Ballet and AFL: Not as different as you might think

Ballet and AFL: Not as different as you might think

From the outside, AFL and ballet may seem worlds apart – one a graceful, delicate art form; the other, a fast-paced collision sport played in front of cheering, scarf-wearing, meat pie-downing fans.

But scratch the surface, and you might be surprised to discover just how much these two disciplines have in common.

Highly skilled professions

Professional ballet dancers can make the most intricate manoeuvres look almost effortless as they elegantly leap, glide and spin their way through a performance.

However, it takes many years of training to reach these literal – and metaphorical – heights.

Asked what you need to make it as a professional, Dr Sue Mayes, La Trobe alumnus and Principal Physiotherapist and Medical Team Manager at The Australian Ballet, provides a list of demanding physical and mental attributes:

  • great physical and mental strength and resilience to cope with the huge workload and touring
  • musicality and artistic integrity
  • determination to explore and challenge physical and emotional boundaries
  • intelligence to learn new and constantly changing repertoire
  • dedication to injury management and prevention programs, and
  • a healthy approach to lifestyle that includes optimal nutrition, sleep and recovery.

Like ballet, AFL demands high physical and mental standards. Players require finely honed skills, rigid discipline and gritty determination to reach elite levels.

‘I think there are many factors that lead to being drafted into an AFLW side, not just the obvious skill of the game,’ says Riley Bodger, Physiotherapist for the Carlton Football Club Women’s Team.

‘Other areas include the ability to fit into the culture of the club/team environment, to show understanding of the game as it continues to evolve, and the motivation and dedication to continue to improve in the sport itself.’

Extreme physical demands

According to a study published in The Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, ballet is one of the most demanding physical activities a young person can undertake.

‘Dancers use every part of their bodies and all the available range of motion of their joints,’ says Mayes, who is also an Adjunct Research Fellow at La Trobe’s School of Allied Health.

‘At times, they are required to move slowly with great precision and control, but in a split second they may be required to move explosively and leap to incredible heights.

The Australian Ballet Principal Artist Chengwu Gou.

‘They can balance on the tip of a pointe shoe or spin like a top. They can lift and propel another body around in all directions and catch a dancer hurtling towards them. They may be wearing intricate costumes or heavy garments that add to the loads, and the sets can add complexity.’

These tasks are made even more difficult by the mental challenges involved. For one thing, dancers have to perform under varied lighting conditions, on stages that can range from very bright to almost black. And that’s not all.

‘The dancers’ minds are not only processing the physical demands, but also the complex repertoire, while expressing a story,’ Mayes explains. ‘They are interacting with other dancers, the conductor and musicians, but also the audience. None of this extraordinary exertion and concentration can be revealed; the performance should appear effortless.’

It’s a similar story in the AFL and AFLW, where although their performances aren’t scripted, players often turn physical prowess into an art form.

‘Every position and player has a specific role in the game, so the demands do vary among individuals – however, components of speed, plyometrics, coordination, specific strength, condition and stability are all required to withstand the demands of the game,’ says Bodger.

‘And it goes without saying that there is a high level of skill required to be able to play this sport at the highest level alongside those physical demands.’

Intense training loads

With their finely sculpted, lean and muscular frames, professional ballet dancers are at the peak of physical fitness.

‘Our dancers work six days a week for 47 weeks of the year,’ says Mayes. ‘There are at least 180 performances each year.

‘Most dancers spend up to an hour warming up and conditioning before their daily one-and-a-quarter-hour ballet class at 10.30 am. Then they will spend approximately three to five hours rehearsing.

‘They also manage to fit in another one or two hours of physical conditioning prior to a performance that can finish around 10.30 pm.’

Mayes says dancers rely on recovery strategies similar to those an AFL or AFLW player would use to soothe their exhausted and aching bodies, such as compression garments, ice or contrast baths, massage and rest.

Similarly, AFL and AFLW players are regularly put through the ringer during training sessions that are both tough and frequent.

With elite players covering up to 18 km in a single game, cardio and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) programs build the power and stamina required to make it through a match, while strength and conditioning sessions help them avoid injury.

Former Carlton Football Club player Dennis Armfield.

This is, of course, outside the kicking, passing and tackling drills they run through to fine-tune their skills.

In recent years, some players have added Pilates and yoga classes to their training schedules – and a brave few have even turned to ballet to help improve their game.

Collingwood’s Ben Reid saw a marked increase in his flexibility, core strength and balance after taking up ballet training, while fellow Magpie Ben Sinclair says the practice has made him even faster on the field by helping build up his hamstrings.

Years of dedication

Professional ballet dancers aren’t made overnight. As Mayes points out, many of those you see on the main stage would have started taking classes from the age of five.

‘Dancers are usually 18 years old when they get accepted into the company, so most have been taking ballet class for 13 years, with at least three years’ full-time training prior to employment with the company,’ she says.

Similarly, an AFL player who went through Auskick might have laced up their boots for the first time as a five-year-old. After 13 years of hard toil, they may then get picked up by a club at 18, the minimum draft age, if they’re lucky.

Others have waited a lot longer to make it to the professional level.

‘If you ask players who played in the first ever AFLW, I’m sure some would say it’s taken them 20 years!’ says Bodger. ‘There are players who have played at VFL club level for over a decade before the AFLW even became a reality.’

Relatively short careers

Mayes says that until ten years ago, female dancers in The Australian Ballet would typically retire from the stage at around 30, with men continuing up until about 35. These days, however, dancers of both sexes are continuing to perform into their 40s.

‘Over the past 20 years the medical team have implemented numerous injury-prevention programs that have led to a decline in injury rates, and surgery is rarely required; therefore, The Australian Ballet dancers are generally not retiring due to injury,’ explains Mayes.

‘In the past, pregnant women have retired due to the demands of touring for half of the year. The Australian Ballet introduced financial support for new mums to facilitate touring with their young families, and now most return to a professional career after having a child.’

Like ballet, AFL takes a heavy physical toll and players can often be forced into early retirement due to injury. In fact, according to the AFL Players Association, the average player’s career in the big league is just over six years. Will things be different in the AFLW? Only time will tell.

‘We are only leading into the second year of the competition and, as far as I know, there aren’t any players who have gone into retirement yet!’ says Bodger.

‘I know we have a few players at Carlton who are in their early 30s who are still as excited and motivated to be playing at this level as the 21-year-olds.’

Perhaps one of the biggest similarities between AFL and ballet is that they are so much more than just a job. Dancers and players alike commit their whole lives, on and off the stage or field, to their craft.

Then, when the siren blows or the curtain goes up, they throw everything they’ve got into their performances, thrilling crowds and audiences with their athletic prowess, extreme focus and incredible skill.

Find out more about our partnership with The Australian Ballet.