Leveling the Playing Field

November 15, 2010

As Martha Graham put it, a dancer is an “athlete of God.” There’s no denying that dance is just as athletic as any sporting event. Professionals in both fields train intensely, depend on muscle memory, and have to be on when the lights go up. Dancers will never make the gobs of money that athletes do, but we can learn some valuable lessons from the success of sports. Read on to see how the dance community is stepping up—toe-to-toe—with professional athletes and infiltrating their advertising market.


For some, the similarities between sports and dance are apparent. Tune in to any sporting event on TV and notice that the way an athlete moves on the field resembles what you’re doing in the studio. “A parallel second-position plié is the same stance as a free throw in basketball,” says Ailey dancer Guillermo Asca, “or a lineman’s stance in football, or a batter’s stance in baseball.” Asca, who grew up playing soccer and trained in karate, continues, “A golfer’s swing is like the turn-the-back in Graham technique. The other day I was watching tennis player Rafael Nadal and he hit the ball right at his feet and did a single tour with his arms down in fifth. I see dance in sports all the time.”


But ultimately Asca believes that dancing is tougher. “Our season is all year round,” he says. “In sports, the downtime is greater because the season is usually only a few months long. Their practices tend to run three hours, with massage after and then some weight lifting. Our days are seven or eight hours long, and then you’re going to gym, Pilates, or the pool before or after the actual rehearsal and performance.”


Some athletes have integrated dance into their training. Football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, who has been called the Baryshnikov of football and even appeared with Gene Kelly, Peter Martins, and Twyla Tharp in a 1980 TV special, has long championed the benefits of dance. He studied ballet, tap, and jazz for years. “They helped with body control, balance, a sense of rhythm, and timing,” he acknowledges. Many athletes have gained a newfound appreciation for dance through Dancing with the Stars, including NFL wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, Olympic speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, Olympic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, and IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves. And they’ve proven their skills on the stage: Many of the sports stars have taken home first-place finishes, adding a dance trophy to their collection.


Dance medicine has gleaned wisdom from sports medicine. Dr. William Hamilton, orthopedic consultant for the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, also works with members of the New York Yankees and New York Knicks. “We’ve gotten a lot of training tools from athletes that dancers use. In sports medicine there has been a great deal of attention to proper nutrition and cross-training, and that has spilled very much into dance medicine.”


Hamilton says sports medicine is older and more experienced than dance medicine. “One of the most common acute injuries in both,” he says, “is the sprained ankle. The treatment of this injury has been studied extensively in the sports medicine field.” He advises dancers with a severely sprained ankle to see a sports medicine doctor if a dance specialist is not available.


While dancer and athlete injuries may be similar, Hamilton says dancers tend to heal more slowly. This is partially due to the fact that dancers have to be 90 to 95 percent healed to get back onstage, “so it takes a lot longer to get back to that edge.”


There’s no hiding bulky bandages and braces under uniforms; dancers must look pristine, showing off clean lines, muscular backs and legs. As Dance St. Louis put it in a recent ad campaign, dance is “the most beautiful sport in the world.” The presenter partnered with the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Rams, and St. Louis Blues on visuals aimed at representing the high-powered athleticism of dance. “We were trying to make dance more available to the public so it’s not so elitist,” says Michael Uthoff, artistic and executive director of Dance St. Louis. The ads paired Julie Tice of Paul Taylor Dance Company with linebacker Chris Draft; outfielder Rick Ankiel with Emily Ramirez of BalletMet Columbus; and Mei-Hua Wang of Armitage Gone! Dance with defenseman Erik Johnson. The campaign was recognized with a Mid-America Emmy Award in 2009.


Pilobolus also got to show off their athleticism when they were hired by the National Football League to make promotional pieces for featured NFL matchups. And Fort Wayne Ballet in Indiana distributed baseball playing cards that feature their dancers as well as local baseball players with the phrase “Everybody Dances!”


And remember how excited Nigel Lythgoe was to announce on So You Think You Can Dance that this year, for the first time ever, Gatorade is featuring a dancer in its ads? Lauren Froderman, winner of this season’s SYTYCD, is featured as the sports drink’s first dance athlete, putting dancers in the same league as Usain Bolt and Derek Jeter.


Dancers aren’t just showing up in ads, they’re also performing alongside athletes. “We believe that audiences need to have a wealth of experiences with the art,” says John Michael Schert, dancer and executive director of Trey McIntyre Project. When TMP set up shop in Boise, Idaho, they were bringing contemporary ballet to an area that had little, but had plenty of sports because of the state university. They’ve built relationships with local basketball and football teams, and have sponsored the Treasure Valley Rollergirls’ season. “They help promote TMP as a member of the community,” says Schert of the teams. “We further that by performing at their events from time to time. Usually their crowds are not the type to sit in a theater and watch a dance performance. But we found they are so excited by what they see that we’re able to reach this whole other audience.”


TMP has taken it a step further by borrowing the age-old tradition of tailgating before a sporting event. “We invite audiences to experience the performance like they would a football game: They come and hang out in the parking lot with their friends and relax. That way they have a comfortable point of entry.”


ODC/Dance in San Francisco also pairs up with their athletic counterparts. For the past four years, they’ve held a competition called Toe to Toe that pits ODC dancers against University of California athletes to see who is faster, stronger, and more agile. ODC’s record is 3–1, beating out basketball players, the water polo team, and track-and-field athletes, among others. Events run the gamut from three-legged races to obstacle courses to jousting. Elizabeth Farotte Heenan of ODC, who has competed for all four years, says, “I think people were surprised the first year we won. But this year we were surprised when we won a couple of the relays against the women’s soccer team!”


Dancers have the strength, endurance, muscularity, devotion, and prowess of any sports player. And they have another dimension, too. As Hamilton says, “Dancers are athletic artists and not artistic athletes.” It’s the artistry that raises dancers up to the status of gods in Martha Graham’s eyes. After all, we aren’t just playing a game.



Emily Macel Theys, a writer based in Washington, DC, is the communications manager for the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.


Pictured: ODC dancer Elizabeth Farotte Heenan with a member of the University of California’s track-and-field team
. Photo by RJ Muna, Courtesy ODC.