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The other day I watched the recently published documentary The Blue Angels, a spectacular production filmed in IMAX and produced by JJ Abrams. As a dancer, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of parallels to dance preparation. To produce something so elegantly and elaborately choreographed takes vision, skill and most of all, a commitment to practice.

The video follows the work the Blue Angles go through as they prepare for their airshow season. Pilots go through an extremely rigorous training procedure. Only the most experienced and capable squadron commanders are even able to apply for the role, and they compete with many others for a limited number of spaces each year. There are only six active pilots in a Blue Angels show: four diamond formation pilots and two solos. Pilots serve on the team for a two-year deployment. A total of 17 officers voluntarily serve with the Blue Angels. Each year the team typically selects three tactical jet pilots, two support officers and one Marine Corps C-130 pilot to relieve departing members.

The production values in the film are outstanding, and the music by Hans Zimmer raises the bar even more. There’s a powerful human element that you don’t normally see in this type of documentary. Yet what really stands out is the scope of the effort that takes place from everyone involved in these airshow productions.

Pilots fly twice every day. They go through lengthy debriefs. They study written materials for hours. Their day begins with the rising sun and doesn’t end until the sun goes down. They review and evaluate every flight performance to the most intricate details, throwing egos aside to allow themselves to see the raw edges where they made mistakes. You see them visualizing every detail, every move and turn of every show. Because in that world, unlike dance, even the smallest mistake can kill. When you are flying at 400 miles per hour just 12-18 inches from other planes on each side of you as well as above and below, everything has to be perfect all the time.

Dancers can learn from this. Far too often I see competitive dancers who don’t really understand what it means to practice, and then they wonder why their results aren’t what they expected. Skill alone isn’t enough.

I was surprised to see the amount of time Blue Angels pilots spent studying books and written materials every day as part of their training. After all, they already know how to fly. They already know about radius of turn and how it affects aircraft speed and g forces. They already understand angle of attack and its impact on stall speed. So what is it that they need to keep studying? I’m not sure exactly what kind of materials, but wow, that’s impressive.

The very best dancers share this same kind of commitment to training. Marcus and Karen Hilton trained relentlessly. Donnie Burns and Gaynor Fairweather were also famous for training constantly. Even long after retiring, Donnie Burns would continue to work with teachers regularly to improve his technique. Riccardo Cocchi and Yulia Zagoruychenko, when they first partnered in 2007 having both achieved top of the world status with other partners, are said to have spent a full year practicing the basics before beginning to compete together. They went on to win nine professional world championships.

How hard are you practicing? Are those practice sessions done with intention? Are you willing to let egos fall away to fully accept the facts about shortcomings in your dancing? Are you taking time to read the technical manuals to see where your footwork or other aspects of basic technique could be improved? Are you filming your practices and evaluating what you see with an open mind? These techniques and more are what the Blue Angels use to create that perfectly choreographed show that they are known for. We can all learn from their effort.

The Blue Angels film can be seen on Amazon Prime. It is also being rolled out to select IMAX theaters.

George Pytlik

Author George Pytlik

Before turning pro, George achieved impressive results as an amateur competitor, holding the Senior (30+) Latin championship in BC, Canada for 7 consecutive years with his wife Wendy. The couple twice achieved a top-3 Canadian ranking in Senior Latin as well as a 3rd place Canadian ranking in 30+ Ten Dance. Today, George and Wendy are professional teachers with a vision of growing a strong dance community in Delta near Vancouver, BC.

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