Find out more about the links between dancers and Olympic athletes
Gold medal-winning triple-jumper Jonathan Edwards and former dancer Deborah Bull compare notes.
It’s entirely fitting that the Royal Opera House has joined forces with BP and The Olympic Museum to host the unique The Olympic Journey: The Story of the Games exhibition in July and August. There are plenty of parallels between the world-class dancers and singers who appear on the ROH stage and top-level athletes. We highlighted some of these in the last four videos in the ROH World Stage series, which showed artists such as Lauren Cuthbertson, Edward Watson and Angela Gheorghiu filmed in a sporting context.
Who better to compare athletes and artists’ rigorous training and dedication to excellence than Jonathan Edwards, world-record holder and Olympic gold medallist in the triple jump, and Deborah Bull, a former Royal Ballet Principal and Creative Director of the Royal Opera House.
Deborah Bull began by asking Edwards whether a certain physique, or body type, was necessary for excellence in triple jumping. ‘Rowers are probably more of a type, but with the triple jump you’ve got more variety,’ says Edwards. ‘There’s me, who is relatively skinny, but the current British champion is 6ft 6ins. And the length of your legs doesn’t make a difference, it’s what you do with them.’ He turned the question back to Bull: ‘Is there an ideal physique for a dancer?’
‘The interesting thing about ballet is that it’s not a single event,’ she explains. ‘You have to be a bit of an endurance athlete, you have to be a high jumper, you’ve got to have quickness of response as well as the elegance of a skater or a gymnast. The reason I was quite a good ballet dancer is that I was an all-rounder.’
Edwards wanted to know how dancers built up their endurance. ‘It’s not exactly an endurance sport because the activity is stop-start,’ says Bull. ‘The best analogy is a football match, 90 minutes with an interval (or three acts for us). Sprint, stop, recover, sprint. It’s not marathon running, but it’s sustained over a long period with bursts of the explosive energy you use in the triple jump.’
Edwards described his training routine, which consisted not of endless triple jumping, but ‘a massive amount of weight training, single repetitions with maximal effort’. He was curious to know how dancers trained. Until recently, said Bull, ballet dancers trained only through dancing itself. ‘The potential to gain muscle strength through alternative training, in order to increase elevation for instance, is relatively new for us. Today men do more gym work and they focus particularly on the strength needed to lift women – remember they are lifting the weight of another person,’ says Bull. ‘Women dancers don’t want to bulk up, so their gym routines are often more focused on stamina. But if we really wanted to increase our jump we’d benefit from the type of training you did.’
‘I didn’t do classic jump training, but I did depth-jumping, off one box and onto another,’ says Edwards. ‘Obviously the triple jump is all about being able to absorb force and then respond. I was able to do that better than anyone else.’ Watch Edwards in action.
That action is known as eccentric loading and Bull says there’s an obvious parallel with ballet. ‘When a muscle is at full stretch, at the bottom of the landing from a jump, the hardest thing is for it to contract to spring up again – quickly – as in the 32 fouettés (in Swan Lake). Watch exactly how a fouetté is performed.
Bull continues: ‘If you’re jumping from the left leg to land on the right, the left leg goes back to a normal state, but if you’re going up and down on the same leg, as you do in the triple jump, that’s one of the toughest demands you can make on a muscle. Imagine doing that 32 times in succession.’
So next time you watch a Royal Ballet Principal making those 32 fouettés look effortless, remember that it demands the strength and skill of an Olympic athlete.
This feature was adapted from a piece originally featured in About the House magazine, received quarterly by the Friends of Covent Garden.