Akram Khan on Brazilian jiu-jitsu and his midlife crisis

Before confinement, I felt my passion for training wear off – I have trained intensely in dance since I was a little girl and I am 47 years old now. But I made a documentary called Extreme combat: the fighter and the dancer, and it was a real eye-opener in the world of mixed martial arts and violent sports. There was a particular shape that really appealed to me, because there was a huge conceptual and psychological approach – it was like a game of chess. It was Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I decided to study it and became obsessed. It has been my passion for the past year and a half, to which I devote all my free time and money – my emotional, psychological and physical savior, really.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu developed when a Japanese master went to Brazil a little over 100 years ago, and a few brothers transformed it. The goal was: how to make this shape not only beautiful, but usable in a practical situation? It’s a form of grappling hook, mostly on the ground, and it’s all about being able to pin parts of the opponent’s body. I was fortunate enough to have private lessons throughout the lockdown at my dance studio in my back garden. It was so exciting to learn something new. I often refer to what I call “the pleasure of drowning” – that feeling of being in the absolute unknown, a total novice. I thought, “Well, I’m pretty good at dancing – I can’t be so bad with any other form of movement. But I am useless!

Choreographer Akram Khan © Max Barnett

I have two masters, Lucas and Tom. I wouldn’t call them my friends. I love them and I hate them because I’m not used to being criticized in such a harsh way. Lucas in particular is very tough. Not to have compliments, ever…! I shout at my wife after the session saying, “He didn’t say a word! He looked at me disgusted! But he reminds me a lot of myself, because I don’t give compliments easily – so when he does, you know it’s of great value. Tom is different: he doesn’t necessarily give compliments, but he is extremely encouraging. It’s good to have both approaches. I also like them to vaguely know that I’m a dancer, but they don’t know the caliber. I have this voice in my head that says, “God! They talk to me like I’m a beginner! If only they knew who the fuck I was!

Even though jiu-jitsu literally means “soft art,” when I fight my first thought is, “How can I dislocate her shoulder? Break your knee joints? Put him to sleep? (Basically smother him.) Although you are “tapping” your opponent to signal surrender before he gets that far. It’s as violent as you want it to be. But if I just studied martial arts on a physical level, it wouldn’t satisfy me. With Brazilian jiu-jitsu, you don’t just need to be in a studio – you can also do your homework, study the movements, and realize where you went wrong. It’s like dancing in that regard, and I think that’s why I was drawn to it. It definitely made me a better dancer – stronger and more flexible.

“Jiu-jitsu has been my passion for a year and a half, to which I devote all my free time and my money. “© Jean-Louis Fernandez

I think I was also drawn to it because it’s one of the few shapes that was designed for smaller opponents against bigger ones – and I’m quite short. It’s amazing how often little black belts destroy huge athletic opponents. It’s so much about rhythm, understanding pressure points, angles, so if you have the knowledge and are able to execute it, you are superior. Of course, weight and strength play a role: with a taller person on top of me, I have to work harder. But knowledge itself will give you a way to escape. You might end up riding a builder that weighs 250 pounds – although I try to avoid that.

My kids take lessons too, and I ride with them. My daughter is eight – she’s really good at it, and she almost choked me to the point where I passed out. I said: “I was typing!” She replied, “Well, I didn’t hear you, daddy. You should speak louder.

By the way, Tom is “Gi”, which means he wears traditional martial arts clothes, and Lucas is “No Gi”. I’m always on the lookout for cool and cool outfits of both types. My wife just says, ‘Look, honey. I know you like it, but getting three different colored Gis won’t make you any better. Overall, though, she thinks it’s a nice, bright midlife crisis, and that it’s way better than me to buy a convertible with just two seats.

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