Dance & Football are Basically the Same Thing
(This is not what I'm talking about. Even though I once owned this shirt.)
I watch football every week: Often three or four games, which is, like...a part-time job (whoa). In case that wasn’t enough, I’ve been watching sports documentaries, listening to sports podcasts, reading about sports…I really like football, is all I'm trying to say.
Recently I picked up a book called Blood, Sweat and Chalk, which felt… well, it felt like a dance history book.
At its heart, football is one person telling a bunch of other people how to move their bodies in space and time. It's about creative problem solving and physical intelligence. It doesn't exist once it's over, which means if you didn't see this moment when it happened, then you will never see it the way we did the day of the game:
Replace "football" with "dance" and "game" with "performance", and you'll see that football is dance. But football makes a ton of money and has millions of fans. Most people I meet will never see me dance or even understand what it is I do as a dancer and choreographer. I want to look at how football got where it is and what lessons dancers & choreographers could take from the rampant success of the NFL.
Football, a hundred years ago, was a motley affair. Teams dissolved mid-season when funding ran out. The schedules were messy, based more on where they could find a team to play than on any sort of rigid 16-game season. Some people were really into football and wanted it to exist, even though most people really didn't care about football. Or even know about it. Teams got funding. The NFL was formed in 1920. Fans & athletes & coaches started proselytizing and collecting and solidifying. They wrote about plays and strategies, talked about execution and technique and intangibles. Over time, a lot of people spent a lot of time and money slowly converting the original game into a commercially viable activity, constantly thinking and planning how to expand their reach. More kids learning football, more people watching. The modern NFL isn’t a billion-dollar industry because God made it that way, or because of some natural progression to the most perfect & platonic version of sport. It's because people worked their asses off to make a spectacle that people wanted to watch.
Because of the enormous industrial system surrounding the modern NFL, the billions of dollars and millions of fans, the entrenched media, the school systems recruiting talented young nobodies, the stadium-funding fiascos, the overall culture of trucks and violence and points, the utter lack of ambiguity, it's easy to forget where it came from. It's easy to feel embittered. It's easy to feel like the NFL is on the farthest end of the spectrum from art. And it is.
But none of that is actually football. Football is in the brains and bodies of the players and coaches. It exists for sixty minutes once a week, sixteen weeks a year.
Dance could be like football, couldn’t it? People have been writing about the execution of the single wing for the past century. They could write about the West Coast vs. Midwestern somatic improvisation scenes, and in fact, some people are doing this, but I want more. I don’t blame the writers and scholars. I mean, look at this great piece by Lightsey Darst. Can you imagine if she had a daily column?! If there were a Best American Dance Writing anthology that came out yearly?! If every show in Minneapolis were reviewed?
What if you had television coverage of the highlights, because every show had great documentation? Contrary to popular opinion, dance actually can be put on tv well enough. Here’s a secret: Football also sucks when someone in the stands records it on a shitty hand-held camcorder. So they don’t do that and pretend it’s enough. They use iso cameras and HD, which track the stars closely to catch the details, the awkwardly jiggling faces, the beauty, the agony et al. Check out Pina 3D and you’ll sometimes feel like maybe you really are there with the dancers, the sweat is real, the faces are real. It’s almost better than the real thing in some ways. You are closer than it’s humanly possible to be without getting creamed by a linebacker/dancer.
Dance could have that. I sound like I think we’re just being lazy, but we’re not. We need money to get this kind of equipment, these skills. We need rich friends. Watch Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? and you'll see billionaires who fund football teams...because they want to. Because they love football (or because they love money. Or both). Once you get the machine started, the right equipment and standards increase the audience & the desire to watch, ticket prices, all around support. Some companies have that support. What if everybody could have dance videos like On the Boards produces? Like Pina 3D?
Sports are, in some ways, easy. There are clear divisions and goals. The leagues have worked to reduce any strangeness, but it’s there if you look. Artists, on the other hand, tend to work away from clear divisions and goals (though not away from clarity or purpose). I’m tired of giving everyone a pass: Oh, who the fuck cares, the American people are drugged potatoes trying to make it through the day. Nobody cares about dance anyway.
Bullshit. Dancing with the Stars is huge. So You Think You Can Dance is huge. There are millions of competition dancers out there who have no fucking clue that there is more to dance than points & judges, and once they leave high school or college, they put dance behind them as if it were Girl Scouts. I was very nearly one of them, until I stumbled across Judith Howard rehearsing Ophelia and realized: Holy shit. There is something more than jazz hands here. And here we all are, making really great work, and not convincing everyone in the world to come see it because we, somewhere in our hearts, don't think they care. How awful and sad. The NFL started in the Midwest. It can be done here as well as anywhere.
Anyway, enjoy the hell out of the Superbowl! I will, even though I could care less about Superbowl XLIV: The Boring Version of Superbowl XVII. If you’re destined to go to a Superbowl party and don’t even know what a football is, this piece at the Rumpus will give you all sorts of feel-good things to think about during the game so you don’t kill anybody when you have to watch the 28th truck commercial.