25 August 2015


Daniel Gallan

Subtlety and precision, or raw power and force of will; if asked to associate these attributes with either ballet or elite sport it would appear to be an easy match to make. Ballet is the prance of the aristocrat while sport is the everyman’s pastime. And yet, crossing the divide might provide a way for inhabitants in both camps to improve their already impressive attributes. Caryl Becker, Physiotherapist for the Royal Ballet Company, explains how her background in elite sport has helped improve the conditioning of dancers, and what ballet and the art world can teach elite sport.

Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood of the Royal Ballet Company demonstrate power and balance in  Raven Girl. Image supplied by the Royal Ballet Company, photo by  Johan Persson. 

Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood of the Royal Ballet Company demonstrate power and balance in Raven Girl. Image supplied by the Royal Ballet Company, photo by  Johan Persson. 

Michael Jordan’s “Jumpman” logo is perhaps the most iconic emblem in world sport. A silhouetted Jordan has his legs spread out and an arm outstretched in what appears to be the apex of one of his famous dunks. The logo has been emblazoned on countless sneakers, caps, shirts, and kit bags, and has earned Nike over $5 billion.  What many people don’t realise is that Jordan was not performing a slam dunk, but rather a grand jeté, a traditional ballet manoeuvre.

Removing the thin superficial crust of machismo, it’s very easy to understand why ballet and elite sport can have a mutually beneficial relationship. Attributes like balance, strength, and agility, are all basic requirements needed at the elite levels of both sport and ballet.

Steve McLendon, the 1.93m, 147kg, nose tackle for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that ballet is physically more challenging than anything else he does. McLendon took up ballet as a way of improving his football and aiding injury prevention. It is a concept called “transferable skills” and allows attributes gained from one situation to have a positive impact on another.

First Soloist for the Royal Ballet Company in London, Alexander Campbell, told Jonathon Agnew on BBC’s Test Match Special, that his background and love for cricket has had a positive effect on his ballet. The Australian said, “I developed all sorts of skills - hand-eye coordination, timing, sharpness, explosiveness, agility – that perhaps wouldn’t have developed in the same way had I just been trained as a dancer.”

Whether you associate a Piqué with a raised pointed foot or a Spanish footballer, it’s easy to appreciate the physical ability that dancers demonstrate. Sure, ballet is not exactly a contact sport, but the strength and agility required to perform at the elite level could, in many ways, rival a professional rugby player.

“What these dancers do with their bodies every day is simply astounding,” says Caryl Becker, Physiotherapist for the Royal Ballet Company. “The control, the strength, the agility; these dancers rival anything I have seen in elite sport.”

Becker would know. Her introduction into elite physiotherapy started at Yorkshire County Cricket Club before she became the Chief Physiotherapist for the British Olympic Association from 2001 to 2013. In those 12 years, Becker worked with a variety of athletes and was exposed to a vast array of injuries and body types. She could be treating a petite gymnast’s swollen ankle in the morning, a robust weightlifter’s pulled bicep in the afternoon, and cap off the day soothing a sprinter’s strained quadriceps before closing time.

By immersing herself in a variety of sports, Becker was able to accrue an eclectic understanding of not only the injuries associated with each sport, but with the cultural nuances that permeate throughout each discipline.

“The core skill for any sports practitioner is how quickly you can understand the culture and be accepted within the culture,” says Becker.

Sarah Lamb and artists of The Royal Ballet Company in  Connectome. Image supplied by the Royal Ballet Company, photo by Bill Cooper

Sarah Lamb and artists of The Royal Ballet Company in Connectome. Image supplied by the Royal Ballet Company, photo by Bill Cooper

The human body is a variable that both ballet and elite sport share. An injured metatarsal remains an injured metatarsal whether its origin is a mistimed slide tackle at Wembley Stadium, or a poorly executed entrechat quatreat the Bolshoi Theatre. It is the culture surrounding the injury that dictates how you deal with it.

A variable that is not shared in elite sport, at least one that is not a requirement, is the aesthetics of the performer. Shane Warne, arguably the greatest ever Test cricket bowler, was, at the height of his ability, hardly a candidate for the cover of Men’s Health magazine. That did not matter. Australian selectors and terrified opposition batsmen alike could not have cared less about the state of Warne’s midriff. All that mattered was his ability to dominate opponents and take wickets for his country.

Not so with ballet. “Ballet is more about the show than elite sport,” says Becker. “How did it look to the audience? Did it get a standing ovation? That has added a whole new dimension to the way I do my job.”

George Balanchine, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, and one of the most influential choreographers of the 20th century, liked his dancers skinny. In a fantastic piece for the Huffington PostElizabeth Kiem notes that Balanchine liked his dancers, “young, tall, and slender to the point of alarm. He liked to see bones. He liked to see ribs. He liked hyperextension and strength that was mechanical yet lithe. It is Balanchine’s obsession with the impossible “structure” that is often blamed for the destructive eating and body disorders that plague the dance world.”

Though ballet has (somewhat) progressed beyond the cognitive limitations of the 20th century, Becker still has to take into account that some aficionados might turn their noses up at muscular legs and rippling torsos.

“It makes it harder for me to do my job to be honest,” admits Becker. She tells us that an injured dancer was reluctant to start a particular rehabilitation programme that involved squats as she was afraid of the increased muscle mass that might occur. “We’re like a big family and one comment like, “Wow! Your legs are looking bigger” can cause a ripple effect throughout the company. There is certainly an element of education within the ballet world that is challenging.”

But that doesn’t mean that ballet isn’t willing to learn. Becker’s appointment is a testament to that, and her desire to act as a bridge between the two worlds offers the rest of us an example of how expanding our knowledge beyond the confines of our environment can only prove beneficial.

If Becker could bring anything over from sport, it would be the way dancers’ loads are monitored and quantified. Because sport is ultimately a competition, it has created an environment where marginal gains are scientifically measured and sought after to the nth degree. The way physiotherapists and managers mitigate against stress fractures, overuse injuries, and general wear and tear, straddles the latest advancements in modern medicine. With this thinking, choreographers and managers would be able to understand the precise physical requirements of a particular role within the production.

James Hay and Romany Pajdak of the Royal Ballet Company in rehearsal.  Image supplied by the Royal Ballet Company, photo by Johann Perrson.

James Hay and Romany Pajdak of the Royal Ballet Company in rehearsal. Image supplied by the Royal Ballet Company, photo by Johann Perrson.

But it is the freedom from competition that allows ballet to remain true to its aesthetics. Without competition, ballet shouldn’t be called a sport at all. Ballet is an art, but that does not mean that sport cannot incorporate aesthetic lessons from dance.

“Because dancers are so focussed on how they move, their attention to detail on the minutest part of their body is to be admired,” says Becker. “Athletes could learn a lot about body control.” In a sport like golf, where a small movement of the head can have a domino effect on the rest of the body, a heightened sense of physical self-control could be crucial.

Though no studies (at least none that we could find) have attempted to find a causal link between the attractiveness of an athlete’s movements and injury, it is tempting to assume that what is pleasing on the eye might be pleasing for the body.

Take Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for example, two of the greatest male tennis players of all time, with 31 Grand Slams between them. Federer is gliding liquid on the court, each stroke of his arm and racquet a thing of poetic beauty. Nadal is a warrior, chasing down lost causes to the point of exhaustion. His game is often brutal to watch; a test of endurance and will power. Nadal turned 29 in June and has played 1017 singles matches, and after 14 years, that V8 engine that drives him onward seems to be showing signs of erosion. Conversely, the recently 34 year old Federer, with 1320 matches under his belt, continues to ooze seemingly effortless class.

Simon Barnes, on ESPNcricinfo’s The Cricket Monthly, asks if sporting beauty is a moral virtue.  He questions; “Is there a moral obligation to play sport in a manner that entertains? Should a professional try put on a show?” As he rightly points out, “sport, in any pure sense of the term, is onlyincidentally entertaining.” Watching a beautiful solo goal by Lionel Messi might be more pleasing on the eye than a bungling own goal in by a no-name right back, but they both count the same on the scoreboard.

The world of ballet might be the dark side of the moon for many grunting athletes, but it is as marvellous to behold as anything found on any court, field, or pitch when performed at the highest level. In an age where information is shared with the click of a mouse, the margins that separate those at the top and those at the bottom are being reduced every day. When it comes to improving your own performance, either as a dancer, an athlete, or a physiotherapist, perhaps the answer lies in the last place you thought to look.