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Athletes Plié Their Way to Better Performances

Margo Apostolos, far left, puts the USC track team through dance training sessions every Monday and Wednesday.

Photo by Irene Fertik

THE EXERCISES are those of classical dance – stretches done with one foot perched on the navel-high wooden rail called a barre.

But the high-volume sounds and contagious rhythms thumping out an accompaniment to the fast-moving action are anything but classical.

And the muscled men and women giving their best to the music are clad in sweats and T-shirts identifying them as members of the USC track team.

This workout in disciplinary cross-fertilization is part of a project led by Margo Apostolos, director of the School of Theatre’s dance program. A tennis player and gymnast who earned a Stanford Ph.D. in physical education and dance, Apostolos has kept one foot on each side of the dance/athletics divide throughout her career.

Now, with the enthusiastic cooperation of two working coaches – USC track coach Ron Allice and Stanford diving coach Rich Schavone – she is cross-training athletes with dance techniques. Next month in Sydney, Australia, Apostolos will describe this work in a presentation to the Fifth International Olympic Committee World Congress on Sports Science.

“Dance and sport are the two ultimate human physical expressions,” said Apostolos. “I have always had difficulty separating one from the other, and I’ve always thought that dance training could enhance athletic performance.”

RHYTHM, coordination, flexibility, and timing are integral to both dance and sports, she found in her work with track stars at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo during the 1970s and with middle-distance runners and divers at Stanford in the early 1980s.

“Everything we do has a rhythm and a cadence,” said USC track coach Allice. “Flexibility and rhythm are tied together. Learning rhythmic patterns in addition to increasing flexibility is a tremendous plus.”

Allice encountered some skepticism when he began taking the team twice a week for half-hour dance exercises at the beginning of practice. “The women were no problem, but some of the fellows were a little more reluctant,” he recalled.

“I thought it was going to be a waste of time,” said sophomore long-jumper Nathan Wiley. “I thought I would get to practice and not be stretched out. But it has made me better; it will help me this year. I would definitely recommend it.”

“It’s making me more flexible,” said former skeptic Ari Monosson, a senior middle-distance runner.

“It helps with the rhythm, and you need that rhythm,” said sophomore high-jumper Juan Soto.

Another enthusiast is sophomore Angela Williams, the national high school 100-meter sprint recordholder, the fastest woman in American college track last year, and a possible member of the U.S. women’s team in Sydney next summer.

As much of a standout in dance exercises as she is on the track, Williams has appeared in an Apostolos dance recital and will appear in a video Apostolos will show during her presentation in Sydney.

“Apostolos asked me if I’d like to try out,” said Williams. “They had a number already set. I picked it up real quick and, before I knew it, the show was on and I was out there on the stage.”

COMPARING dance and sprinting, Williams said that while the connections may not seem obvious, both require flexibility and relaxing your mind. “They’re two totally different games,” she said, “but each can affect the other.”

While her work with the USC track team has not yet been subjected to effectiveness tests, Apostolos hopes to measure kinesthetic and rhythmic awareness in her work with the divers at Stanford.

Carefully monitoring her dancer-athletes’ cross-training progress, Apostolos hopes to substantiate an ancient Grecian thesis. “In ‘The Republic,’ Plato talks about the importance of rhythm and harmony to athletics,” she said. “Experiments such as these will, I think, illustrate the truth of his insight.”

Athletes Plié Their Way to Better Performances

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