RI Blog #8: Rowing and Ballet

Rowing and Ballet

April 15, 2008

I had the opportunity to attend an interesting performance at Boston Ballet last week. My cousin, Margaret Tracey, is the head of the Boston Ballet school, having been a Principal Dancer at the New York City Ballet for 16 years. She invited me as her guest to this intimate performance, showcasing a handful of the company’s finest dancers and explaining their techniques to a select group of Overseers and patrons.

I sat about 10-30 feet from the performers (depending upon where they were on stage), so this was ballet up close and personal. I have seen my cousin perform at Lincoln Center several times, all dolled up in her stage makeup and elaborate costumes, and she looked like a little butterfly, floating effortlessly on stage. But sitting this close to the dancers, I noticed the incredible athleticism involved in ballet, which is notoriously brutal on the dancers’ bodies  — especially their feet (as beautiful as they are, ballerinas typically have “gnarled” feet, so if you have a crush on a ballerina, don’t expect her to satisfy your foot fetish). The amount of effort put forth to make the dance look so effortless — complete with the obligatory smiles on their pretty faces — is staggering. Like all professionals, they make something incredibly difficult look so easy.

After I left, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between rowing and ballet. Like rowers, ballet dancers do it for the true love of the dance — you’ll never make a lot of money being a ballet dancer. (And for you dancers reading this, you’ll never make any money rowing! Have you ever seen an Olympic rower in a TV commercial or on the cover of a Wheaties Box?) I also thought of the lessons that rowers can learn from ballet. True, we don’t have to smile when we’re pulling our guts out in a race, but the idea of taking something so physically difficult and making it look graceful, elegant, and perfect is a goal that rowers should strive for. Watching an accomplished sculler, or the Danish women’s eight in the 2004 Olympics, you realize that perfect (or near perfect) technique can go a long way toward winning races. Sure, they’re pulling their guts out, but they make it look so easy. A perfect finish, blades out neat and square, followed by an effortless feather and perfect body angle before you go up the slide…complete preparation by quarter slide, and then dropping it in at the catch — not lunging it in, not slamming it in, not missing an inch of water because you hit it just right at the very end of the recovery — these are as beautiful to watch as my cousin as Princess Aurora in the NYCB’s long-running production of Sleeping Beauty (ok, had to get one more plug in there). And having it all happen 34 times a minute, all in perfect sync with the other rowers (if you’re not in a single), is art itself.

Think about the beauty and grace of what you’re doing next time you’re out there. And if it’s not beautiful or graceful, which is often the case for me, think about how to make it that way.

And now it’s 5 PM Eastern Blog Time, the wind has finally died down, and I think it’s time to have myself a little pas de deux with some of my friendly competitors on the good old Charles River. Until next time.

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