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The Muay Thai Fighter and the Ballerina: A Portrait of Two Artists

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I know when most people watch a ballet being performed they do not think of Muay Thai and vice versa but I am a little strange and see connections where others do not. It is easy for me to see the similarities between the two artists. They share many traits; not the least of which is their ability, or desire to endure the pain of their art forms.

It is easy to see the pain and destruction in a Muay Thai fight. For many, they struggle to find the art. While in ballet the art is the obvious element and the pain and destruction is hidden.

They are art forms that require pain and suffering for greatness. It starts with the feet for both of them.

In Muay Thai, the footwork is the basis for everything. The correct foot placement can be the difference between landing the strike clean and solidly, partially, or not at all. That can be the difference between a KO win and a loss.

The power starts with the feet and is transferred upwards from there for knees, punches, elbows and kicks. The feet also control the movement, the distance and the spacing. This is the subtler side of the art form. The fighter that controls the distance and fights where they are the best most often controls the fight.

A fighter’s balance starts with the feet. The better the fighter, more often the better their balance and their footwork. A balanced fighter is one that is always dangerous and can strike at any time. Balance is what allows someone to strike while moving forward to attack or backwards while they are retreating. They do not need to be planted and set. This makes them a threat at all times and forces their opponents to fight more cautiously or risk getting knocked out at anytime.

That is where the art form is at its peak and gets lost in the violence. The knockout will often come from a fighter setting it up with their footwork, feints, fakes and strikes. A dance of devastating destruction. There is truth and beauty in those moments. The images that are created in those moments stick with us. They are visceral. There is something primordial about them that touch us emotionally like all great forms of art. They take us to another place and inspire us to try and be more than we were before we experienced them.

Sometimes it is the response to getting hit that is the inspiration for us fans to keep fighting in our own everyday struggles. Seeing a fighter literally pick themselves up through their will to keep fighting touches something inside of us. It is that struggle in the face of defeat that lifts the two fighters and gives the fans watching a glimpse into greatness from the outside.

There are many ill-fated ballets that explore that same theme. Lovers struggling, fighting to be together is a popular theme. One of the more popular classic ballets is Swan Lake. Deception, death, struggle, true love and a fight in the last act are just some of the reasons it resonates so strongly with us.

Also with ballet and the ballerina it all starts with the feet.

You hear it in that world all of the time, “she has beautiful feet.” That means something specific to a ballerina and it is not the same aesthetic as a foot model. A ballerina’s foot is usually beaten, battered and abused. Pointe shoes are essentially a torture device and that is what they do to a ballerina’s foot.

What they mean by beautiful feet is, “a really nice arch, high instep and shape to create a nice line.” It is amazing how everything else can be perfect but that foot being off slightly can ruin an image. It is all it takes when you are seeking perfection and that is what every ballerina is after is their own form of perfection.

This is where the destruction starts with the ballerina. Her feet are abused by pointe shoes and years of abuse to their bodies. They are asking their bodies to do things the it was not meant to do. The years of jumping and landing on pointe, of being tossed, lifted and dropped breaks down their spines and joints.

The ballerina has a short professional career. It is the sacrifice they are willing to make for their art form and their chance at some moments of greatness. It is those moments that make it worth it for both the Muay Thai fighter and the ballerina. Most people do not get to experience those rare special moments. Most people are not willing to pay the price physically and emotionally.

The Muay Thai fighter and the ballerina are not most people.

They both spend years dedicated to their crafts starting at a young age. For the ballerina she grows up differently, than and often isolated from, her peers. The ballerina will go to school, dance class, workout and sleep. That is her life. When her peers are learning to drive they are in dance class. When others are going to high school game they are in rehearsal or performance.

Her dance life starts at a young age focused on her art form. Dance is the motivation for their daily choices. Including what they eat. When to sleep. If she has any hope of being a principle than dance will become the prism through which she views everything.

Her life is more solitary than most. It is hard for people outside of the dance world to understand the dedication, intense commitment and focus that the life of a ballerina requires. It is hard for others to take second place to dance but many times they will. It is the reality of a very competitive world that demands perfection. At least as close as possible to it.

The other dancers can and do share the same struggle. Most of the dancer’s friends will often come from the dance world. Again there will be exceptions but it is hard for people outside of that world to understand the demands. For the principle ballerina it is even more difficult because she is where the others are trying to get too. It is just a part of the sacrifices that a ballerina makes for her art.

The Muay Thai fighter is familiar with the sacrifices for one’s art. In Thailand, the young boys will often leave their villages as young as six or seven years old to go off and train Muay Thai. Their lives revolve around training and school.

They will start fighting on the weekends to earn money to send back home to their families turning pro as young as seven or eight. Malaipet Sasiprapa is one of the more famous examples of this. He turned professional at eight years old and at the age of 32 has had 179 career fights with 144 wins.

Like the ballerina, the Muay Thai fighter spends most of their time training and so it is hard to makes friends outside of that world. It is one of the reasons they often form friendships with their opponents after their fights. That and they have share something special in the ring.

The loneliness is just one part of the sacrifices the dancer and the fighter make for the opportunities to express themselves on the stage and in the ring. The physical demands of both art forms take their tolls on the human body.

Again, for Muay Thai it is easy to see the cuts and bruises. They suffer broken bones, torn ligaments, and often end up with chronic pain. It is a choice they make for the art they love. You do not choose Muay Thai as a life if you cannot deal with pain.

It is the same for the ballerina. They dance with blisters on their feet often with blisters on top of blisters. They suffer knee and ankles injuries. Their feet are often filled with bunions and misshapen toes. They often suffer chronic pain as well. They wear down their spine and back with the contortions and leaping. Specifically the landings.

They jump and land in pointe shoes. The first time you hold a pointe shoe you are struck by how stiff they are and that they do not seem like something a human should wear. Then you watch what they do in them and it is truly amazing. They make the barely possible seem effortless hiding the pain and suffering all for those special moments where they transcend themselves.

Dance is at its peak for many when two partners reach heights and moments that could only happen with each other. A ballerina can go higher when she is lifted than on her own and when two partners can find themselves inside of moments of the dance and expose that rawness to the audience it becomes something magical.

It is the same for a fighter. They need a partner to reach those barely attainable moments of greatness. They learn more about themselves are their opponent, their partner. A true fighter, one with that warrior spirit is looking for that opponent that will test them. They seek moments of greatness and know that they can only happen when they face a great opponent.

It is why a young Kevin Ross seeks a fight with a legend like Malaipet. He knows that win or lose a fight like that will answer questions about himself as a fighter. That looking for and wanting a fight like that is more important than winning or losing.

Those fleeting moments of greatness are also why a fighter like Malaipet would take that fight. He recognizes that spirit inside of Ross will help create those moments that last within people when they fight. It is why Ross takes a fight with a rising young fighter like Michael Thompson at Lion Fight 16. He seeks greatness and others who are searching for it as well. A fighter needs that partner to push them, that special opponent to force them to go deep inside of themselves.

A truly great artist bares themselves to the audience. They willing go to places that most people seek to avoid. Dancers and fighters do it and they show us the level of greatness that is possible. The true artists inspire us to be better, to be braver and that if we are willing to do it with commitment and passion than something great is possible.

Timing is also important to both artists. In different ways they need to have an understanding of the timing of their respective partners.

For the ballerina the better she and her partner understand each other’s timing the greater their dance can be. It allows them to work together in a deeper way knowing where each other will be at any moment in the dance. They are looking to fall into each other’s time to synchronize together.

The fighter is trying to get inside of his opponent’s time to also know where they will be. Once they have their opponent’s timing down they then can set them up for the spectacular strike or the knockout. If they are able to get inside of each’s time, that is when fights have the potential to be great.

There is also the movement element to both forms.

For dance this is an obvious one. The great ones move differently. They make everything seem effortless and control every little movement. They are mesmerizingly watchable in even the simplest of movements. Watching a brilliant dancer walk across a stage can be sublimely brilliant.

Dance also blends those moments with the explosive ones. There are dizzying leaps and spins coupled with lifts and it is surprisingly athletic to people the first time they see it live. A live performance conveys the power, speed and beauty in way that television cannot.

It is the same for a fight. A live event is different from a televised one. The speed, the power and the sounds are so much more vivid live than on television. It is also difficult for the television to convey the speed and power of the movement of a fight.

The movement in a fight is one of the subtler elements. The average fan does not understand it. Some fighters never do while the elite are masters of it. The movement will help a fighter control the distance of the fight. It will create the right angles for a fighter to deliver the most effective strike in that moment.

People understand the brutal violence of KO but not the subtle beautiful movements and moments that set it up.

If two fighters have similar skill levels in movement and timing then there is one more thing. It is unteachable.

In a great fight it comes down to heart. How much heart does each fighter have? That will determine how great it can be. If one of the fighter’s lack heart then a fight can only go to certain places but it cannot attain true greatness. Sometimes a great fighter can drag a lesser fighter into a better fight but it usually results in a short night for the one that is not as good.

For a dance performance it is the same, it also comes down to heart to reach that true greatness. If the dancers dance with heart and passion then it raises the performance to a special level. If they do not have it when they dance then perfect technique often leaves you feeling a little cold inside.

In Muay Thai and ballet heart can transcend technique. The more passionate dancer will resonate with us after the performance more than the flawless one. In Muay Thai we have also seen the fighter with more heart beat the one with better technique.

In both worlds I would rather have timing and heart than anything else. Those are the fighters and ballerinas you remember after you see them. They are the ones who dance and fight with a fearlessness about them.

The dancer and the fighter are two artists trying to express themselves the best way that they can to tell their stories. Each dance and fight tells us a story. The dancer dances theirs, and the fighter fights. Along the way the dancer will fight and the fighter will dance each striving for a greatness others only get to watch.

Muay Thai image credit – tokyololas

An avid lifetime fight fan who loves to write about it. So kick back, get comfortable and let's have some fun! "Wants me to tell him something pretty." Al Sweargen "Going wrong is not the end of fucking things, Johnny. Fuck no! I have comeback from plenty of shit that looked like it was going wrong." Dan Dority "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it." Bill Munny

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