Ripped From the Plie Book: Football and Dance Have Much in Common

Twyla Tharp, flanked by Lynn Swann and Peter Martins in
Twyla Tharp, flanked by Lynn Swann and Peter Martins in "Dance Is a Man's Sport, Too," performed for a 1980 TV special. Childhood dance training "gave me another dimension" in football, says Swann. (Everett Collection; Copyright Abc)
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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."

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