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Fancy Footwork: ballet, football and fitness

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Addressing the topic of fitness for all, Claire Severn speaks to experts from the worlds of ballet and football and discovers a surprising degree of overlap.

As pastimes go, ballet and football would seem to be at polar ends of the spectrum – one is considered primarily an art and the other a fast-paced sport. There’s the typical gender split too. Of course, both are open to all, however even in today’s more enlightened times, the old traditions often still hold true.

But what if I told you that some professional footballers, and indeed athletes from manyother disciplines, practise ballet as part of their training routine and that ballet dancers look to enhance their skills by partaking in a variety of other sports.

Surprised? It actually makes perfect sense.

Consider both disciplines – both require a certain level of fi tness to perform well. Sure, ballerinas don’t spend their time running up and down a 100-metre-plus pitch week-in, week-out, but what they do requires strength and endurance, which is exactly what a footballer needs too.

Equally, on the face of it, footballers don’t appear to focus on poise and elegance, but take a closer look at what they get up to on the pitch, and the best of the best are nimble, precise and demonstrate incredible balance and agility.

All-round fitness

“Ballet exercises boost strength throughout your body, from the small, intrinsic muscles of your feet to the larger muscles of your legs, abs and back,” explains Dawnna Wayburne, 36-year DB resident and founder of DMR School of Ballet (DMR). “Glutes and calves definitely get a workout during class too.”

Another key muscle group that ballerinas rely on is the core. In order to make those moves look so effortless, dancers need balance – when your arms and legs are going in different directions, you need to keep your abs switched on at all times. Whether it’s a slow, delicate movement or a fast-paced leap, that centre is all important.

But what of aerobic fitness? Ballet dancers need a great deal of stamina, but are barre classes alone enough? According to Dawnna, the answer is to balance dance training with other physical activities, such as targeted cardio and weight training.

“A typical ballet class involves short bursts of high-energy combinations that can leave a dancer feeling winded,” she says. “Those cardio moments in class are interspersed with slower, adagio movement combinations. As a result, ballet dancers can demonstrate lower levels of cardiovascular fitness, however this is offset by other significant benefits, such as muscle toning, which helps with increased resting metabolism.”

As it turns out, football offers a mixed bag too, and while cardio plays a significant part, it’s not the only area of fitness the sport develops. “Football is generally made up of lots of high-intensity actions,” says Wayne Thomas, ex-Premier League player and director of coaching at HK Dragons Football Club. “These improve anaerobic fitness on top of aerobic improvement and positively affect the body through what we call ‘football-specific’ strength and conditioning.” Wayne says the list of health benefits that football offers is endless, from agility, balance and coordination – “the most vital components in my opinion at a younger age” – to power, speed, reaction time, strength, endurance, cardiovascular fitness and body composition. And it can be enjoyed by all.

The feel-good factor

Which brings us on to a different aspect of health – that of mental wellbeing. “All too often in youth football, the social and psychological benefi ts are overlooked,” says Wayne. “At Dragons, we aim to provide the best possible environment for young players to develop. By tailoring sessions to individuals and not just groups, participants can enjoy all sorts of benefits, such as increased confidence, self-esteem and concentration, stress relief, learning how to manage and deal with mistakes, humility, respect, teamwork, leadership, empathy… the list is endless.”

Dawnna says that ballet offers similar benefits. “The intense physical workout of ballet releases endorphins, giving participants a real feel-good factor, both during and after class.

“In addition, classical music has been shown to have positive, calming influences on the brain and aids focus and concentration, all of which helps to create happy ballet dancers. Students at DMR feel like they’re part of a team; they have common goals and are committed to their own success, as well as that of their peers.”

It’s not just the young who can benefit either. “Popular right now is the Silver Swan programme in the UK, aimed at over 60s,” explains Dawnna. “Research has positioned dance ahead of other physical activities for this age group in terms of the health benefits it offers, such as improved balance, minimised falls and increased cognitive abilities. Likewise, the social benefits of dance amongst this age group have also been well documented.”

Dawnna also points out findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which suggest getting footloose on a regular basis is linked with a regular basis is linked with a 76% reduction in dementia risk.

Compete against yourself

But just how much exercise – ballet, football or otherwise – should we be doing to improve our fitness? Is there an optimal level? “With any sport or activity, the more you do, the better/ more conditioned you’ll become and the greater the gains will be,” says Wayne.

“However, it’s important to understand that rest and recovery periods are vital in terms of fitness development, especially in the maturation of younger players, where we must take into consideration the fact that their bodies are going through changes in physiology at different rates.

“There is also lots of evidence out there to suggest that early sports specialisation is detrimental to the development of younger athletes, therefore I would advocate that the more sports and activities a young player is involved in, the better.”

Dawnna says that listening to your body is important too, as is concentrating on form. “A great way to stay fit and to keep your body in its optimal state is to work on improving your technique,” she imparts. “The more you focus on this, the less likely you are to get badly injured.” Any other advice? “Get plenty of sleep, drink plenty of water and eat nutritional meals.”

“Enjoy the process of learning through both success and failure,” adds Wayne. “Be proud of your achievements. All players will develop at different rates – physically, psychologically, socially, technically and tactically – so rather than competing against others, compete against yourself. Ask yourself ‘Can I be better today than I was yesterday?’”

Based in DB Plaza, Hang Hau and Clearwater Bay, DMR School of Ballet offers students, from the age of three to adult, the opportunity to learn to dance in a professional and enjoyable environment. In addition to ballet, tap and modern, there are creative non-syllabus classes such as Fun Ballet and Tots in Tutus. Visit www.dmr-hk.com

HK Dragons Football Club offers year-round coaching in DB, Pui O and Stanley for girls and boys of all abilities, aged three to 18 years. Coaches aim to motivate players to try new things, develop their game skills and realise their full potential, both on and off the pitch. Visit dragons.hk

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