Dmitri Shostakovich (25th Sept 1906 – 9th Aug 1975), the celebrated Russian composer and pianist, had a rather unusual take on the sport when he said, “Football is the ballet of the masses.” While his name is synonymous with fine orchestral works and ballets, the former child prodigy was not only an ardent follower of football in Soviet Russia, but also a qualified referee, and a staunch supporter of FC Zenit Leningrad.
At first glance, one would dismiss the high collision sport of football and the nimble and graceful art of ballet, as poles apart. Typically, football is played by sweaty men running into one another in an attempt to take possession of the ball, in front of roaring crowds, complete with a never-ending supply of beer. Ballet, on the other hand, is performed by light-footed and petite dancers in satin slippers, and is said to be the favorite pastime of the champagne-sipping, ‘refined’ members of society. Yet, there are people like Shostakovich, who love both.
The team is to a player, what a ballet company or troupe is to a dancer. While both maintain the rule that no player or dancer comes before the group, they serve as a second family to these hardworking individuals, who spend a better part of the day in training, gearing up for matches and recitals. Additionally, every football team has a bench of reserves who step in to for a starting player in case he or she is unable to perform as required. Similarly, a ballet has a main cast with an understudy for each part, ready to step in if instructed to do so.
Like a football team is guided by a coach, ballet dancers are trained by an artistic director or ballet master. These instructors are usually former players or dancers, who have been offered teaching positions to influence and inspire younger generations in their respective fields. Both are responsible for the competence of their so-called pupils, not only imparting skills, but also the ability to react to and support fellow team members and dancers. They are the authority.
Apart from coaches and directors, both footballers and dancers are attended to and monitored by a dedicated group of healthcare professionals. This includes nutritionists, physiotherapists, and psychologists, to look after dietary needs, as well as injury prevention and recovery. The players and dancers themselves possess extraordinary physiques with well-sculpted muscles to keep up with the strength and stamina they must exert, as well as mental strength to deal with the stress and pressures of performing to perfection every time.
Footballers and ballet dancers usually start very young. As children roughly about the age of four or five years, they practice with many others in the same age group either at school or at neighborhood facilities. Those who show promise continue, while sacrificing a ‘normal’ childhood, and then peak during late adolescence till about their late twenties. It is during this brief period that they are able to give their best performances, both on the field, and on stage. Top level footballers and ballet dancers are therefore, those individuals who have successfully honed their natural aptitudes into a career.
It is but obvious that these athletes, both in football and dance, train rigorously in their respective fields. Yet, it is interesting to know that many footballers themselves have taken ballet lessons, both as youngsters and in addition to their professional training regimes. Manchester United player Rio Ferdinand, for one, was awarded a five-year scholarship to the Central School of Ballet, before turning to professional football. It was also an integral part of the training routine of the South African football team before the 2010 World Cup. Ballet not only aids the agility of players, but also their strength and flexibility, thus also earning a spot on the physiotherapist’s to-do list for injured players, such as former England player, Dion Dublin.
It is interesting to note that some of the most popular moves in both football and ballet resemble each other, to the extent that the English National Ballet has even performed an interpretation of ten great footballing moments through the medium of dance. The feeling that one gets when a footballer launches himself into the air twisting his body so as to send a high-flying pass into the goal, is much the same as when a ballet dancer leaps into the air and appears to hang there for a moment while performing a split.
Similarly, the Spin, Roulette or Helicopter, which has been popularized by the likes of Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane, finds its match in the Pirouette in ballet, both involving a spin on one foot while the other begins outstretched and then is pulled in. The famous Cruyff Turn is another ballet-like move that is popular on the football field. It involves pulling the ball behind one leg, twisting the body around, and running off in the opposite direction, away from the opponent. Though football lacks the focus on grace and pointed toes that are a necessity in ballet, these moves are only deemed as successes when carried out with finesse.
And the similarities stretch beyond the pros. Both football and ballet are nothing short of spectacles enjoyed in packed stadiums and theatres. Tickets are booked well in advance, the final day anticipated not just by the performers but also the public. Audiences are left rapt in attention as star performers and personal favorites engage in some fancy footwork irrespective of whether they are wearing football cleats or satin slippers. By being a part of the audience, spectators are forever bound together as witnesses of a particular match or ballet by their collective cheers and gasps as some riveting moves are displayed.
Of course, an evening of star-studded performances is usually followed by a comment or review by a former player or dancer in the papers the next day. And then there are the minorities. Both, rather unfortunately, are not the most neutral when it comes to the genders. There are fewer women in football as compared to men, and it’s the other way around when it comes to ballet. Their stories, then are not very different from each other, one would say. So, it boils down to taste – football, ballet or both? After all, it’s not the shoes that make the dancer, but heart.