Ed Bouchette’s Monday story about Steve McLendon, the Steelers’ 6-foot-4-inch, 320-pound raging bull of a nose tackle, who uses ballet training to improve his fitness and agility, certainly paints a picture.
As Bouchette wrote, football players have used ballet for decades as an alternative training method, and the most famous early example was another Steeler: Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann.
If Swann was said to have the grace of a dancer while on the football field – think of his game MVP-earning catches against Dallas in Super Bowl X – that wasn’t merely a metaphor. He said he’d studied tap, jazz and modern dance for 14 years while growing up in Los Angeles. NFL Films once dubbed him “Baryshnikov in cleats” and he once taught Mr. Rogers about ballet.
An article in The Pittsburgh Press on June 15, 1980, previewed an ABC special called “Omnibus” (a revival of a 1950s cultural arts program of the same name), which featured Swann dancing with Peter Martins of the New York City ballet in a piece called “Dance and the Wide Receiver” choreographed by dance luminary Twyla Tharp. He also tap-danced with legendary Pittsburgh native Gene Kelly.
According to The Pittsburgh Press, “Although he admits wanting to dance ‘like Gene Kelly or Sammy Davis Jr.,’ Swann says, ‘I never saw myself in ballet.’ He found the translation of football plays to ballet exhilarating.”
“Peter acts as the defense and I’m the offense,” he explained. “And then there’s Twyla, who’s another offensive player. I wish I had to go against Twyla every afternoon. Of course, I would be a lot more gentle on her.”
“Without the encumbrance of gridiron gear, Swann found he could leap higher and move better.”
Swann did note one key difference between the two: “… there isn’t the immediate expectation of being hit by someone …”