Toronto Argonaut slotback Andre Durie spiced up his off-season workout routine this year. Instead of hitting the weights on Thursdays, the five-foot-nine-inch 192-lb. athlete took salsa lessons at Toronto’s Spanish Centre. “It’s a lot of hip work, a lot of foot work, and it helps with coordination,” says Durie, who was also looking to get a bit of his “rhythm” back after being sidelined by a serious knee injury. Turns out, the dance lessons connected more to his day job than expected. For one thing, Durie found that the signals sent between him and his dance partner—there are certain cues to let her know which way he was going to spin her, for instance—were much like those shared between a couple of receivers working together on a passing route. Durie also credits his gridiron training for making it easier to pick up some of the quicker, complicated footwork in the studio. “We’re always doing different drills with our feet [at football practice],” says Durie, 28. “So it’s almost second nature.”
Maybe that’s why no other sport has been as well represented on Dancing with the Stars as football. Over the years, the show has featured a basketball player, a handful of Olympians, and a couple of boxers, but when season nine debuts on ABC and CTV on Sept. 21, former Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin will be the sixth pro football player to trade his cleats for a pair of dancing shoes. But the hall-of-fame receiver better have his game face on if he hopes to leave a bigger mark than the gridiron greats who have preceded him. Running back Emmitt Smith, Irvin’s former teammate and Durie’s boyhood hero, was the big winner of season three. And San Francisco 49ers receiver Jerry Rice (season two) and Miami Dolphins linebacker Jason Taylor (season six) waltzed and cha-chaed their way to second-place finishes. So did Warren Sapp, a 300-lb. all-pro lineman, who earned the respect of the judges (one said the long-time Tampa Bay Buccaneer moved like a “Lamborghini taking on the freeway”) and the voting audience by exhibiting the grace of a man literally half his size.
“People think guys on the line have to be really big and strong, and they do, but the biggest thing is their ability to move their feet efficiently in a small space and get in the right position,” says Ken Croner, a performance specialist who trains some of the game’s best, including Brett Farve and Matt Hasselbeck. That dozens of pro players have taken dance lessons—often at the urging of their coaches—to improve their game-day performance is well-documented. The most famous pro with twinkle toes was Pittsburgh Steelers legend Lynn Swann, dubbed “the Baryshnikov of football” for his gracefulness, a product of having taken ballet, tap and jazz classes from the age of eight. But the success of ex-pros on Dancing with the Stars seems to indicate something a little different: that football skills and drills may actually help make someone a better dancer.
Though he’s never recommended that a client take dance lessons, Croner, who works with Tempe, Ariz.-based Athletes’ Performance, isn’t surprised that so many gridiron greats shift smoothly from the playing field to the dance floor. “Football is predicated by acceleration and deceleration, starting and stopping,” he says. “A wide receiver never gets off the line and runs straight down the field. He’s cutting, he’s stopping, he’s starting. Even when a running back gets through the line, he has to cut, he has to make angles. With dance, it’s the same thing: starting, stopping, accelerating and being under control.” But isn’t the same expected of athletes in many other sports, like basketball? “Yeah, but to a different degree,” says Croner. “In basketball, the court is limited, you’re going up and down, up and down. Football is chaotic. Dance is chaotic, as well. You’re swinging your partner, doing all this crazy stuff.”
There are, say experts, quite a few similarities. Much like dancing, football is all about agility and timing. And even the biggest lugs on the field are light on their feet and have a low centre of gravity, which results in better balance and helps with certain dance moves. As well, football, like dance, which often involves a combination of highly complicated steps, requires the memorizing, and then executing, of a series of elaborate routes. “Football players are very good at following and implementing instructions,” says Croner. “These guys are trained to grasp a concept, to work as hard as they can at that concept, and because they’re so athletic, pick it up faster than most.”
Anna Trebunskaya, the professional dancer paired with Jerry Rice during season two of Dancing with the Stars, was amazed at her hall-of-fame partner’s ability to focus on a particular move until he got it right. “It was as if nothing else existed,” she says. While some of the show’s other “stars” stayed focused for 20 minutes at a time during rehearsal, Rice would only take a short break every hour or so. “If we had three hours of practice,” says Trebunskaya, “it was almost three hours of dancing.” Rice took Trebunskaya to a 49ers practice one day to give her an idea of the world he was coming from. After seeing the quickness required on the practice field, including the drill in which players have to run through tires, Trebunskaya incorporated some of the moves into their jive, quickstep and cha-cha. Playing to his strengths and a sense of timing and rhythm he’s accustomed to worked to their advantage. His footwork was “clean and precise,” she says, and he moved effortlessly on the dance floor, covering all kinds of distance. Much like any given Sunday back in his playing days, when he was, arguably, the most dangerous offensive weapon in football.
But not everything came naturally—at least not right away. Rice was never much of a showboat on the field, and was forced to work on his stage presence in the early rounds of the competition. “He told me,” says Trebunskaya, “ ‘as a football player, you don’t have to smile, you don’t have to play for the audience.’ ” Another obstacle related to his posture. To properly capture ballroom, says Trebunskaya, a dancer must stand as erect as possible, which is the complete opposite of the crouch position that a wide receiver usually starts in. But football players have a natural advantage when faced with a challenge: a level of determination and competitiveness that is tough for a former boy-band member or screen star to match.
Officially, dancing became part of professional football on Nov. 18, 1973. That’s when the Kansas City Chiefs’ Elmo Wright caught a touchdown pass against the Houston Oilers and, thanks to a bit of high-stepping in the end zone, earned the distinction of being the first player to perform a touchdown dance in a pro game. Touchdown celebrations have become increasingly elaborate since then, but the most famous of them all is still “The Ickey Shuffle.” Performed by the Cincinnati Bengals’ Ickey Woods during his 1988 rookie campaign, the simple moves—a little shift to the right, a little shift to the left, three hops to the right, before spiking the ball—set off a dance craze, of sorts, on playgrounds across North America.
None of the pro players who have appeared on Dancing with the Stars was particularly known for performing a choreographed dance routine after scoring six. The Argos’ salsa-dancing slotback doesn’t bother with one either. “I try to make it like I’ve been there before,” says Durie, who was a pretty good breakdancer back in his teenage days in Mississauga, Ont. For now, Durie has put his dancing shoes away. But once the Boatmen wrap things up this fall, he plans to dust them off in the hopes of adding the tango and the merengue to his repertoire. He says he’d even consider starring on a dance-based reality TV series if the opportunity arose at the right time. This, despite the ribbing he took from his teammates earlier this year after they learned about the dance lessons. “I got heckled a little bit,” laughs Durie. “But every time I do something good on the field I tell them that maybe they should think about taking up salsa.”