What Can Ballet Learn from the Success of Football?

It is often been said that there are many parallels between the beautiful game and the beautiful art-form.  There has even been a ballet based on the most beautiful moments of football and it can stir the blood as much as a Dying Swan or Romeo and Juliet dying for love.  One of the most oft quoted statements about football is from one of its greatest managers, only half ironically said that, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”  Ballet dancers can identify with this blood, sweat and tears attitude and in many ways embody the old style of blood and guts football of Bill Shankly’s era.  The love of the game and the shirt drove footballers, not massive wage bills selling their talents to the highest bidder.  Football has very much swung in favour of the talent, players and managers who can command what many see as obscene amounts of money that could probably buy an entire corps de ballet and keep them going for a number of years.  Ballet dancers are very much at the mercy of opinion, not only their dance talent but body shape – too tall or small, thick ankles, knees in the wrong place, although for theatrical companies, the perfect line is not always the ideal.  When struggling through an Adult Ballet class, trying to lift my no-good body off the ground and to do something resembling a pirouette, I saw kids playing football and in many ways, envied the freedom of the instinctiveness of football, swinging out a leg, without worrying if you’re getting any height off the ground or your leg is stretched and holding you or whether your bum is sticking out or your turn-out is happening at all!. 

Television and the Global Audience

No-one can deny the success of football and there are plenty of ‘other-halves’ who bear testimony to the obsessive, all-pervasiveness.  There must be a reason why it commands such a large part of people’s lives to the point that weddings don’t take place during the football season and why it can command such a high percentage of media coverage and revenue from selling rights to televise and also to show highlights.  Revenue from football is so lucrative, BT, with a massive advertising budget, took on Sky for a slice of the revenue and to lure customers to their broadband and television services.  Ballet has dipped its delicate pointe-shoed toe into the digital TV market with a dedicated Arts channel.  Ballet has quite a high output on Sky Arts 2, when a certain popular classical musician is not waving his violin and certain 80s hairstyle around, but I would love to see ballet make the leap to more mainstream programming.  Lord Hall, Director General of the BBC and former Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, recently made the very welcome announcement that there was to be a 20% rise in funding for the arts across all BBC outputs: http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2013/dg-arts-programming.html.  Ballet has embraced various media, live cinema and big-screen link-ups and even arena performances.  This is as close to mass participation and singing along and cheering as ballet gets but it has shown that the medium is forward-thinking and quite happy to embrace new technologies.  I personally think event cinema and the digital age has been epoch-making but we need to sort out our etiquette around clapping, sending praise through Social Media is not always enough.  Although being able to directly converse with the stars on stage is such a thrill and dancers have engaged well which has helped to make ballet accessible and dispel some of the myths, such as ballet is elitist, it can be expensive to train a dancer but anyone who sees what a dancer goes through and the internet helps to display the intensity and drive of dancers, behind-the-scenes.

From Pitch to Palace or Working-class Roots to Princes and Prime Ministers

Football recently had the red carpet rolled out at Buckingham Palace.  Ballet started life at Palaces across Europe and dancers have performed at Jubilee Celebrations in the past.  The Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret was a firm supporter and patron of ballet having shown promise and wanting to be a dancer.  Ballet has changed since the days of Louis XIII of France but then royals no longer set the political agenda, popular culture now often informs.  Leading politicians now often become embroiled in football stories, such is its reach or, could say, notoriety.  Football is, arguably, a form of entertainment, stars bring a lot of money into the economy as, like ballet dancers, the season is long and full and must live pretty much locally.  Recently there has been a lot of foreign investment, although this maybe has brought a measure of success and not as much as anticipated and has bred uncertainty and if the investor becomes bored or is lured elsewhere, what does that mean for the team and can breed uncertainty, especially if they do not understand the culture.

Grassroots Development

Many teams without huge foreign injection of cash, have managed to remain successful and engender loyalty through focusing on grass-roots development.  Football, like ballet, picks many of its stars at a very early age.  Although, both have had their critics for not focusing enough on home-grown talent and bringing in talent from overseas to the detriment of local kids who may develop a little later, in terms of a ‘big stage’ mentality.  It is fiercely competitive to become a professional in a chosen field, as it should be, the modern world is often filled with star-power over talent.  However, young footballers, even in lower ranked clubs, will have the expectation of achieving a wage that far outstrips any dancers.  Dancers need more of a voice and increasingly this is being done through social media and the internet as dancers as time and cash poor, this is a very easy way to directly speak to fans.  As the public, we can do so much more by lauding these exceptional creatures and it is very much in our interest to make sure that they keep getting on that stage and being exceptional.  There was a fascinating programme centred around the Northern Ballet and how dancers felt that the best way to raise funds was not to have them on the sidelines as you would look at a painting but for them to be at the centre of fundraising activities and talking directly to patrons and through this, the company have been able to not only save dancers but to recruit more.  The members of the orchestra have their rights enshrined, dancers should be afforded such privileges and allowed to develop outside the confines of the training room or theatre.  I’m loving following the likes of ‘London Ballerina’, Lauren Cuthbertson as she seems to have struck a very healthy balance, she is a great advocate for giving dancers more of a voice. 

Apprenticeships and Youth Leagues

Football has a tradition of Apprentices carrying out some rather more menial tasks for members of the first team, such as cleaning boots, maybe a similar Apprentice scheme with members of the attached ballet schools carrying out tasks for dancers, to free up some time for dancers maybe to carry out community-education and development work or promotional work for the furtherance of the art-form.  Apart from bread and butter at club level, the best footballers are given the opportunity to play for their country at International level.  During the Cultural Olympiad, in conjunction with London 2012 Olympics, Dance GB showcased the combined talents of the Scottish and English National Ballets and National Dance Company Wales.  Dancers do not often have the opportunity to work collaboratively like this and everyone involved praised the initiative and highly.  Maybe this is a way of nurturing young talented dancers and could be undertaken at various levels and tour across the UK and maybe, in the future, feature the talents of Northern Ireland dancers as well.  Recently, English Youth Ballet held auditions in Belfast, following an engagement presentation to ballet teachers from across the province and hopefully dancers will feature when the company performs at the Grand Opera House, in the Spring.

Home-grown versus Global Marketplace

Not all football clubs have the monetary resources of other clubs, have realised that if they cannot compete in the inflated wages/ transfer field, set up highly successful with academies.  Stars developed within clubs are more pre-disposed to show loyalty and often avoids big fees and star packaging.  Parallel debate rages about lack of home-grown talent, the spotlight was particularly focused on the Royal Ballet and associated School and especially at Principal level in the company.  Home students have been reported to be more likely to be assessed-out of schools because they develop, especially in terms of confidence and performance, perhaps are slower than their International counterparts.  In a recent Insight talk, Melissa Hamilton shocked her partner Eric Underwood and the audience by the lateness of her arrival onto the stage as a performer, which was when she received a professional contract with the Royal Ballet.  Football has a Reserves, under-age league and temporary transfer system, giving promising players experience.  Arguments will also always rage about whether a particular British style should be promoted.  Some dancers will flourish under a prescribed style, some dancers flourish anyway but are maybe not as fulfilled as they look on the surface but the Paris Opera Ballet uses such a system and it is open for debate but as the company is one of the best in the world, it may work with a bit of adaption for the British style or as well as teaching dance and technique, children who require it should be given different forms of teaching such as on acting/ performance and emotional well-being. 

Holistic Development

The mental wellbeing is so important, be it footballer or ballet dancer, we have no divine right, just because someone is supremely talented, it is their right to do with this as they please.  It has been reported that footballers take the drooling adulation too far, they can find themselves fast becoming a pariah and perhaps face a barrage of disproportionate criticism.  Nurturing and media training is an important part of a footballers’ development and as well as physical wellbeing of the dancer, companies have to be attuned to a dancers emotional wellbeing, or, I believe, shocking departures such as Sergei Polunin will happen more often.  It has taken football clubs a while to attune to the media coldrun that comes with their success.  Social media, has taken on a whole new dimension and another area to potentially misbehave in.  Footballers, however, aren’t all falling out of nightclubs and many do a lot in terms of Charitable Foundations which is a good use of their time and wealth.  Ballet dancers are usually a lot more time-poor and any Foundational or Charity work is mainly driven by the company, unless the dancer has a special interest.  Dancers are pretty much constantly working, starting at the barre, first thing of a day, rehearsing in the afternoon and then evening performances and this can be seven days a week.  They often use what little free time to go for costume fittings or repair footwear or therapy on their bodies.  Footballers train in the morning and have, at most, two games a week, leaving them open to boredom which is sometimes quenched by things that are not always profitable to their careers.


However, ballet at the level that football has grown to, would not be practical or sustainable, especially as it is an art-form more than it is sport or entertainment, although the debate rages http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/03/finally-a-pop-cultural-portrayal-of-ballet-as-art-not-sport/273675/.  The popularity of football and the money sloshing about from commercial deals including TV rights and overseas tours, to sustain mostly ridiculously inflated wage bills, has meant certain difficulties such as unrealistic pressure.  Expectation, on and off the pitch is has led to a results-focused mentality at the expense of artistry.  Sometimes adversity and pressure produce extraordinary results and the UK has been at its most artistic at times when there is a funding drought as then arts is valued for taking people out of the ordinariness of their lives and into a somewhat magical kingdom or give the public a voice or a feeling that someone is knows what they are going through.  If artists get too far removed from their public, it can set them at odds with their audience.  After the recent re-working of Don Quixote for the Royal Ballet by Carlos Acosta, I saw the following comment appear:

“Never been to the ballet before, saw this on Sat 5th Oct – superb. Everything about it was breath-taking, (and I’m a football season-ticket holder), Highly recommended.”


Interestingly, Dance Europe magazine recently asked Artistic Directors of Ballet Companies, what they would do with €100m in response to the footballer, Gareth Bale’s transfer to Spanish club, Real Madrid.  The answers were very illuminating, most would give a lot to dancers and their development and development of larger repertoires and most expressed that this was very unlikely to happen especially as the country of Spain, where the transfer happened, is particularly suffering from the financial crisis.  For most of the general public this particularly shows the staggering contrast between the life of dancers, who are paid, on average, £25,000 a year and barely stop to leave the theatre to a footballer who is now in a team full of superstars who is being paid the immense sum of £300,000 a week, if ballet could afford such wages, what would this do to the artistry?