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Leaps and Bounds
Gridiron Grace Shares Much With the Ultimate Source of Fancy Footwork: Dance

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 2009

To other sports belongs the poetry. Football has none of baseball's tranquillity and patience, and unlike boxing or tennis, it's not a sport of studious, calculating loners. It doesn't have soccer's fluidity, or basketball's popcorn aerials. Football lurches and galumphs; it traffics in confusion, time pressure and pileup after brutal pileup.

And yet, though football may be the closest thing to a gladiatorial spectacle since the fall of Rome, it can also claim kinship with the slippered heroes of the ballet stage.

True, its players are the sports equivalent of Hummers -- overbuilt and overbulgy, their pads and helmets inflating them beyond human scale. Their uniforms don't enhance the male physique, they objectify it: table-top shoulders, bowling-ball head, lumpy thighs like sacks of feed.

But in the players' finest moments, elegance often exists alongside the brutality. And no wonder: Few sports have more in common with the formality and artistry of a dance performance.

Consider the structure. At center stage, in the spotlight, is the star -- the quarterback, stepping away from the linemen (a corps de beefsteak that has its own ensemble work to do). The quarterback's solo, the few seconds it takes to mime a diversion and find his partner, makes up the first few beats of the team's choreography, which has been scripted, rehearsed, cast with the best available performers.

As with all live theater, anything can happen, especially with a skilled defense trying to steal the show. In the most artful finish -- okay, so maybe it doesn't eat up time as well as the running game, but we're talking aesthetics here -- our hero connects with a wide receiver, sending a whistling pass to a fleet Mercury who will rocket high with a half-spin and full extension, making the catch and keeping it inbounds by the tips of his exquisitely pointed toes.

That's how the Pittsburgh Steelers' Santonio Holmes made the game-winning touchdown in last season's Super Bowl, his perfectly placed toes grabbing the spotlight with the control and finesse of a ballerina. Ball secure up top, feet like daggers down below, Holmes didn't need to look to find the hairbreadth between inbounds and out.

Then there's Arizona Cardinals' wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, channeling a ballet prince in one game as he vaulted into the air and pirouetted to snatch the ball. He landed, one-legged, in a deep plie; somehow reorganizing a stumble into forward motion, he whisked in for a touchdown.

Some players can be so creative on the field, they ought to consider a post-retirement life in the theater. Take Baltimore Ravens defensive standout Ed Reed, a free safety whose acting ability is Oscar-worthy. Time and again, his moves tell opposing quarterbacks the same story: La-dee-dah, I'm going over here, so it's safe to throw the ball over there . . . and over and over, they fall for his fiction and toss him a big, fat interception.

It's part fakery, part footwork. With a dancer's versatility, Reed shifts seamlessly from defense to offense -- remember how he snagged a pass in the end zone and slipped into the role of a receiver in last year's game against the Philadelphia Eagles? His 107-yard return was a feat of elusiveness that the haughtiest ballerina would envy; linemen bore down on him like freight trains, but he danced away from hit after hit, slipping past would-be claimants like the ghost-virgin of "Giselle," pivoting on those flexible ankles, skating by with a stride as long as it was fast. Straight into the NFL record books.

Imagination and the ability to improvise are part of any performer's arsenal, and it's no different for wide receivers, whose success in catching a pass depends on rhythm and timing. Sometimes, both have to be altered on the fly to suit the scenario. There's always the risk of an interloper, some meddling defensive back, getting in the way of the quarterback's duet with the man he's, um, longing for: Where is he? Oh, where? We were supposed to meet 25 yards out. . . . Ah, found you at last!

"I feel like I should never be defined by how I should run a route," says Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss. "How I should run this play or how I should do this pattern. . . . If I know I can put two patterns in one and I can get the same out of it, you gotta do that in a split second. Improvising."

"He has some special moves," Redskins wide receivers coach Stan Hixon says. "Some of the routes are Santana's routes, and I'm trying to teach some of the other guys how to run that route. And each guy can put his own little flavor to the route."

Moss can be a temperamental star, as he proved when he got into a slugfest last week with Giants cornerback Corey Webster. But his more refined attributes as a receiver make him stand out. The 30-year-old Moss, according to his coaches, is in a class by himself, and it comes down to physical as well as mental agility. A smallish player, he's not among the new trend of power hitters in receiver positions -- 6-footers like Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, who are muscular and massive enough to break tackles without having to slip away from defenders like darting fish. Playmakers, sure, but they do it without grace. Moss, at 5-10 and scarcely 200 pounds, is something of a throwback among receivers. He relies on fast footwork, agility, coordination -- and mostly, he's got the intuitive body awareness that the best dancers have.

"I look at it as being graceful on the grass," says Moss. "It's an art form -- the moves I make after I make my catch. It's almost like a ballet." He knows what he's talking about. Moss studied dance for four years while at the University of Miami, taking classes especially for athletes. (No tights, he's careful to point out. He danced in sweats.) What he learned in the studio comes in especially handy, he says, when he's coming back to earth after leaping for the ball. "Guys land so hard, but I know how to control my weight.

"You got to be fluid, in a way. Know how to get small in the space, know how not to crash out of bounds. How to let my body fall."

I caught up with Moss at training camp, where in the steam-bath heat of an August morning, each play starts out with its own music, a chorus of guttural, monosyllabic utterances. Ruff-ruff-ruff. It sounds like a field of bulls readying to charge, pawing the dirt and growling. In the meeting of plastic, muscle and violent exhalations, the line of scrimmage goes crunch. A running back squirts out of the scrum, pffish.

When they're not taking part in the drill, the players either stand and watch, or they kneel on one knee in a pose of slightly awkward chivalry, like princes ready to proffer a glass slipper or a marriage proposal. No one crouches, leans or sprawls.

It wouldn't do -- not in the eyes of a man whose sense of decorum rivals the most controlling ballet master. For head coach Jim Zorn, the beauty of the sport is in its professionalism.

"I think people get grossed out by violence, and that's why football is so awesome," he says. "Because it's not the brutality you see on the street corner. It's really the beauty of the incredible athlete putting a world of hurt on his opponent, and then picking him up and shoving him back to the huddle and let's do it again. You know what I mean? Everything's fair game. Within the rules."

Zorn says the art of the sport lies in making all the crushing, straining, sprinting and heaving seem effortlessly simple. "It's all about making something very difficult, an action or a response, making it look so easy that people watching it will say to themselves, you know what, I can do that. . . . It takes hours of repetition. It takes making your body do what it should, not what it wants to.

"And I'll tell you this," Zorn continues, "a lot of guys can come out here and really look fantastic in practice. But it's when they get to the game that the real players rise to the top. When the performance has to really happen."

* * *

When the Redskins face the Rams for Sunday's matinee matchup, some longtime fans might think back to legendary Rams running back and receiver Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch. He was the great-grandaddy of a Santana Moss or a Larry Fitzgerald; in the 1950s he became the NFL's first full-time "flanker." Before then, receivers were known simply as "ends," taking their places at the ends of the offensive line. But Crazylegs's coach had the idea of separating his star runner from the rest of the line, putting him in a wider spot, and Hirsch was so successful at running for passes from this outside position that other teams started copying the formation.

"That's when the wide receivers started to think of themselves as independent entities, independent contractors," says Steve Sabol of NFL Films. "That goes into the mind-set of some of the wide receivers we see today. You don't see any other players carry on like the wide receiver. They're the divas. They're pampered, they're protected, they're paid princely salaries, and to many of them, they're in the mold of the true entertainer, for whom the doing is just as important as how it's done."

Grace isn't always part of the wideout's performance. They have become notorious for their bad manners, and worse: the fisticuffs, the end-zone celebrations, the showboating, the adrenaline-fueled taunts. In fact, for some observers, the days of true grace on the gridiron are over, the days of Green Bay Packers receiver Don Hutson, known in the 1930s as the Alabama Antelope, or, in the 1960s, Lance Alworth, who played for the Dallas Cowboys and the San Diego Chargers, who was known as Bambi for his leaping ability.

Paul Warfield of the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins, another receiver of the '60s and '70s, could stun defenders with his pirouettes. "Paul Warfield in the secondary was like Fred Astaire showing up in a gathering of slam dancers," says Sabol.

And then there was Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Lynn Swann. The Mikhail Baryshnikov of football, a player who, in the 1970s, had quicksilver body control and ability to adjust to the ball while he was in the air that caused grown men to grow misty-eyed with rapture.

Could a lyric poet have dreamed up a better name for the man famed for his avian abilities, his flying, his darting? (The serendipity of certain football player names is another dimension of the sport's accidental artfulness. Take Tennessee Titans tight end Alge Crumpler.)

Swann studied dance before he became a football player, dragged to classes as a child by his mother. A hundred yards of turf became his stage. Dance training "gave me another dimension," he says. "A comfort level in terms of my technique, timing and sense of rhythm to the game." His tap teacher taught him that "the end of one move is the beginning of the next move. You had to be balanced in order to make that transition.

"There's a timing and rhythm to every play." What it often came down to, he says, was "having the dance background in your head and having the rhythm, and rehearsing it over and over."

He talks about football patterns and their steps like he's a Broadway dance captain. Dance steps, he says, have long been part of the training drills. Players study grapevines, the sideways crossover step that's a folk-dance staple, as well as jazz-dance ball changes and something called a karaoke drill, lifting one foot over the other with a hip swivel. "You see guys making those moves all the time. If you're running and you've planted one foot and you're in control, how simple it is to plant it right and shift from the right to the left and change directions. Or if you're on the left foot, how about putting the right foot behind you, and bringing the left over. That's a grapevine."

If you had two left feet and you were covering Swann and his ilk, you were beat. Pure and simple.

"John Stallworth and I were watching film one day, getting ready for a Cowboys game. There was one defensive back who had terrible footwork. He just had a hard time with his footwork. The worst thing to do would be to run straight at him because he'd just backpedal." Make him weave, though, pull him right and then left, tie his feet up, and you're home free. Band plays, Terrible Towels wave.

"You cause him to turn his shoulders and his feet, and at some point in time we knew he would fall down. And he did." Ouch! To see a side of beef outdanced by a slim, fleet receiver is one of the game's glories.

Is it any wonder that a few well-coordinated football players have done so well on "Dancing With the Stars"? That tap-dance quickness they practice, the control and balance they need for their game, can translate into sensational displays on the dance floor. Emmitt Smith waltzed off with the mirror-ball trophy in Season 3; Jerry Rice, Jason Taylor and even 300-pounder Warren Sapp have also swapped shoulder pads for sparkly tuxes and ballroom steps. Sapp, a retired defensive tackle, was as silky and light on his feet as Jackie Gleason.

Dancers have long noticed the football player's grace. Gene Kelly put Johnny Unitas in the 1958 TV special "Dancing: A Man's Game." In a 1980 TV special, choreographer Twyla Tharp paired New York City Ballet dancer Peter Martins with Swann in "Dance Is a Man's Sport, Too." Here, as Swann tells it, he even outdanced Martins. Swann recalls that during rehearsal, he was catching more air than Martins, the tall Dane then at the height of stardom in the ballet world. Choreographer George Balanchine, Martins's boss, was watching and, as Swann recalls, Balanchine called out to his star dancer that "he should jump a little higher, 'cause the little fellow was jumping up higher."

Tharp, too, remembers Swann's jump, and more. "He was so unbelievably elegant," she says in a recent interview. "He had an extraordinary elevation, and he had a capacity to hang in the air. His stamina was unending, his speed, his flexibility, his maneuverability to get around a corner very fast. . . . I've never worked with any other gentleman of that caliber.

" . . . The guy is a phenomenal physical presence, and that's what dancers are, too. Let's just call him an amazing athlete, and that is something that dancers, too, can aspire to. I mean, the guy had it all -- he just wasn't trained in brisé volé."

* * *

As in so much of life, in football, beauty is often in the little things. It's in the fractions of an inch that separate a receiver's toes from the sideline. It's in the razor-sharp reflex that lets him slip past a defender, it's in the slippery precision locked in his head and his muscles that gets him to his mark on the run as chaos erupts and the ball whizzes and bigger men charge him with blood in their eyes.

And if they're going your way, beauty is in the numbers on the board.

"I love the passing game, but it's about winning," says Hixon, the wide receivers coach. "All the passes are just for a win. . . . Whatever it takes to win the game, that's what you should do."

But it doesn't hurt to look good doing it.

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