The Pittsburgh Steelers started the trend when Lynn Swann, Hall of Fall wide receiver, started taking ballet, tap and jazz dance classes in the 1970’s. Philadelphia Eagles jumped on the bandwagon with Randall Cunningham taking ballet to help recover from injuries. Teams like Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals have hoisted players into the spotlight of “Dancing with the Stars.” Now, the Wilkes Colonels are stepping onto the dance floor.
This semester, nine football players have decided to show off their skills in introductory dance. Harry Reese, criminology senior who plays defensive line, decided to take the class to increase his dance skills.
“I took it because I figured it would be a great opportunity to learn some new moves,” Reese said.
Athletes like Reese may have noticed the prominence of dancing athletes in media. Athletes have swept the floor in the show “Dancing with the Stars” by not only participating, but often winning the dance competition. Totalprosports.com stated that even though only 20 percent of “Dancing with the Stars” contestants have been athletes, they have won 50 percent of the 12 seasons.
This type of success may have helped remove the stereotypes about football players taking dance. Senior business administration major and senior center Ben Webb said many of his fellow classmates in dance were surprised in the beginning at having footballers in the class.
“They were definitely a little skeptical, but no one really knew what was going on. But after a few classes, they kind of warmed up to us,” Webb said.
Zach Tivald, senior physical therapy and running back, agrees with this observation. Tivald, who many of the other footballers call the “shining star” out of the bunch, was in a jazz recital last year and considers the athletes to be dedicated to the work.
“I think they thought we would just fool around, but we’re serious about it,” Tivald said.
Ryan Baicher, senior business administration major and offensive lineman, described their mentality as a “Tuxedo T -shirt,” part classy and part goofy. Despite their dedication, they still manage to fit in their fair share of fooling around in the class. Webb describes a typical class day to be full of antics.
“There is another class with 4 underclassmen. Baicher always goes off on his little dancing tangents, or like sings to the song,” Webb said. “(Josh) Brito always tries doing handstands, it never works.”
The players had created a reputation for themselves with the professor, Kris Cross, of being loud and rowdy in class. Cross explained that the dance culture is supposed to be quiet, but Webb said that “quiet” doesn’t exactly describe him and his fellow athletes.
“The teacher puts up with a lot of it. I guess dance is supposed to be quiet. She loves us, I think,” Webb said.
Cross said that this ruckus is a part of the sport training and culture, especially in football.
“The sports culture is all about rah-rah, picking up the team, boosting them up, “go!” you know, testosterone and all that,” She said.
However, Cross said this does not translate as well in the quiet dance studio. She said the men are rowdy every day during class, goofing off and cheering teammates on.
“These guys literally cannot shut up,” Cross said. “I’m always on their case. They work hard, they do good stuff, but it’s like ‘shut up.’”
While Cross is sometimes annoyed by the ruckus, she appreciates the motivation that the football players and all athletes bring to her class.
“What I like in return is athletes have a very strong work ethic,” Cross said, “Because they understand that you don’t get better if you don’t practice, and you don’t get it if you stay home and read about it.”
She also appreciates the humor these players bring to the class in their rowdiness.
“We are downright laughing out loud because they are so funny,” Cross said.
Conversely, the players state that part of the reason they have enjoyed their dance experience is their interaction with Cross, as they said she is a “sweetheart” and “the best.”
Cross said the typical football player has some obstacles to overcome because of their body build. She explained that footballers typically have big, bulky muscles, compared to the long, lean muscles of a dancer, and this can make some dance aspect much more difficult.
“It really is hard for them,” Cross said, “And some of the stuff they will never get because the muscles are just too bulky.”
To overcome this, Cross suggests that athletes stretch every day to lengthen muscles.
Building leaner muscles is just one of the benefits athletes can gain from taking dance. Cross feels that dance helps to set up a flow through the body, which easily translates to performance on the field.
“I think when athletes learn to move to music there’s a natural kind of flow that comes out of the body,” Cross said.
Other benefits include coordination, which Cross said helps athletes to play the game with their whole body, flexibility and balance.
One outcome that has surprising benefits to dancing athletes is the strengthening of feet. Cross said there are simple exercises to strengthen the often-neglected feet muscles.
“The stronger your feet are the higher you can jump, the faster you can run – there’s several muscle groups in the feet that we just don’t train as a culture,” Cross said.
Webb said he has noticed a difference in his game performance since he’s been taking the class, as his muscles are looser.
“It definitely keeps us stretched out,” Webb said. “We’re a lot looser with it. When we did ballet, she would stretch us before we went out to practice.”
Cross said that the football coach at her college, Ohio State University, recognized these benefits to his players when she was a student in the 70’s. The coach, Woody Hayes, would make the team members summer ballet classes to improve their game.
“So they would come in, and they looked horrible,” Cross said. “They were so funny, but he made them take ballet all summer.”
Cross believes this technique of athletes incorporating dance into their training is going to continue, especially on the professional level.
“I’m pretty sure in the pro world, it’s here to stay,” Cross said. “They’re going to take dance classes.”