Muay Thai & Ballet Common Ground

No, I’m not joking! I’m influenced by excellence regardless of the discipline or activity. I see the common ground everywhere. Every experience of successful individuals teaches me something – opens my eyes to something new, or provides confirmation of a principle I’ve already recognised.

Amber Nutcracker DollRecently, through my 10-year old daughter’s successful pursuit of a place in the Royal Ballet’s prestigious Junior Associate program, I’ve been exposed to many behind the scenes ballet training philosophies.

And despite the apparent ‘face value’ contrasts between classical ballet performance and Muay Thai competition, I’m again struck by the similarities. As always, it’s a matter of scale, but the principles are the same. Substitute the term ‘dancer’ with the word ‘fighter’ and you pretty much have a match…

Classical ballet is a very technical discipline, and with a long history and many traditional training methods and beliefs – sound familiar?

And all of the many different dance movements come from just 5 basic positions. A basic foundation forms a complex whole.

And despite the exertion levels, classical ballet demands that dancers make their movements appear effortless. This ‘poker face’ attitude resonates strongly with Thai boxers, not wanting to give a scoring advantage to their opponent.

Although dancing activity displays obvious strength and power, this is rarely trained and developed with supplemental training. Technical practice predominantly serves as the sole method of building these athletic qualities and the fitness required to perform – leaving a lot of potential on the table.

“All you need to be a better dancer, is to practice more dancing.”
“Using weight training will make you bulky, cumbersome and spoil the dancer’s aesthetic.”
All of these misconceptions are still prevalent in classical ballet circles.

As a result, injuries are common at the onset of a performance season, due to the sudden increase in the volume of activity, and general lack of strength balancing joint actions. Progressive, planned (periodised) supplemental training generally seems all but non-existent.

However, there’s a ton of good stuff going on too. Parents were allowed to attend the beginning of the first session for the next influx of Junior Associates recruits. And the first thing the dancers where introduced to were a series of preparatory exercises that must be practiced as homework.

Not only were the exercises highly valuable for developing the physical posture demanded by the Royal Ballet, the teacher went on to explain the need to understand the reason for the homework,  “You must focus on what the exercises are doing as you practice them, or they’ll not be effective.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this. Purposeful practice is key to excellence. If you don’t understand the purpose of your training and focus on it as you train, you’re never going to reach your potential. My online Muay Thai strength and conditioning program has a considerable educational component for this exact reason.

Purposeful practice leads to flow, something I’ve discussed regarding fight performance previously, but is also very evident in dance. If you can reduce the demand on you cognitive (system 2) thought processes through efficient, instinctive (system 1) autopilot, you can really feel the timing and movement of the situation. You can dance with ‘heart’, just as you can fight with heart too.

Although classical ballet performance itself may not be competitive in the terms that Thai boxers would think of, I can assure you it is. With thousands of dancers all vying for a few available places, ballet is extremely competitive. Dancers must audition for everything – training programs, international summer schools and of course performance roles. They are constantly being put up against each other, with only the best and most suitable being selected. Ballet dancers have to ‘fight’ just as fighters have to ‘dance’.

Dame Ninette de Valois (1898-2001), the Founder of the Royal Ballet School

Dame Ninette de Valois (1898-2001), the Founder of the Royal Ballet School

In the reception at the Royal Ballet School in Convent Garden, London, a photograph and text displayed on the wall tributes Dame Ninette de Valois (1898-2001), the Founder of the Royal Ballet School. After an inspiring synopsis of her considerable contributions to her art, it finished with one of her powerful and succinct quotes:

“Respect the past, herald the future, but concentrate on the present.”

Dame Ninette de Valois, Founder of the Royal Ballet School

Now, this just about sums up EVERYTHING for me in just one sentence! This lady had obviously grown though her chosen discipline to be become much more than a ‘dancer’. Dance was her catalyst, just as we’re drawn to Muay Thai – that’s our vehicle for growth. Whatever ‘lights your fire’ can teach you big lessons.

If you can learn to recognise ‘fire’ when you see it, regardless of it’s source or application, you’ll gain some awesome insight. There’s a bigger carry-over between all things than you may realise. Keep your eyes (and hearts) open.

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