Feature

Cross-training in ballet

Dominic Antonucci looks at the difference cross-training has made to the health and fitness of dancers. This article first appeared in the Dancing Times in 2014 and is reproduced with the kind permission of all involved.

<p><em>The Four Seasons: </em>Ambra Vallo in 'Autumn'</p>. Credit: Bill Cooper.

This summer marked the 20th anniversary of my joining Birmingham Royal Ballet. During that time I’ve seen the company go through many changes. The artistic directorship moved from Sir Peter Wright to David Bintley after my first year, and thinking of all the memories and dancers who’ve passed through Birmingham Royal Ballet in the years since then makes my head spin.

I believe that some of the most dramatic changes have occurred within the training methods of the dancers outside of their regular ballet class. Attitudes towards physical exercise other than ballet are radically different to what they were even ten years ago.

'As a direct result of my ballet training, my speed, coordination and flexibility noticeably improved when I played baseball.'

In the not so distant past, classical dancers were told that activities such as jogging, cycling, lifting weights and even swimming were potentially harmful to their classical line. Fears of 'bulking up the thighs and shoulders were commonly expressed by ballet teachers, and students were warned of the dangers of becoming too 'muscly'.

These are certainly valid concerns in regards to the classical aesthetic, but they now seem a bit dated. Dancers today are far more aware and educated about how to train and which methods to use in order to achieve their desired outcomes.

<p>Faster: Laëtitia Lo Sardo and Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet</p>. Credit: Bill Cooper.

Cross-training was present from the beginning of my own ballet training, even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I was on a youth baseball team as a boy in the US and would go straight from baseball practice to ballet class. I never failed to raise the eyebrows of the ballet teachers and students as I wore my baseball uniform as dance kit for class.

I realise now that I had made a significant connection between the two activities and how they benefited each other. As a direct result of my ballet training, my speed, coordination and flexibility noticeably improved when I played baseball. I also believe that, in return, the sport helped keep me grounded in a masculine physicality at a time when the ballet classes I was participating in were almost completely female.

Early into my career with Birmingham Royal Ballet I was plagued with a series of injuries. Some of these were unavoidable, but others were simply down to poor preparation. My career had stalled and my self-confidence was low. Then, at 25, I discovered boxing training and started working on it seriously, side by side with ballet. The positive results were immediate as my career began to progress again and my injuries became less frequent each following season.

Boxing improved my strength and stamina, but also provided psychological advantages I hadn’t expected. I found new confidence in my physical ability, and no longer worried if I would tire at the end of a pas de deux or fall apart in the 'coda'. Because of my training, I knew I could do what I needed to do, and more. I also discovered that by working on something else physically in my free time, I could return to ballet with a renewed mental vigour.

'I wouldn’t be dancing today if it weren’t for the weight training I’ve done.'

Jamie Bond

I was certainly not alone in this discovery, nor the first to find my career benefited from cross-training. The striking thing is just how widespread and important cross-training has become to dancers over a relatively short period of time. Injury is a common motivation for dancers to explore different training methods. For many, their first experience with cross-training has come through injury. Dancers want to know how they can fix their bodies and how to keep themselves fit moving forward.

Birmingham Royal Ballet Principal Jamie Bond has spent summers at the Michael Johnson Performance – Athletic Training Centre in Texas, working hard to combat back problems that have repeatedly troubled him. Jamie swears by the results and has educated himself on how best to keep the injury at bay. 'I wouldn’t be dancing today if it weren’t for the weight training I’ve done.'

<p>Birmingham Royal Ballet's Jerwood Centre for the Prevention and Treatment of Dance Injuries</p>. Credit: Andrew Ross.

Talking to Jamie highlighted how much more sensibly training programmes are calculated now than in the past. 'If you know that your ballerina weighs approximately 50kg and you are only able to lift 25kg over your head, you are asking your body to lift 100 per cent more weight than it is really capable of,' he says. Knowing what you are asking your body to do and training with specific goals in mind is key in preventing muscles from 'bulking up'. Jamie knows he doesn’t need to lift 100kg over his head, so he works with appropriate amounts of weight, avoiding adding extra muscle mass that he doesn’t need.

There are so many different types of training programmes and workouts that dancers now use, it is impossible for me to keep up with them all. Yoga has risen in popularity a tremendous amount and several Birmingham Royal Ballet dancers practice it daily. INSANITY is an extremely difficult workout that quite a few dancers are into at the moment, and there are many more.

Dancers choose programmes they feel will improve specif c areas of weakness in their fitness and physique. First Artist Oliver Till says it’s like 'custom tailoring' your body. 'You learn what your own body needs.' Oliver has used a variety of training methods – particularly yoga – to increase his focus, flexibility and to prevent nagging hamstring muscle injuries. Seeing him in class and on stage as often as I do, I can support his claim that the cross-training is having a positive effect.

'Today is a wiser and healthier time in general for dancers.'

Today’s professional dancers are required to perform many more styles of dance and movement than solely classical ballet. A recent Birmingham Royal Ballet triple bill demonstrated this as the company shifted from Frederick Ashton’s Les Rendezvous with its pure British classicism and technique to Alexander Whitley’s new and physically challenging work Kin., with only a 20-minute interval between the two. Pirouettes from 'fifth to fifth' gave way to a completely different kind of physicality where the dancers move in ways that are never present in a ballet class.

<p><em>Kin.: </em>Jenna Roberts and Joseph Caley</p>. Credit: Bill Cooper.

Birmingham Royal Ballet Principal Jenna Roberts danced the leading role in each of these pieces and is a great example of a dancer who uses cross-training methods successfully while still maintaining an exquisite classical line. Like myself, Jenna struggled with injuries early in her career and has utilised several types of cross-training since then.

'I’ve been using weights to build strength, especially in my legs,' she says. 'The programme I’m using now has a good amount of time at the end for stretching, so my muscles don’t feel tight or bulky even though I’ve really worked them. I also do a lot of circuit training for my stamina. I feel it really helps me recover more quickly after solos.'

Jenna’s rate of injury has dropped remarkably in recent years and she credits her extra training for that. She also cites ballerina Sylvie Guillem as a major influence in the change of attitude towards cross-training. 'She [Guillem] is so athletic but still has flexibility and amazing technique. She really changed everything about what women thought was physically possible.'

Recently, Birmingham Royal Ballet held its last ballet class in our home studios before a much needed refurbishment. Before the final class began, a snapshot image came into my mind of how the studios had looked in 1994 compared to 2014. Everything about the studio itself was exactly the same. The amazing thing was that instead of a large ashtray propping open one of the doors with just a few dancers stretching on the floor – as you would have seen 20 years ago – the studio was now full of dancers busy doing their morning training routines.

'The coffee drinking, cigarette-smoking corner of the studio is now a distant memory.'

Some were plugged into their phones following online workout videos, others standing on their heads practising what I guess is yoga. Every dancer has their own workout mat and strange set of utensils for balletic-type torture. The coffee drinking, cigarette-smoking corner of the studio is now a distant memory.

Today is a wiser and healthier time in general for dancers. They know what they want out of their careers: to perform as much as possible, in the best physical shape possible, to be versatile and confident. It would seem they are taking far more control over the means to achieve this than ever before.