News: What dancers can learn from Parkour…

Wednesday 23 April 2014 by Lara Hayward

Dan Edwardes, founder of Parkour Generation. Photo: Rick Senley

In the week before she ran the London Marathon, we asked Lara Hayward to spend a sedentary day at Dance UK’s Aesthetic Athletes & Dancers: Training and Optimizing Performance conference (Monday 7 April). Held in partnership with the Royal Society of Medicine, it aimed to ‘explore the similarities and differences between dance and aesthetic sports’. Contributors included a comprehensive line up of specialists in medicine, physiotherapy, nutrition and coaches in various sports, but interestingly the speaker who particularly grabbed Lara’s attention came from a discipline which is neither competitive or performance based…

Gearing up for the marathon really focuses the mind on all those things that you need to do to perform well. Ensuring that you train well, eat well and sleep well applies to amateur athletes and dancers as much as it does to those that perform at the elite level. One thing I’ve come to notice, however, is that sometimes we all struggle to listen to our bodies and forget that there should be some enjoyment in training as well as hard graft. Lucky then that Dan Edwardes, Founder and Director of Parkour Generations, was on hand to share the philosophy of Parkour as part of his opening speech (pictured). It would not be an overstatement to say that hearing about Parkour has encouraged me to re-look at my whole approach to training. Edwardes kicked off boldly, explaining that the world of Parkour enables him to ‘live’ rather than ‘survive’ and enlightening us with his refreshing take on injury and risk. Arguably a slight anomaly in the bunch (on the basis that Parkour is neither competitive nor for performance purposes), Edwardes was an inspired choice. Naturally engaging and with a clear love for his ‘sport’ he explained how Parkour is self-motivated and relies on natural momentum and movement.. “You pick your own challenges and work on them.”

You could say that approaching things differently is at the heart of Parkour. Although non-competitive, the feats achieved by its participants are huge – literally and figuratively. Combining elements of running, jumping, and climbing it’s also an art in the sense that there seems to be a complete serenity to those undertaking what the rest of us would consider scary stunts. There is an almost meditative quality to the videos that are part of Edwardes presentation and the comparisons with dance are obvious. The balance and poise required when landing from height, composure executing difficult maneouvres and the artistic skill required to make it all look effortless.

Although some people may consider those who partake in Parkour, risk takers, Edwardes believes that the wrong approach is applied to risk generally, suggesting that instead we should assess the benefits of taking those risks. As in dance and sport, Parkour relies on controlled risk.

His views on injury are similarly insightful: “… we should look at injury as a positive sign – it’s the body’s way of providing us with feedback, giving us notice that we need to work on something.” Edwardes words reminded me of Jenni Wren’s Minor Tears – a performance piece that explores both the athleticism and vulnerability to injury of dancers, and echoed in my mind a few days later as I read Royal Ballet principal Lauren Cuthertson’s interview with Siobhan Murphy for Metro. Discussing her rise to the top following illness and injury Cuthbertson is frank. “The thing I learned from that was my surgeon’s phrase: ‘You can’t cheat biology.’ So I just had to wait it out’.

It may be that dance, and sport, have something to learn from Parkour, as Parkour has something to learn from dance. Edwardes told me that plenty of dancers attend Parkour classes around the world. In his view “both disciplines prize the mastery of movement and perfection of the physical capabilities, so there is a lot of overlap and a lot to share.”

I was not alone in finding Edwardes approach illuminating. Indeed, his keynote was the highlight for another attendee who told me “I think I should start applying the free-running approach to dancing. Just go where it takes me.”

Parkour’s philosophy seems to strive towards a holistic approach in order to do what is right for the individual ‘athlete’ and interestingly that was the overriding message I took from the conference. In order to perform at the highest level, training, strength and conditioning work, aerobic exercise, nutrition, recovery and sleep are all equally important and this is the same for dancers as it is for aesthetic athletes and other sportsmen and women.

As a (very amateur) dancer and runner myself, I find it increasingly hard to delineate between the skills required for dance and athletics. Although both disciplines use very different muscles and different types of fitness, I look at the importance of nutrition, rest and recovery in the same way. Dancing has strengthened my feet and ankles for running and running has meant I can last much longer leaping around in a dance class.

At the elite level the lines between aesthetic sport and dance become even more blurred – ballet, gymnastics, diving, ice dancing all require excellent posture, strength, balance and poise and looking at some of the videos you could envisage some athletes and dancers crossing between the two. Rhythmic Gymnastics Judge Vicki Hawkins explained that rhythmic gymnasts do “tonnes of ballet” and that there has been a recent move towards the ‘Russian style’. The aesthetic elements of perfect turn out and posture drawn from the back are what judges look for. Hawkins shows us videos of some of her all-time favourite performances and the length and extension that the gymnasts have is simply astounding.

Moving onto the topical subject of weight management, performance Nutritionist Mhairi Keil and Synchro Performance Director Biz Price both explained the importance of looking at body composition and each individual athlete rather than ascribing athletes or dancers a particular weight. Price’s incorporation of weight management as part of the overall performance programme for synchronised swimmers has seen fewer reported cases of eating orders. To help avoid injury or overstretching, synchro swimmers train at a certain weight to allow them to conduct strength work, but may look to reduce weight in a healthy way for competition. Price explains that it is about ‘striking a balance’ and acknowledging it can be a sensitive issue.

After the speakers had finished, I spoke to dance students, an ice skating coach, a sports scientist and two pilates teachers for their views on the conference. It was good to see that the range of attendees was as diverse as the programme of speakers. All were impressed with the multi-disciplinary line-up and welcomed the input from the varied professionals – “usually, you’d have a conference just for nutritionists or just for physios. I think it’s great that this focuses on everything that goes on around the athlete. It really helps you look at performance in a holistic way.”

An athlete-centred holistic approach? That, perhaps, is the key to optimizing performance.

Aesthetic Athletes and Dancers was part of Dance UK’s Healthier Dancer Programme.
Speakers included: Nick Allen, Clinical Director Birmingham Royal Ballet Jerwood Centre; Mhairi Keil, Performance Nutritionist; Vicki Hawkins, Brevet Judge and Coach, International Rhythmic Gymnastics; Ruddi Farquahson, Strength & Conditioning Coach at the English Institute of Sport; Biz Price, Performance Director British Synchronised Swimming; Professor Matt Wyon, Centre of Sport Exercise and Performance, University of Wolverhampton; Lauren Bradshaw, Specialist Sports Physiotherapist and ex GB Ice Dancer; Gareth Ziyambi, Specialist Sports Physiotherapist, British Diving; Professor Jon Arcelus, Consultant Psychiatrist, Loughborough University and Dr Roger Wolman, Consultant at the National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science, all of whom working with professional dancers or athletes at the Olympic level.

Photo of Dan Edwardes at the conference by Rick Senley

Lara Hayward is a freelance dance, sport and travel writer, who recently took part in Resolution! Review at The Place. Read more from her at

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post comments.

Sign in now

What’s On