Teenage soccer players who dream of becoming star South African professionals are taking up ballet to give them the edge on the field, in a training regime inspired by Argentine great Diego Maradona.
The youngsters at one of South Africa’s elite soccer academies spend 30 hours a week practising on the pitch.
And now they are also putting in the hours in the ballet studio where they leap and plie in their soccer kit to learn skills their trainers say will make them better players.
“It started off [when] some person went and compared Maradona’s game to typical ballet movements, and that’s where they started developing their ballet curriculum for football,” said Kobus Maree, a physiotherapist at the Sport and Art Exchange Academy.
The program began a year ago when the sparkling new campus opened in a suburb between Johannesburg and Pretoria, and the gains are already showing, said Dirk Badenhorst, who heads the school’s ballet program.
“There’s a basic move that they do called a rond de jambe en l’air, where they lift the leg in the air, and that in particular helps them with kicking the ball in the air,” he said.
Maree said ballet training has already improved the players jumps and kicks, improvements that helped them overcome any initial reluctance about taking up dance.
“They were worried they would have to put on tights and all that funny stuff,” he said. “If they see the performance benefits, and it gets related back to their sports, then I think kids will do quite a bit to perform better and be competitive.”
The boys were recruited from across South Africa, with scouts also venturing out into Botswana, Zambia and Kenya. Full tuition for boarders costs 140,000 rand (US$14,600) a year.
To make it more accessible, some students are given assistance, like Botshelo Madumo, a 14-year-old from Pretoria who has had all his fees covered.
“I almost went into tears. My mum was in tears though, so I was really happy. She was jumping for glory,” Botshelo said, remembering when he found out about his scholarship.
He grew up in a poor township, but was scouted at his first tryout with a local club in Pretoria.
To find other young players like Botshelo, both the sports and the ballet programs head into some of the poorest neighborhoods, hoping to spot young talent.
Ballet teachers run classes at the nearby Madibotle primary school, where headmistress Patricia “Busi” Lumwila said she has only 26 teachers for more than 850 students, including about 100 orphans.
“They are from the poorest of the poor,” she said. “Some of them don’t even know where town is.”
During their dance lessons, students who can’t focus in the classroom become disciplined and attentive as they practise their movements, she said.
“Most of their parents did not get this opportunity,” she said.