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Athletic magic

March 18, 2011

This is part of a series on Athletic, Violence and trickery.  The first post in the series can be found here.

This category includes performers of physical feats that go beyond our normal way of using our bodies.  Performances are both solo and interactive.  We already indentified synchronised swimming, mime, Olympic gymnastics, break dancing, XMA, tricking and Wushu in this category.

I’d like to look in more depth at one specific example, ballet.  Ballet is widespread, has high performance elements and has established teaching/training methodologies.  (It also originates from the around same time as Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū, the 15th century.)

Becoming a ballerina

We don’t all have to be ballet dancers and gymnasts, but if we want similar abilities we have to look at how they train. The short answer is “long and hard,” being a professional level ballerina requires a training regime that is a full-time job.  At the high levels long hours are put in just to maintain the skill level.  Having never gone further than a smattering of dancing as a child I can only offer an outsider view of ballet.

The fundamental exercises in ballet are primarily concerned with range of motion and strength.  Ballerinas do countless repetitions of body weight squats in various positions (called plie in ballet) focusing on alignment and control throughout.  This strength gives them the grace of a swan swimming: moving smoothly on top because of the powerful work underneath.

In the saloon the ballet student cultivates graceful movement.  From the very beginning, when the novice is shown 1st position, they are encouraged to do so with the graceful air of ballet.  Just putting their feet in the right place is not enough.  Similarly when the novice is shown the plie it is often with the aid of the barre and graceful body and arm shapes are shown.  Even if the student never performs in a recital they are “doing ballet” from day one and should carry out their exercises with that in mind.

Outside of the saloon the student should also move gracefully.  In the beginning this is done consciously (both as training and for the continuous rewards of grace).  Later it is also done out of habit, the ballerina can’t “turn off” the graceful principles of ballet.  Mundane tasks can become beautiful like a formal piece of dance.

Naturally this shouldn’t be dressed up and advertised to avoid unwanted attention.

How should we, in martial arts, be like ballerinas?

  • Ballerinas do not shy away from difficult work, the product of which is movement that appears effortless and natural.  In martial arts we should hone our craft with similar diligence.
  • They have a clear goal, grace, which informs everything they do.  This sincerity should be in martial arts too.
  • The modesty that the ballerina shows outside of the saloon should also be familiar to martial artists.

How should martial artists be different to ballerinas?

  • Grace and beauty are not the primary goals of martial arts.  Our concerns should be more with function than form.  The exact nature of our aims is personal.  When training partners are aware of each others’ aims they can be more easily fulfilled.
  • Some of the physical skills and habits that are built in ballet, gymnastics, etc. are undesirable in martial arts.  For example the slightly concaved “dished” shape adopted by gymnasts in aerial manoeuvres is aesthetically pleasing but is a vulnerable position when being thrown forward.  How much of what we do in the dojo is to follow an aesthetic?  Does this aesthetic have any other values?
  • Rhythm and timing are vital in both ballet and martial arts but there are significant differences in the two areas.  I’ll look at timing more in “athletic violence” and leave it at that for now.
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