McClatchy's America

You call that a pirouette? Football players learn ballet

South Carolina freshman wide receiver D.J. Neal rehearses various dance moves during dance appreciation class on Monday, July 27, 2015. Freshman football players are taking the class this summer.
South Carolina freshman wide receiver D.J. Neal rehearses various dance moves during dance appreciation class on Monday, July 27, 2015. Freshman football players are taking the class this summer.

Picture it: A 100-degree day, humidity oozing like syrup off a short stack, and a South Carolina assistant coach calls timeout to ask freshman offensive lineman Zack Bailey exactly what the hell he was thinking on that last missed assignment.

The 6-foot-6, 320-pound Bailey turns and answers, “The choreography in ‘The Nutcracker,’ coach. Petipa and Ivanov were masters!”

They are learning more than which way to run on Double-E Zig Out Flex, ya know.

“It’s an academic dance course,” Susan Anderson, director of USC’s Dance Program, says. “We want them to leave here with a little more culture.

“It’s all aspects of dance. We want to provide current issues, how dance relates to music, architecture, everything in the world. One day, they’ll be dads taking their children to see ‘The Nutcracker,’ and they’ll be excited to pass on their knowledge.”

Dance Appreciation is a course that an estimated 1,000 USC students take yearly. Combining the study of dance – its origins, development and implementations into past and present culture – with basic movement, students get to learn aspects of all types of dance and try a little themselves.

Gamecock athletes have warmed to the course, with Anderson counting Connor Shaw and Mike Davis among her recent pupils, as well as several members of the USC softball team. On Monday, she was instructing seven football players – Bailey, Cory Helms, Antoine Wilder, D.J. Neal, Jalen Christian, Mon Denson and Shameik Blackshear – plus basketball player Chris Silva in the studio after the group had taken a written exam.

Anderson, around 5 feet tall, was dwarfed by the athletes yet commanded the room. All meekly followed her commands as she took them through primary ballet positions.

“One … and two … ” she counted as her 40 years of experience plugged her body into autopilot. Players watched, then tried to imitate with ... differing results.

Bailey, a sequoia of a man, aced one set of steps where a dancer leaps and tucks both legs under him, lands and leaps again with legs outstretched to touch the toes. The thud as he landed had his teammates recoiling from the tremor but amazed at his agility.

Denson requested an exercise that the class was recently shown by a visiting instructor with his own football past – Marcus Alford, a former trainer under Bear Bryant at Alabama, runs Dancentre South Inc., outside Atlanta. Alford advised the players to step, leap with arms outstretched, land and leap again, and the class split into groups of twos to try.

Neal was brushing the ceiling with his fingers while Helms, an offensive lineman like Bailey, concentrated on sticking the landings. One has not truly lived until watching a 300-pound man try to plié.

Ballet has its place in football. Herschel Walker performed with the Fort Worth Ballet while he was playing for the Cowboys, and Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon credits ballet, his hobby, for keeping his knees and ankles healthy. But they each had to start at square one before they got the hang of it, and the Gamecocks are checking in at square zero.

Anderson asked her pledges to squat with knees at 45-degree angles, an act that had Christian wondering if his shorts would stretch that far. When the professor ordered each to get in first position “off the blocks,” two lined up as if they were about to run the 40.

Then there was the audience. USC was holding a dance camp on Monday, and a windowful of giggly teenage girls was pointing and laughing at these giants trying to perform the rudimentary steps. The girls were clad in professional leotards, tights and slippers.

USC’s athletes were in whatever they scrounged from the equipment room.

Yet, all enjoyed. “They’re really enthusiastic,” Anderson said. “It’s about making sure your hips are over your knees, your torso stays erect, learning flexibility. We teach them to explore their space, with their arms outstretched and diagonal. There’s so much that’s natural and we develop that aesthetic.”

Anderson was the third girl in her family and raised as an athlete, her father figuring he was never going to get that boy and teaching her about sports. That progressed into a love of dance and a stunning field of achievement in teaching it – the school had one dance course when she started and now features 85.

Athletes have been a presence. Every degree at USC requires a fine arts credit and Dance Appreciation is a fun one, even if these players have to cram it into five weeks during the summer.

“We spend very little time in the studio,” Anderson said. “They have exams, presentations, they write papers. We watch ‘Swan Lake.’ We watch ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ It helps understand injuries, with dancers vs. sports injuries, and rehabilitation and nutrition.”

Of course, there’s playtime as well – Helms and Wilder got into their stances and fired off as Neal barked the cadence, with Helms’ lateral movement and bulky frame holding Wilder up. But that was quickly ended as Anderson wanted more leaps, more lands, more ligne.

Ligne is described by the American Ballet Theatre as “the outline presented by a dancer while executing steps and poses.” It’s a sense of line where head, body, legs and arms are arranged in one pose or movement.

It’s probably what’s being discussed in the huddle when football camp starts.

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