How Fit Are You?

March 18, 2009

Seeing a dancer effortlessly spin multiple times on one leg; hang in the air defying gravity; or pick his partner up over his head, carry her across the stage and gently set her down again is awe-inspiring to most people. It looks easy. It’s also breathtaking to see a football player evade defenders by zigzagging his way down the field, or to hear a tennis player grunt loudly as her racket connects with the ball, sending it—like a projectile—into the farthest corner of the court.


Like athletes, dancers are revered for their ability to do things that others can’t do, yet dancers are rarely considered on par with athletes in terms of physical prowess. When you think about it, though, how different is a dancer’s athletic ability from an athlete’s?


Last April, San Francisco’s ODC/Dance decided to find out. They invited student athletes—swimmers, soccer players, runners, basketball players, tennis players and gymnasts—from UC Berkeley to take part in a friendly competition, which they called Toe to Toe. The 10 events were mostly complicated obstacle courses designed to test strength, agility and flexibility (and artistry) to determine who was the more complete athlete. As the first few races took place, both teams were neck and neck. It seemed impossible to gauge who might win, until the events started requiring more than one skill (like dressing and undressing between tasks like running, climbing or crawling—while singing!). But the dancers eventually came out on top, with 123 points to the athletes’ 69. And though the competition was a bit in their favor—it was a fundraiser for ODC—it did show how physically and athletically adaptable dancers are.


Michael Leslie, a physical therapist for San Francisco Ballet, says that the specificity of a dancer’s training probably plays a big part in this adaptability. Athletes focus principally on their sport and train primarily with that in mind. Dancers, on the other hand, are taught a variety of skills. We have to balance on one leg while turning and go from moving very quickly to being completely still. This type of “cross-training” gives us, in Leslie’s words, “the ability to do advanced things with a huge range of motion and extraordinary dexterity,” which many athletes lack.


Dance Spirit
wanted to pass along this cool and fun experiment so you can test your fitness and adaptability outside the studio! Grab a group of dancer friends and separate into teams—or better yet, get a group of athletes you know, like the football or basketball team, to compete with you. See how you fare against each other. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even learn from one another. Good Luck!


Here are some fun events inspired by ODC/Dance’s Toe to Toe competition. Team up with your pals to see who wins!

Ab Challenge:
How many sit-ups can you do in one minute, while you recite a poem or sing a song of the opposing team’s choice?

  • The Breakdown:
    Talking or singing while exercising forces us to make better use of our lung capacity and makes otherwise easy exercises more difficult. Dancers tend to have what Michael Leslie calls “dysfunctional breathing patterns” from trying to make their dances look effortless and disguising the physicality of what they do.
  • Who Wins:
    The team with the most sit-ups and the most clearly recited poem/best sung lyrics wins.

Three-Legged Slalom Race:
Set up two rows of cones (or whatever else you can find that is not easily knocked over). Pair yourselves up (within the teams) and tie one of your legs to your partner’s (left to right). Off you go! Weave between the cones as fast as you can.

  • The Breakdown:
    Dancers will probably dominate this race because it requires keen partnering skills, cooperation and the ability to find a rhythm (quickly!) that works for both people.
  • Who Wins:
    This is a time trial; the team that makes it through the course first wins.

Balance Dressing:
Grab a pile of loose-fitting clothes, scarves and hats and get a couple of chairs and a stopwatch. One person from each team stands on one leg on a chair. The raised leg should be high enough to make balancing a bit uncomfortable. (Your leg can move as long as it doesn’t touch down. If you want to make the game harder, take points off for each time the leg drops below a predetermined minimum height.) The other teammates now have 30 seconds to toss clothing to the person balancing, and the balancer puts on as many items as she can. Warning: To make sure the balancer doesn’t fall, have one person from each team hold the chair!

  • The Breakdown:
    Points are given for speed and number of pieces worn (athletic) and for creativity in how the final outfit looks (artistic). The dancers are at an advantage here because they will be used to standing on one leg without being rigid and still.
  • Who Wins:
    The team with the most points tallied at the end of everyone’s turn on the chair.



Hurdles Relay:
Set up hurdles at different heights. Unlike normal hurdles, racers have the option of going either over or under. One person needs to start the race and judge who finishes first. A few more people need to be placed along the course to pick up (and keep track of) the hurdles that get knocked over. For each hurdle that falls, one second will be docked from the team’s final score. Each runner needs to get all the way to the end of the course and back to tag the next runner.

  • The Breakdown:
    This challenge is about quick thinking and alternating jumping, crawling and sliding while keeping a fast pace. No advantage here. The quickest and most agile team will take the prize.
  • Who Wins:
    The team that finishes first with the least number of hurdles knocked down!

Obstacle Course:
On this one, let your imagination run wild. First, determine an obstacle course (depending on what the nearest playground or your school gym has to offer) with all players from both teams present. Next, grab the clothes from the balance dressing challenge and ask each player to put on at least three pieces, going for either a silly or a fancy look. Then have each person create a character inspired by his or her outfit. Go through the obstacle course—staying in character! Some sample tasks: Cross a balance beam with a tray of (unbreakable) cups, climb through hoops, run backwards in a figure eight.

  • The Breakdown:
    This should challenge the creative streak. By adding artistic elements—like carrying a tray and playing a character—the purely athletic elements become a bit harder. As this might be the least athletic of the challenges, points should be given for how good both teams feel the “performance” was.
  • Who Wins:
    The team that everyone feels gave the best performance through the course wins.


Peter Brandenhoff, a former soloist with San Francisco Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet, is now a freelance dancer, teacher and writer.