Sport Monday, March 16th Words by: Adam Knight, pictures by: Adam Knight

Boys Only Ballet: leaps, left-hooks and the guys learning to plié in Hereford

Sport Monday, March 16th

Boys Only Ballet: leaps, left-hooks and the guys learning to plié in Hereford

Growing up in Mexico City Juan Manuel Marquez trained his jaw from an early age, starting boxing at 8-years-old alongside his older brother. Both of whom would later be considered among the best fighters their great fighting nation had ever produced.

A Mexican boxer in the truest sense, Marquez junior made his name with heavy hands and a too often-bloodied face.

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His four-fight rivalry with Manny Pacquiao is one of the best and most brutal the sport has seen. Yet in 2011, fighting Pacquiao for the third time and a world title, he turned away from the gruelling hill-runs and the rope routines usually used to put steel in a fighters’ legs.

Marquez took up ballet.

It made him stronger and more agile, he told the media in the run-up to a fight he lost only by the grace of poor judging.

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Evander Holyfield, a hulking Alabaman, looking to move up the weight classes in the 90’s, walked in to petite, then-70-year-old Marya Kennet’s New York ballet studio in the hopes of adding flexibility.

“When I was fighting big guys, I need to have something they didn’t have,” he said in a 2011 documentary.

Holyfield would soon become one of the most-feared boxers in the heavyweight division.

Before that there was Arnold Schwarzenegger, one ham-like fist gripping the ballet barre as he learned how to move his rippling frame with grace ahead of the 1975 Mr Olympia. 

And, more recently, there\'s the story of \'Razor\' Ray Emery - a man who led the Ottawa Senators to Stanley Cup glory in the NHL by throwing his body in front of 100mph hockey pucks - before turning to ballet training in order to rehabilitate post-surgery following a rare and often career-ending hip injury. He lifted the cup again just three years later with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Despite the rigours and physical demands of dance’s strictest discipline being well-documented to the point of synonymy, there remains a degree of surprise when athletes recruit ballet’s age-old techniques to aid their training.

There is a certain mysticism – often perpetuated by ballet itself – that surrounds one of dance’s oldest formal forms.

And more than most contemporary disciplines, ballet has failed to attract young male dancers in any kind of large numbers.

Tomorrow, in Hereford, 2Faced Dance launches its first male-only ballet class, with the hope of making it a permanent fixture.

The company’s artistic director, Tamsin Fitzgerald, has been the driving force behind The BENCH, a programme that seeks to give a platform to female choreographers, often seen as being underrepresented at the sharp end of UK dance.

This new class is her company’s first tentative steps to address a similar gender imbalance in ballet training.

We sat down with Ms Fitzgerald, and three of 2Faced\'s professional dancers in between tour dates for their contemporary show Dreaming in Code, to talk ballet.

The dancers are Ed Warner, Jason Boyle and Chris Knight. The latter two will be teaching Boys Only Ballet tomorrow at the Courtyard in Hereford.


Tamsin Fitzgerald: Ballet is still hugely popular. But it’s always trying to find a new way to be cool – stars like Carlos Acosta make it a bit cooler – but it will always have an appeal because it’s magical, because it\'s fantastical and because they hold the money.

We’re using Thursday’s session to gauge interest – we’ve got 19 signed up – and then we hope to set up a boys-only class, even if that’s just once a month, or once every two weeks.

It would be a technique class not a show class, but never say never.

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When it comes to training, there’s a strength and flexibility you get from ballet that you just don’t get initially from other dance styles.

And it’s different for boys – as a girl you tend to start with ballet. You build up that strength and flexibility early.

You can go to those ballet classes as a boy. But you will be in with girls, generally girls a lot younger than you, and often taught by a female teacher.

Ed Warner: And, at that young age, teaching ballet is too often about teaching how to be ‘pretty princesses’.

TF: So boys often leave it too late. They get to 16 or 17 and are looking going away to train – but are going in to auditions with little or no ballet.

Chris Knight: At dance school we were playing catch-up. You’re always learning anyway, and you can always find your way through it, but to have a base in that codified ballet language is a huge help.

And that ballet training affects your other training a hell of a lot.

The big thing for me when I started was the barre. I had to really switch on, the patterning of ballet, and the level movement memory is huge.

Whether you are coming in from a sports background or from another style of dance, it’s a big test of your physicality to control your muscles in a different way.

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CK: The accentuation of movement is really important. You have to be able to time your movement so that you can engage your fast-twitch muscles to go through something fast, and then immediately change to go in to something more held.

EW: Professional footballers, for example, use ballet training for strength, for balance, for footspeed.

CK: It forces you to engage your posterior chain, to focus work through your back muscles – it’s why ballet dancers have such good posture.

But purely boiling it down to just another way of training – if there are guys who want to come to do a session in something different to their usual routine – whether they play other sports, whether they’re interested in dance, they do yoga, whatever – if they just want to test their physicality in another way I think they’d get something out of it.

TF: From my point of view ballet’s quite competitive. Which is a part that I think appeals to guys. Its etiquette is very strict, and it’s very disciplined. I think that’s a fair assumption to make about any ballet class.

There’s this language that is both specific to ballet and universal – you could do a plie at a class anywhere in the world and they’d know what it is.

As a form, it’s quite stationary, so mentally you have to dig down deep.

But the jumps and the turns are really quite freeing.

CK: And that’s you can really put your whole physicality in to it, I find. Really travel. That’s one thing that appealed for me.

When me and Jay started training we were in the same class. We used to do travelling exercises from one side of the room to the other, and we would go together, just to see who could travel the furthest, jump the highest.

TF: Even now they’re like that. They are always measuring their jump heights.

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Jason Boyle: That background of being taught ballet from a boy’s perspective is going to really help – understanding what we were shy to ourselves and what we delved in to and were really excited about.

For guys, you want to bring out that competitiveness in the class. I think if you introduce that strict discipline at a point with older dancers who haven’t necessarily had it before, that’s not easy. But if you use the competitiveness to keep them focussed, that’s a good tool to use.

The jumps, the leg extensions, how high can you get your leg – and working on the co-ordination between hands and feet, that’s one of the biggest things you can take from ballet in terms of transferring it to other things.

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 For more information on the Boys Only Ballet class, or for the company\'s upcoming tour dates, visit 2Faced Dance’s Facebook page or website.

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