ballet bun. I wished I had ballet bun making classes at my ballet when I was younger. When I had ballet class I had to wear my hair up. I wore buns in class, but I would twist ponytail into a bun then wrap a scrunchie over the bun. I would fix it if came loose during class.

    But performance time, I had to have the ballet bun. I couldn’t make my own buns, but my mother was able to make great ballet buns. I had waist length hair as a kid, so it was easier for my mother to style my hair. I also wore bangs too, I remember she didn’t trim them until after the performance, it’s easier to have bangs on the longer side when the bangs need to be slicked back. She slicked them back, then placed bobby pins in there, when I looked in the mirror in the dressing room, I had x on my head where the bobby pins were, and she sprayed enough hair spray on them, and the bangs never came up during a performance. Also when you’re taking a bun out, I remember my mother rubbing her hand through my hair, to ease the pain. Wearing a bun for a few hours isn’t comfortable, so when taking it out, take your time with removing it. I hated combing the hair spray out of my bangs when I pulled them forward. Also remember if your child wears glasses, have the child take them off before making a bun, the glasses get in the way, and you don’t want hair spray on the lens.

    Lately I’ve seen on tv, called hot bunz, a flexiable hair item that has covering on it with some kind a wire, it looks easy enough to use in the video at where the hair item is.

    • Thanks for contributing Emily! I particularly like your tip about “If your child wears glasses, have the child take them off before making a bun”!


  7. Great article! I would have also loved a linked youtube video with the technique on how to actually make the bun, but I love the detail that the article goes into . Also, thanks to the useful commenter that explained why to use u pins instead of bobby pins – I also saw a facebook post lately that showed how most people are using bobby pins are upside down! (I was one of them)

  8. Great article! This will really help me! I always end up washing my face before I do my bun, but this will help the stickiness! Thanks again. ~Ella

  9. Caroline says:

    Thanks so much for the insight! What are your thoughts on pixie cuts for teenage dancers and college students?

    • Hi Caroline!

      Personally I think short hair can be managed for most amateur performances/exams/competitions where a ballet bun is required by the methods described in my answers to Ally (above, 01/03/2013), and Katthie (below, 06/10/2014); and in view of that I like my students to feel free to make their own choices about their personal appearance. That said, I think it is important to be respectful of any rules regarding hair length as set by your teacher/studio, and to check before going to the hairdresser.

      In terms of professional life, however, I would suggest it would be easier to have hair long enough to style in a traditional ballet bun if you are looking to be employed by a classical ballet company; for although different companies, like schools, are likely to have their own rules/opinions on the subject, it is easier to choose to crop after being offered a contract (and checking their policies), rather than worrying about hair already chopped!

      Hope that helps!


      • Kathie Sherman says:

        I would like to send you a recent picture of Caroline, so you can see her hair. However I will need an email address to share it with you. Also, where can I purchase doughnut-shaped imitation bun ?

        If you send me your email address to my email address, or respond with an email address through which I can share recent pictures of her hair, that would be great.

        This is a determined Nanny, who was a dancer starting at the age of 5 in 1952. I am going to visit Caroline and I am also interested in a suggestion of how to begin, through a free website. I will be leaving on Sunday, Oct. !2 and would love to visit her and her fraternal twin brother and share with them some beginning stretches and barre work that can be done at home. If you have a suggestion of where I could find a good pre-ballet syllabus, a place to purchase the round imitation bun and an email address to send you a picture of her current length of hair, I would be most appreciative. Blessings to you Angeline! <3 Kathie AKA Nanny

        Editor’s note: Kathie, I removed your email address from this comment because I don’t think you’ll want the additional spam you might receive as a result. I can pass your email to Angeline privately. Thanks!

  10. How can a 2 1/2 year old have the ballet bun type hairstyle if her hair is thin and will not cover the whole bun? I am her grandmother and I was a dancer. She shows great promise and is gifted in the area of dance and not yet taking classes but loves to dress up and dance for me on Face Time.

    Nanny needs some suggestions!

    • Hi Katthie,
      Please find my reply to your ballet bun question in the thread below.

  11. Dear Katthie- twist the ponytail into a sausage and wrap it around the hair binder. Bobby pin the sausage to the hair on the head and the binder. The more you practice, the better your technique becomes…. sound familiar? (*wink) Hope that helps!

  12. Hi Katthie!

    While it is hard to offer specific advice without seeing her hair, if it is too short to follow Carol’s correct instruction above, you could possibly experiment with trying the following:

    If her hair is very short and/or fine, you could purchase a round ‘imitation bun’ (i.e., a clip-on hair accessory made of ‘fake hair’ which mimics a full bun), then simply ‘slick’ her natural hair towards the crown of her head using appropriate hair products (child-friendly gel etc.), and then clip the ‘imitation bun’ on top.

    If, on the other hand, her hair is long enough to put into a medium-length ponytail you could try a ‘net bun maker’ (i.e., a doughnut-shaped hair accessory): first feeding the ponytail through the doughnut’s centre; then parting the middle of the ponytail and spreading the hair over the outside of the doughnut, covering the net; then finally pinning the hair around the base/sides of the doughnut to secure.

    If her hair is such a length that neither of the above would work, you could buy a doughnut-shaped ‘imitation bun’ and either:

    A) Follow the same process as for a ‘net bun maker’ – for if you choose one close to her natural hair colour, the structure of the bun will be provided by the accessory and her natural hair will be able to be pinned over the top thus aesthetically blending in to create the illusion of a full, traditional ballet bun.

    Or alternatively;

    B) You could tie the hair into a ‘micro bun’/knot and place a doughnut-shaped ‘imitation bun’ over the top – the ‘micro bun’ nestling in the centre of the doughnut.

    If you choose to try any of the above do let me know the results… and good luck!


  13. Alexandra says:

    We have to wear are hair in a proper ballet bun for every class, so to avoid the stretched bobby pins and the sore head from putting a pin into your scalp, I use spin pins. Even though they may seem expensive at first I use to need at least 20-30 pins to do my bun and now one pin on the left, one on the right and done.