Emma Hawes in class at National Ballet of Canada. Photo by Karolina Kuras, courtesy NBoC

This Intercontinental Ballet Phenom Used to Swim Competitively—and Still Praises Its Benefits

Growing up with a father who's a swim coach at Ohio Wesleyan University, Emma Hawes was in the water almost from the time she was born. From ages 6 to 12, she swam competitively.

"I would have two swim practices a day during season, then go to ballet class," says Hawes, who's now a first soloist at both National Ballet of Canada and English National Ballet. "It was pretty normal for me since my parents are both athletes." (Her father is also an avid cyclist and triathlete; her mom was a competitive runner.)

While swimming gave Hawes stamina, dance helped her body awareness in the pool. "I was able to make fine-tuning adjustments—like rotating the angle of my forearm—because of ballet," she says.


Although she eventually chose ballet rather than swimming professionally, she still returns to the pool for the endurance and injury-prevention benefits. "Anything done in the water takes pressure off your body, eliminating the impact," says Hawes. "Yoga is nice, and I like treadmills for stamina. But swimming makes my whole body feel good."

Emma Hawes works her tricep with a red band while sitting next to a ballet barre

Hawes warms up before company class. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim, courtesy NBoC

Swimming not only helped her lung capacity but her awareness of her breath.

Swimming has helped Hawes pay attention to her breath onstage. "When I was young, we did exercises like swim an entire length of the pool holding your breath or breathing every third stroke," she says.

Although she doesn't have the same lung capacity that she did when she was swimming regularly, that awareness is still available.

"When you're breathing every third stroke, you need to hold your breath a bit longer than you want to, rotate to breathe on both sides—including the one that is uncomfortable. There are a lot of times while dancing that your only moment to take a breath is in a super-uncomfortable position. If you can find a sort of peace with breathing in that place, you can more effectively manage your energy."

She uses laps as meditation.

For Hawes, one benefit of the water is its calming effect. "Swimming is quite monotonous, which is ultimately why I chose ballet over it. But that also makes it a great meditative place to tune in with your body."

Try Hawes' go-to workout in the pool:

During breaks, Hawes swims up to three times a week. One of her standard options includes:

Warm-Up: 100 meters freestyle, 100 meters kickboard, 100 meters stroke drill (focusing on one element, like breathing)

Sets: She might do eight sets of 50 meters, alternating strokes and drills, or six sets of 100 meters, with the even sets focused on kicking and the odds breathing every third stroke. She aims for 1,500 meters total.

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Clockwise from top left: Photo by Loreto Jamlig, Courtesy Ladies of Hip-Hop; Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Photo by Will Mayer for Better Half Productions, Courtesy ABT

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I am a black dancer, and in 2003, when I was 11 years old, I was dressed up in blackface to perform in the Mariinsky Ballet's production of La Bayadère.

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