In her sparkly pink gown on the first week of “Dancing With the Stars,” soccer star Hope Solo looked uncomfortably exposed. Naked, even. It wasn’t just that her backless dress barely covered the gym-honed slab of her torso. What revealed the most was the heaviness of her waltz.
Solo, the starting goalkeeper for the U.S. women’s soccer team, had mastered the dance’s footwork, as you’d expect from a ballplayer, but not the grace. The static plane of her arms, shoulders and waist got in the way of what should have been a sweeping ecstasy. In that first waltz, as in her subsequent outings on the ABC-TV dance competition, Solo simply looked stiff.
But take away the dress and the heels — strip her bare, in fact — and Solo delivers such a charge that you almost want to back away from her.
Look, if you dare, at the nude photo of her on the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s “The Body Issue,” an annual edition featuring artful photographs of athletes in the buff. Solo rises high on one leg with the other crooked in front, its gleaming shinbone in daggerlike alignment with her pointed toes. (Her lifted knee ensures that we don’t see too much. Thankfully, none of the ESPN photos offers a prurient view, and we don’t have to look at the athletes’ plumbing.) The muscled arms that are such a liability on “DWTS” are angled with Euclidean simplicity, sweeping across Solo’s chest as though she’s about to backhand an overzealous fan.
Think the goalie lacks grace? Not in this photo, which combines the athlete’s fierceness with a dancer’s poise and lifted rhythm. There is, in fact, something of the linear, neoclassical ballerina here — put a red leotard on her, and Solo could be the towering, icy Siren in George Balanchine’s “The Prodigal Son.”
Do we admire her or fear her? With her lean frame and leonine features, she could also be a boy warrior. Solo is the un-centerfold: androgynous, powerful and a little menacing.
As Martha Graham said, the body doesn’t lie. There’s a truthfulness in how we move and how we present ourselves — something choreographers as well as criminal profilers and experts in body language know, but evident to the untrained eye as well, because nothing is more familiar to us than the body.
We watch “DWTS” to glimpse some of this truth, to see performers out of their element, in a realm where any insecurities about how they look and how they move are exposed. But too often the ideal they are striving for is itself a fake. The cheesecake poses, the hyper-macho act. As surely as they don costumes with the obligatory sequins and plunging necklines, the dancers give hackneyed views of male and female.
As we watched Solo and her partner, Maksim Chmerkovskiy, rehearse their cha-cha-cha recently, Solo tried to get her sexy on. In shorts and heels, she swiveled up to him and attempted to wrap a massive thigh around his leg.
“That’s not sexy,” Chmerkovskiy muttered, morosely.
He’s right, but he was wrong when he told us later that “Hope has a problem with being sexy.” Her problem is the pasted-on cartoon sexiness she’s being tutored in. The judges liked her cha-cha-cha, but it looked to me like she was trying to remember a recipe (“You start with a kick, then squat and, oh, right, the backbend, and um, a twist . . . ”).
Why wasn’t Solo completely convincing in this dance? Because her whole look was an act. She isn’t the type to gussy up in black lace and garters and grind like a lapdancer. Another female athlete might not look so awkward — after all, figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi won the show’s mirrorball trophy in 2008. But put a blocky jock like Solo in a burlesque dress, and already she’s handicapped.
The football players who do well on the show can hide square shoulders under suit jackets. If only Solo had that option — and could play up her intriguing androgyny. For her waltz, if she had worn a Marlene Dietrich tux, there might have been a touch of danger, a shifting balance of power between her and Chmerkovskiy, that could have set off sparks. But that’s a complicated idea — too complicated for this show.
Now back to the naked pictures (hooray!). The appeal of ESPN’s “Body Issue” is that it’s complicated. It doesn’t offer easy images. Captured in these photos are more than the girls of your dreams or hunky beefcakes. The harnessed energy and subtle, sometimes inscrutable emotions expressed not only in their faces but in the contours of their bodies recall why nudes inspired the great masters of painting and sculpture. Like Graham, Michelangelo and Raphael knew that beauty, science and truth reside in the human body.
Some of the magazine’s photos channel classic ideals of perfection and industry. Solo is one of four cover models; another is Blake Griffin of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers. In a nod to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” drawing, as well as the myth of Atlas holding up the heavens, Griffin stands inside a great hoop, gripping its top edge as if under strain. We see his bulging thighs in profile, but his waist twists to show us the full expanse of his chest and arms. Surely the sand dunes of the Sahara don’t undulate more than those muscles rolling from elbow to elbow.
More complex is the photo of a modern-day Discobolus, with discus thrower Jeremy Campbell in the torqued, bent-over stance of the famous ancient Greek sculpture. Campbell’s arms are splayed as if ready for flight; you can feel the spiraling rhythm in his upper body that’s about to send him whirling — and it’s both a paradox and a non-issue that that beautiful body is braced on a polished prosthetic leg, a piece of modern art in its own right.
When he played high school football, the Paralympic gold medalist says in the caption, “guys thought it was cool to grab at me in the pile and yell, ‘Pull his leg off!’ . . . But all athletes have bumps and bruises.”
In an interview last week, ESPN magazine editor-in-chief Chad Millman said he hoped this issue “opens people’s eyes to the way athletes look and how they feel about themselves. . . . It shows their vulnerability,” he said. “It also shows their confidence in a way that, it’s not a braggart, I-can-beat-you confidence, but it’s ‘I recognize who I am and what I have and I’ve worked very hard to get it.’ ”
Six-foot-6 Sylvia Fowles of the WNBA, shown glistening, sphinxlike, in a push-up on a desert plateau: “I’m kind of bionic.”
Solo, in a second photo on a suburban lawn like Michelangelo’s nonchalant David, with a watering hose wrapped around hamstrings of heroic proportions: “My entire purpose is trying to be the best, and if that exudes beauty too, that’s pretty powerful. It means the image of the typical female body type is finally evolving.”
Through the palpable energy of these images, we, too, can feel that confidence, that honesty, that enhanced vitality. Now that’s sexy.