At first glance, ballet and mixed martial arts (MMA) don’t seem to have anything in common. Ballet is a performance dance that was born during the Italian Renaissance and later evolved into a concert dance in France and Russia. It’s a type of dance characterized by its elegance and delicacy that strives for perfection at all times.
MMA, on the other hand, is a very invasive combat sport about full contact that makes use of striking, grappling, and ground fighting. It combines techniques from jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing, judo, wrestling, and karate. It’s a rough sport that involves throwing kicks, punches, and knocking down an opponent during a fight.
There’s nothing that could possibly suggest a similarity between ballet and MMA. They’re polar opposites regarding their techniques and objectives.
“I really don’t see many similarities because while ballet looks very elegant and effective in its technique, I feel MMA works [and focuses] much more on its training,” says Marisol Bagnarello, a 17-year-old Costa Rican professional dancer from Estudio Danza Libre. “Although they share the discipline, the [sports’] objectives are very different.”
Despite their lack of resemblance in style and technique,, they do have similar levels of self-demanding discipline, physical skills, physical pain, motivations, and preparation toward a final performance—whether that’s a ballet presentation in a theater or a live-streamed cage match.
“In MMA with one wrong movement, the fight is gone. I imagine that in a ballet presentation, it must be the same,” says Josué Bojorge, 26, a Costa Rican professional MMA fighter. “Another similarity is that they’re both individual sports. Everything depends on us. It’s just one dancer on the stage and the same thing happens in MMA. They’re two people, but each one is a representative against the audience and the rival in front.”
The Physical Pain
That final performance—a ballet presentation and a fight—requires challenging preparation and training for both Bagnarello and Bojorge. It entails intense dedication, discipline, passion, and persistence in the face of physical pain during the process.
“About four years ago we were rehearsing for a presentation. Just one week before, I was practicing the Arabian Dance for The Nutcracker. It was a solo,” Bagnarello remembers. “I was going to do a split, but my foot got stuck. When I forced it to open up, I think I tore my leg on the inside.”
That leg tear inflicted very intense pain, but there was no room for excuses. She recalls that her professor made her go through the rehearsal—she was due to perform a solo.
“I stood up and continued dancing. Tears were coming down [my cheeks] because of the intense leg pain,” Bagnarello says. “Since the solo was mine, I had to dance like that. For the presentation, I changed sides for the split and I had to lean on the stage without the audience noticing.”
That level of pain tolerance during a performance is something that Bagnarello has adapted to in order to deliver the perfection that ballet requires for its performative art. Another example of pain tolerance in ballet is the use of pointe shoes to dance.
“With the pointe shoes, the pain is there. It exists. It’s a lot, but it’s a pain that at some point you get used to and tolerate,” Bagnarello says. “When you jump on top of the point, you’re supporting three times your body weight on your feet.”
That pain tolerance is also very present in MMA, though in a much more evident manner. Since it’s a sport with constant physical contact, MMA fighters receive blows to the face that cause swollen purple eyes, cuts, and blood splattered everywhere. According to Bojorge, an active fighter for Lux Fight League—Latin America’s best MMA league—he lives with pain.
“We need to know when it’s a good pain and a bad pain in regards to injuries,” Bojorge says. “There’s so much adrenaline when they hit you, that you might feel that something moved, and you’re dizzy. But personally, I don’t feel the punches and the pain.”
Living with pain is also part of these strenuous disciplines that aspire for perfection in technique and performative art through movement. In MMA, the movements are very elaborate, both mentally and physically, as they center around developing defenses, attacks, reflexes, and reaction times. In order to perfect the technique, Bojorge has developed an arsenal of methods.
“What works for me is looking at myself in the mirror, but I also ask my friends to film me,” Bojorge says. “I watch the videos and I see if I need to work on a certain grab or leg position. I also check if I’m feeling that the technique is being effective.”
In a similar manner, Bagnarello perfects her ballet technique with a mirror as well but also learns by observing the international professors and dancers that visit the Danza Libre ballet studio.
“When they come to class, I observe them, look at certain details, and try to apply them,” Bagnarello says. “I also work with the corrections that the professor does and during class I stand in front of the mirror. While I’m doing the class, I’m checking my posture, that the legs are rotated, and that my abdomen is sucked in. I’m constantly correcting myself.”
Music As Part of the Performance
The constant correction that both Bagnarello and Bojorge undergo in the practice of their disciplines is also tied to a rhythmic component of their performance: music. Music serves different purposes in their practices. For Bagnarello, it is essential at all times. She needs it to dance. There can be no dance without music—she has to finely tune her listening in order to recognize the tempo to which she dances.
Usually, her practice requires the use of classical and neo-classical music, and for presentation rehearsals, she plays the same song on a constant loop, in order to perfect the tempos. If the music gets louder or a forte, as it is known in classical music, then she has to do more exaggerated steps in order to land on the exact tone.
“I really enjoy slow music that expresses a lot of feeling, but I also enjoy very fast and intense music because it requires a lot of movement, turns, or very fast jumps,” Bagnarello says.
On the other side of the spectrum, Bojorge relies on completely opposite music genres. He enjoys training with hip-hop or rock and music plays a very different role in his discipline. Music works out as a motivator when training. He’s very drawn to fast and strong rhythms.
For his final performance – a fight – he uses music as part of the show. He has the freedom to choose the song for his entrance before entering the cage. For his last fight, he used Queen’s song “Don’t Stop Me Now.”
“I listened to the song various times. I really liked the song and the lyrics,” Bojorge says. “I like everything about it. I chose it for the entrance for a fight and it sounded incredible, so I kept using that song and fell in love with it.”
The rhythm of music accompanies Bagnarello and Bojorge’s movements, encouraging their pursuit of perfecting their discipline that is synonymous with a very strong passion for being the best in what they do. Even though they practice completely opposite disciplines that have nothing in common in technique, movements, or style, Bagnarello and Bojorge do share very personal motivations that keep them dedicated to the performative art of choice.
For Bagnarello, ballet is synonymous with therapy. Once she enters ballet class, she forgets about her problems. She can focus only on her dancing and it helps her to calm down whenever she’s not feeling well.
“I recently danced The Dying Swan. During that time, I was grieving the death of a very close family relative and it really helped me a lot to liberate myself,” Bagnarello says. “It helped me a lot getting into that very melancholic and sad character in order to let all that go. [Ballet] has been a lot of therapy."
Bojorge, the best Costa Rican MMA fighter in the 170 pounds category, got his start in boxing—not MMA. He was drawn to boxing because he was being bullied in high school and in his neighborhood. He found in MMA a deep passion and adrenaline that is now his profession.
“One day I got into a fight and I was not a person that usually got into fights. I had to defend my mother and that spark for fighting turned on,” Bojorge recalls. “I liked what I felt. The adrenaline. That same day I called my father and told him: we should train. And now, MMA is my life.”
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