By Diane Claytor
What does the art of ballet and sport of surfing have in common? The average, non-athletic type person (like me) may immediately say “absolutely nothing” and wonder why those two activities are even put into the same question. Although admittedly, once I actually thought about it, I did realize that both surfing and dancing take extraordinary balance and dexterity. But that’s all I came up with.
Apparently I wasn’t really thinking clearly!
Kendall Eric Sparks, former Diablo Ballet dancer and avid surfer, very nicely showed me the error of my thoughts.
Sparks, born and raised in the Bay Area, has been surfing almost as long as he’s been dancing, having started both as a young adult. And he’s equally passionate about both!
“The two activities are very different. And yet, they’re really not different at all,” Sparks explained. As he noted, each has a ‘master’; in dance, it’s the music. “The music tells you what to do, it rules you and you have to follow it,” he said. “In surfing, the ocean tells you what to do and you have to follow the ocean.”
In fact, surfing is often referred to as dancing on water. Stephanie Gilmore, four-time Association of Surfing Professionals World Champion, apparently agrees. She recently did a series of interviews with dancers, exploring the similarities between surfing and dancing.
In an interview she did with Surfgirl Magazine last year, Gilmore said she once heard that “surfing a wave can be described as a dance performance: The wave is your stage and the sun is a spotlight.” Sparks also compared the two: “In dance, when the curtain goes up, you have to be present, hit your mark, be on the count, support your partner, perform. In surfing, when you get that sweet wave, you have to be there, get up on it, feel the joy.” He continued, noting that in both, you tend to lose yourself in the moment. Surfer Gilmore essentially said the same thing. “When I’m competing, the majority of my drive comes from the performance. When I’m surfing I want to be powerful, but perform with style and grace, similar to that of a dancer,” she said.
“I like to think surfing and dance have similar qualities like power, grace, improvisation, and rhythm,” Gilmore stated. Both activities also require agility, elegance, determination, and strength, not to mention immense physicality. Sparks noted that in both, you move your body and utilize your muscles in specific ways. “In surfing, you have to have the rhythm of the wave, have to time it, get in the right spot and use its energy,” Sparks said. “And when dancing, it’s the same thing. You have to use the rhythm of the music, have to use gravity and specific timing. And in both, you have to tune your body, use it appropriately.”
Choreographer Noemie LaFrance is one of three dancers profiled in Gilmore’s video series. Like Sparks, LaFrance related her dancing to riding a wave: you have to understand the language of your body and know how far you can push it. You also need “to let go and let the music or the wave take over.”
Sparks, who performed with Diablo Ballet from 1997 through 1999, is fervent about both dance and surfing.
As a young adult attending junior college, Sparks went with a friend to a jazz class. “It was cathartic, just an incredible opening for me. The seas parted and I knew this was what I wanted to do,” he said, describing how he first got interested in dancing. Sixteen classes a week for the next year, studying ballet with Sally Streets at the Berkeley Ballet Theater, training in New Orleans, New York and Boston was how Sparks spent his next four years. In 1986 he got his first professional gig with the Boston Ballet; then came stints with the Sacramento Ballet, Dennis Wayne Dancers, Cleveland/San Jose Ballet and the Miami City Ballet, where he performed as soloist dancer for seven years – and where he really got into surfing with a vengance.
After his three years with Diablo Ballet, Sparks decided he needed to make a big change. “I knew I didn’t want to dance anymore. My heart just wasn’t in it. I realized that dance was one part of life but there are so many others. I wanted to surf and just enjoy life,” he said.
So, after dancing for 18 years, at 35 years old, Sparks “reinvented” himself, something he said he has done many times. He got into sales – mostly selling medical equipment and medical software – and was quite successful at it. He was no longer the “poor dancer.” It also afforded him more time to surf.
But he found that he actually missed dancing. So, when approached by a friend three years later and asked to perform in The Nutcracker, he accepted. And he’s continued dancing ever since.
He also continued his sales career until 2011 when he felt it was time to get into something else, to again reinvent himself. Yoga had always been a big part of his life. In fact, following a serious bicycle accident in 2007, Sparks said yoga was a very important part of his rehabilitation. So he began practicing more and became a certified yoga instructor.
Sparks is 49 years old and although he looks years younger, I couldn’t help but ask him if his body feels vastly different now when he’s dancing or surfing. “I actually feel better now in terms of knowing how to use my energy,” he said. “I may have had more energy when I was younger, but I know how to use it now. When I dance, I don’t necessarily kill it at every rehearsal. I save the energy for the performance. I’ve developed the ability to step on and off the accelerator. That comes from experience.”
Today, Sparks, practices and teaches yoga, is a certified Tai yoga masseuse, teaches dance at several dance companies throughout the Bay Area, and continues to perform with several different companies. He performed in a musical theater production last year and loved it. He also meditates, skateboards and plays guitar.
And, of course, he continues surfing – as frequently as he can!
Diane Claytor, a Chicago native, has spent most of her adult life living in the East Bay and working for several different non-profit organizations. Although admittedly not a dance aficionado, she enjoys all types of music and is probably happiest when she’s plugged into her mp3 player listening to whatever the mood dictates.