How Martial Arts Changed Tigran Sargsyan’s Partnering Style

August 3, 2022

Three or four times a week since the age of 17, Los Angeles Ballet principal dancer Tigran Sargsyan has been hitting the gym to build upper-body strength. But when the pandemic descended, Sargsyan felt he should find a new way to maintain strength and stamina while LAB’s studios were shuttered. And just like that, he fell for martial arts—hard.

“I started with tae kwon do,” Sargsyan says. “Then I added Brazilian jiujitsu, which at this point I’m basically in love with.” It’s a passion that fuels him to practice jiujitsu four or five times a week and tae kwon do twice a week. (Though he kept up his regimen during LAB’s Nutcracker, Sargsyan typically scales back his martial arts practices, in the name of finding balance, during performance runs.)

Tigran Sargsyan kicks sideways with his right leg to break a board held by a tae kwon do instructor.
Tigran Sargsyan breaks a board in a tae kwon do demonstration. Photo courtesy Sargsyan.

An Evening in the Life

Though exact structure varies, Sargsyan typically spends an hour and a half at a time on jiujitsu, in the evenings after work. After participants bow to one another and to the coach, the group reviews the morals of the studio (such as mutual respect and control over aggressive energy) and that session’s agenda. Then Sargsyan does a 15-minute warm-up, receives instruction in a new skill or element, and has 30 minutes of unstructured sparring time.

In contrast to jiujitsu’s literal rolling on the floor, “tae kwon do is easier for ballet dancers because it almost looks like choreography,” Sargsyan says. “You earn belts by showing specific kicks and punches and using those to break boards. Tae kwon do helps me understand where precisely to put my energy in a jump or battement.”

Spar de Deux?

“When people hear ‘martial arts,’ they think ‘fighting,’ but it’s actually very disciplined, respectful and supportive,” Sargsyan says. Communicating with sparring partners is increasing Sargsyan’s sensitivity to ballerinas’ needs, he says: “Martial arts has affected my understanding of where my dance partners are every day, how they feel, what they want. I can feel differences in weight and pressure much better than before. Plus, I’m physically stronger, which helps with partnering.”

Tigran Sargsyan lifts Petra Conti, wrapping his arms around her waist and legs as she extends her body into a diagonal line.
Tigran Sargsyan partnering Petra Conti. Photo by Reed Hutchinson, courtesy Los Angeles Ballet.

The Way of the Dancer

To Sargsyan, martial arts is cross-training for body, mind and spirit. Since starting jiujitsu and tae kwon do, “I’m much more relaxed and playful,” he says. “Even when there’s nervousness to go onstage or work with a new partner, I’m more confident in myself. And I have a different understanding of stamina. I used to feel out of breath after two minutes of jumping. Now I can go for five minutes.”

Fast Fuel

“I love fruit in the three hours before a performance, so I don’t feel weighed down,” Sargsyan says. “I’ll pack apples, bananas or raspberries in a little box and have it with me during a long day.” At the end of a show or full day of training, Sargsyan cooks generous portions of fish or chicken, rice and vegetables.

How-To: Cross-Collar Chokes

“My favorite exercises in jiujitsu are for the abdominals,” Sargsyan says. Here’s one you can try at home, no sparring partner required:

  1. Lie on your back with arms and legs in the air, crossed at the ankles/wrists.
  2. Lift your shoulders off the mat as you would for a traditional crunch. Quickly and dynamically pull your arms and legs in toward the core, as if grabbing an invisible person above you. Partially extend the arms and legs, keeping your elbows and knees bent, as you repeat up to 60 total reps.