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Ballet for Swimmers – Modified Exercises for Cross-Training

Part 1:  Introduction

…It is all about achieving and maintaining correct body alignment and posture, body and spatial awareness, and the prevention of injuries…

   …It is all about improving or further refining existing motor skills to enhance  overall movement efficiency to optimize and maximize performance…(Schloder, 2010)

Albert Einstein’s famous quote … “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” … ought to challenge swimmers and coaches at any level to ‘think out of the box’ and look for alternative and creative activities to enhance all-round athletic abilities (including elite swimmers!). However, any reference to ‘ballet or dance’ as cross-training usually elicits traditional myths, social bias, and frequent reactions such as … “Are you kidding me?” … “It’s a frilly thing for girls!” … “It’s not masculine!” … “Not my thing!” …”I am not wearing that silly Tutu!” or … “I am not comfortable and feel really stupid teaching this stuff!” … Besides, what does this have to do with swimming?” Indeed, it has everything to do with swimming as a sport and some more!

Dancers are recognized as some of the most athletic individuals, a fact that is not easily acknowledged within the sport community. A study, undertaken by Watson and Garret in the UK at the University of Hertfordshire reports the results of ten standardized fitness tests in late October 2008. These were administered to dancers of the Royal Ballet, the English National Ballet School, and a squad of national and international British swimmers (including Olympians) in order to construct individual fitness profiles. The test battery included strength, endurance, balance, flexibility, and psychological state among others. The results: Ballet dancers were fitter, scoring higher on 7 out of 10 test items. Moreover, they were apparently 25% stronger when tested for grip strength. So, do ballet dancers really have better overall fitness levels than elite swimmers? Yes, they do in the case of the samples used in this study.

What can we learn from these results? Obviously, swimming and ballet both offer solid workout opportunities. The fact is, however, ballet in itself is daily resistance training since the individual’s body weight pushes into the floor during every specific leg exercise, jumping, leaping, hopping, turning, or other associated dynamic movement. Such activities strengthen muscles, build up and maintain bone mass and bone density, essential for healthy bone growth. It is now a well-known research fact that impact activities during the early years delay the onset of osteoporosis for both females and males, which swimming – non-impact activity – does not provide. Bone density in young dancers is known to increase during their developmental years into adolescence and adulthood. Therefore, it only makes sense to examine the total body training concepts within ballet for potential integration into swim program.

Are you still somewhat hesitant? Here are some interesting facts. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, famous NFL football players such as Lynn Swan (Pittsburg Steelers, 1974-1982), and Willi Gault, Chicago Bear Super Bowl champion (1983-early1990s) pioneered the linkage of football and ballet. Swan, arguably the ‘most graceful receiver’ in NFL history to date, is described in NFL films as … ‘A lethal combination of smooth sipping whiskey and greased lightning” … He is considered “an artist in the world of football … the Baryshnikov of football.” He contributes his grace and skills to ballet he began as an 8-year old boy. Willi Gault, Chicago Bear Super Bowl champion (1983-early 1990s), world-class sprinter (Summer Olympics) and a bobsledder (Winter Olympics), was referred to as ‘the speed merchant of football.’ He also credits his success to extensive training in ballet.

These days, more and more athletes in various sports have taken up ballet to improve core stability, body and hip alignment, pelvic stability, dexterous leg and footwork, to prevent injuries, and for the purpose of rehabilitation. For instance, NHL hockey goalie Ray Emery was told that that his playing career was finished due to avascular necrosis of bone components (cellular death), a condition that interrupts the blood supply and affects the hipbone. His daily rehabilitation routine after surgery included Ballet, Yoga, Pilates, and Swimming to strengthen the core, hip and thigh muscles, which helped him to resume his playing career for the 2010-2011 season. According to Emery … “I can do things now I could never do before” … (Calgary Herald, February 1, 2011, p. E2, Ian Walker, Post Media News). Researchers from the University of Calgary’s Running Injury Clinic (Canada) concluded in a study that runners with knee pain benefit from an intensive hip-strengthening program because it helps to align the hips better with the knees (Ferber, Kendall & Farr, 2011). The results seemingly support the benefits derived from this activity, which focuses on core strength, hip and pelvic alignment. It further substantiates Emery’s endorsement for ballet as a successful rehabilitation program. Recently, British world-class swimmers have taken up ballet as cross-training and as part of their for Warm-up activity. Here are some of their thoughts about their involvement:

… We’ve been using ballet to warm-up before swim sessions and it works. It really helps to loosen you up, to breath better and it gives you a better sense of feel and reach, makes you feel ‘longer’ in the water. I can’t say everyone is amazing at it but that’s not why we’re doing it. Coach Ben Titley likes to think outside the box. He looks at every possible angle when it comes to getting us fit and strong. Posture and flexibility, thinking of how you’re moving as a whole is really important …

… Ballet is more often seen as the natural partner of synchronized swimmers than racers but there was no sniggering at Loughborough. It’s unusual but when Ben suggested it, everyone was really up for it,” swimmer Tancock recalls. We’re a different group of people in terms of the way we think …

… We’re open to ideas, and using different sports and activities keeps the brain fresh. Ballet is very physical and you need a lot of strength and precision. They (dancers) make it look effortless but it requires a lot of concentration. You become more aware of your body and what your limbs are doing, how you’re positioning your limbs, fingers and toes, states Tancock (2011 World Champion, 50-meter Back Crawl stroke) …

Cited in “Ballet keeps Titley’s company on their toes” (Story by Craig Lord. Retrieved June 16, 2011, from Swim News.com

Super Flexible

Super Flexible