How the World’s Tallest Lead Ballet Dancer Stays Fit

In the 1970s, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann drew ovations for his leaping, diving, falling, spinning catches. His secret: He danced from fourth grade through his time in the NFL, and credited ballet with giving him the strength and balance to make the powerful and awkward appear graceful. At 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, he fit the mold of a traditional male ballet dancer – guys between the heights of 5-foot-7 and 6 foot who weigh under 200 pounds. Today, beefier athletes on the Steelers smooth out their games with dance as well, like 6-foot-4, 320-pound nose tackle Steve McClendon, who took ballet classes at Adrenaline Barre Fitness in Pittsburgh. Ballet dancers, too, are getting bigger.

Just as pro sports are embracing bigger athletes with more exaggerated body types, many artistic directors at ballet companies are employing bigger lead dancers, in part to employ taller female leads. Guys like Fabrice Calmels, the 6-foot-6 1/2, 220-pound lead dancer at Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, have an uphill battle – they’re often less flexible, a bit slower, and not as coordinated as shorter dancers. “I really worked on my workout to improve my speed and coordination, where they had to put me in the same map with people who were half my height,” says Calmels.

They also have to deal with more impact on their bodies. On weekdays, Calmels works out from 9:30 am to 6:30 pm and performs up to three hours straight on weekends. To prepare for seven days on the hard ballet floor, Calmels has built workouts that keep him balanced and strong, with a focus on core strength. He thinks everyday athletes can benefit from the lessons of his workouts, though he wants to be careful about just how much he shares. Like a roster spot in a pro sport, positions in a ballet company are highly competitive. “I don’t want to give all of my secrets away, but I do have one that a lot of people can execute well,” Calmels says. “The swing is a very complete core exercise that also gives you mobility in your spine, because I think it’s very, very important to not only get stiff and strong, but also to be very flexible in your strength.”

The Swing:

  1. With socks on, find a hard, smooth floor. Then get in push-up position and position your feet so the fronts of your toes rest against the ground.
  2. In slow controlled movements, drop your pelvis to the ground and arch your back inward slightly. Your face should be positioned to face the top intersection of the ceiling and the opposing wall.
  3. Flatten your back and bring your pelvis up so that it is slightly higher than the push-up position.
  4. Slide your feet a few inches back, then bring them forward until they touch your elbows. Your legs will be bent directly beneath your body at more than a 45-degree angle. Your arms should be fully extended down. After you have touched your knees, slide your legs back until you are in push-up position again.
  5. Repeat 5-10 times.

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