I am at a loss why seemingly great athletes — those you would expect to have the keenest kinesthetic awareness — seemingly struggle on the dancefloor (I am not referring to ballroom-type dancing here…..not just shaking around on some club floor). I used to think that they were merely overly-self conscious, and this was causing their seeming stiffness. Yet, these very athletes excel precisely because they do NOT stiffen up and understand perfectly well the necessity of avoiding that, as well as preventing adrenalin surge, or coping with it in beneficial ways.

Peculiarly, the only atheletes-turned-dancers I have seen who can perform the dancing aspect gracefully are those who are boxers or very good standup fighters.

And the more I have watch this, the more evident it has become to me why (this is my hypothesis, which I am seeking feedback on here). A great ballroom dancer, like a great boxer or stand up fighter, has to have his feet under him such that if he were wearing a belt buckle, it would be slightly pointed upwards. In all other sports, be it playing shortstop, returning a tennis serve, a hockey player…..there is a certain, crouched position where the belt buckle is pointed downwards.

Yes, the best boxers, the best standup fighters almost invariably have tremendous footwork, where even their punches come from the balls of their feet (watch a slow right cross from Ali, how the ball of his right foot pivots, the heel up and turning outward, allowing that complete extension through his target). Many of these guys are often even built much like Fred Astaire, light not just in bodyweight, but seemingly light on their feet as well (though, not to the extent of Astaire, who must have been filled half with helium, the man was truly superhuman). Yet, footwork aside, it seems the angle of the belt buckle, in a range of, say, ten degrees, is a hugely discriminating factor in what permits an athlete to go from his game to the dance floor.

Russ Sears adds: 

In my opinion, there are at least 2 reasons "great athletes" are not dancers both stemming from your definiton of "great". Most of the highest paid athletes need 2 things extra-ordinary size and extremely high levels of fast twitch mucles.

The size comes at a considerable price to "grace". Extra ordinary increase in growth during teen years happen with increase muscular strength often very awkward years for even more normal sized men. It takes much more to control a large body to make delicate movements. Those needing the speed spend considerable time training for raw speed, to go with that size, not necessarily intricate steps and bends. Those needing delicate touch, likewise spend considerable time to get the hand/arms to move just so.
But perhaps more important is the fast twitch need in most of the highest paying sports leaving the "great" athlete with little endurance. Endurance comes with a more balanced slow twitch combination. A cardio taxing dance last several minutes long.

Dancers have considerable cardiovascular fitness, as do boxers. The middle distance runners I have known often are great dancers and often make great boxers and vice a versa. In the olympics note the events that last 2-5 minutes at a hard pace with no rest and you probably have some great dancers. The longer events suffer the opposite, slow twitchers can't jump but have great endurance but lack the explosive movements ability.

Anecdotally, didn't Apolo Ohno win "Dancing With The Stars" one season? 

Duncan Coker writes: 

I used to take lessons and compete in some pro/ams back in the 90s in New York, and also got to know a lot of the professionals at that time, mostly British and Russian. Ralph is right about the position of the man's belt buckle as it is quite important. The center helps create a floating style important in ballroom. Also interesting, the term swing as it applies to ballroom dance is not really about 1940s swing dancing. Rather it means to mimic the swing of a pendulum in fox trot and waltz. As the dancers are moving laterally across the floor they are also gliding up and down. Another position technique that was taught was contra body movement (CBM). It means to move the feet and legs in one direction while maintaining contact with a partner in another direction. Most professional couples start dancing in childhood, so the steps and physical attributes are ingrained early. I can see how many of these techniques would be hard to learn by even accomplished athletes in other sports later in life.

Ballroom is a strange and wonderful world. It still amazes me the tv shows are so popular, but I think it is great.

Ralph Vince writes: 


Once, in working with a biochemist-turned-programmer, and talking about my pathetically slow running, the Chinaman, the biochemist (who was no runner, not the slightest athletic propensity whatsoever) told me that age, weight, and cellular mitochondria were the limiting factors. The only one I could really change was my weight, in order to get faster.

Now, I don't believe that entirely, because that would mean that whatever training I did only benefited by whatever weight I took off, and clearly there are 02 factors that you can train for, etc. But he did point out that I am not going to cut my average mile time in half — a valid point. He then mentioned that in all creatures, speed is a function of how much mitochondria is in one's cells, with, say, a cheetah having a great deal of it, human beings, in differing degrees, of course, possessing far less.

Now, this has nothing to do with Fred Astaire's ability to beat the living daylight's out of most thugs (I am convinced a man with his feet and coordination could have done that handily, and I say that based on the little thugs I knew in my youth who were physically disposed in similar though far less amazing ways) but I would like to know your take on that given your background in the world of running.

Russ Sears replies: 

Despite the popular assertion to the contrary you can not "be anything you want to be." relative to others. No amount of training will get a sprinter to turn into a distance runner and vice versa. I believe it was Flo Jo that after retiring from sprinting tried to become a distance runner. She was very dedicated, hired smart coaches and believed she was going to be great… but never ran a 5k faster than about 21 minutes. Now this is a decent time for the general population. Competitively this would only get her onto most high school girls cross country teams. In most teams even small schools this time would not be the best on the team. In evaluating kids to guide them into the right event to try out for in track in field I have tested for the following.

Sprinters- Fast twitch explosiveness- standing and running vertical jump relative to size. Muscle size relative to strength is important, lean muscles verses bigger more explosive. Bone size is also important.

Stalky - bigger muscles large bones, built for sprinting and short middle distance.

Lanky - Small bones, lean muscles for distance and longer middle distance. Middle distance - repeat 200 meter and 400's times. Distance VO2, max heart rate, and recovery time - Push-up and pull-up counts coordination for most field events - timed box steps up and down in patterns. Weight /Size and arm and leg strength with fairly good fast twitch relative to size for throwing. Small bones but explosive for high jumpers. Pole vaulters - coordination, explosive, stalky, fearlessness- look for trampoline and diving craziness.

You can be good at an event simply by loving it, training for it, have some core athlete talent and being in shape, but to be great you have to have several genetic factors in your favor.

Some of these factors can be changed by type of training, eating and lifestyle while young etc. But you can not completely reverse them by nurture. Most people that run regularly will see their times drop for many years. It takes about 10 years of hard cardio training to fully develop your cardio system. But your body will break down due to training before it could develop someone without the core body type and muscle types into a distance runner.

Peter Saint-Andre writes: 

Lessons for traders and investors here? Probably some folks are built for short term trading, others for long-term investing, others for building companies directly, etc…





Speak your mind

6 Comments so far

  1. steve leslie on June 28, 2012 10:44 am

    If I were to pose a question to you which athletes tend to be the best golfers.

    It is an interesting study.

    Noticing those who tend to perform the best are:

    Hockey players such as Mario Lemieux and Dan Quinn
    Baseball pitchers such as Roger Clemens,Derek Lowe, Livan Hernandez
    Football players typically quarterbacks Billy Joe Tolliver, Tony Romo, John Elway Derek Anderson.

    Surprisingly great hitters such as Ken Griffey Jr. do not tend to be able to transfer their skills to the links.

    It is left up to the reading to ascertain why these types tend to do well.

  2. steve leslie on June 29, 2012 5:51 am

    Emmitt Smith won dancing with the stars.

    I would suggest a few things you make an assumption that athletes do not make good ballroom dancers. But this is first an extremely subjective statement. How many athletes do you know who competed at the dancing competitions. What is your sample pool or are you merely using anecdotal evidence.

    Second point. How many athletes actually have ever learned ballroom dancing. For example there was a time when baseball was an all white man’s game. Then Jackie Robinson came along and the black man was inculcated into the sport. Now the sport is proliferated with players from The DR. Puerto Rico Venezuela and other latin countries and throughout Central America and the Islands. Basketball today at the professional is dominated by black men and European men.

    Third point. There may be a cultural bias against athletes competing in ballroom dancing a prejudice a stigma if you will. When I was a boy nearly 40 years ago, none of my peers would even think of ballroom dancing. I find it very hard to believe that a boy from East LA or South Central or Harlem or anywhere USA when asked what do you want to do when you grow up they would list ballroom dancing over basketball, or football as an option.

    Finally, You list high twitch muscles as necessary to compete in. I can think of basketball players such as Michael Jordan Lebron James, Kobe Bryant Michael Durant as athletes with high twitch muscles. They would probably make excellent dancers if they actually were trained and practiced.

  3. Jeff Watson on June 29, 2012 12:49 pm

    Bud Fowler and Moses Fleetwood Walker would disagree that Baseball was a white man’s game. http://www.nlbpa.com/history.html

    Jackie Robinson’s MLB rookie season was a full 70 years after the baseball color barrier was first broken in 1877. http://www.nlbpa.com/fowler__john_w__-_bud.html

    Just a shame that the majors made sure that blacks were out of baseball by the late 1880’s.

  4. alex parkhurst on June 29, 2012 9:08 pm

    1) One speedskater: Apollo Anton Ohno and one figure skater won “Dancing With The Stars”.

    2) This year a Green Bay Packer wide receiver, Donald Driver won.

    3) I have been a competitor and dance teacher for 20 years. As far as a man is concerned vs a woman learning to dance, the man should have an ability to memorize and think on his feet. There is a lot to remember. That does not mean a Harvard degree or high IQ at all. He must know his footwork, when to lead his partner and what the music is doing. Being able to choreograph on fly while social dancing helps.

    4)Forget ballroom for a minute and focus on other forms of competitive couples dancing like latin, swing and country. I know those worlds extremely well. There is NO body type or anything else that guarantees a great dancer. I mean ZIP. I have seen it all and only ballroom people seem to look like they came out central casting. You don’t have to look like a ballroom dancer to be a great dancer. Their judges just like them that way. Nobody else gives a damn.

    5) Don’t believe me. Go on “Youtube” for a day and google any non-ballroom dance comp and you will see. Overweight, short, tall, gangly, and so forth. It doesn’t matter at all. Slow twitch, fast twitch doesn’t matter either. Nothing does but desire and an ability to learn dancing.

    6) End of story

  5. steve leslie on June 30, 2012 3:45 am

    To address Jeff Watson of course I was referring to Major League Baseball generally considered a racist organization. After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier MLB didn’t exactly open their doors and accept the notion of allowing the black man the opportunity to play the game. It took years for that to happen.

    You could also say these comments:
    White Men make the best swimmers
    White Males make the best hockey players
    White Men make the best golfers.
    White Men make the best rowers.
    White Men make the best polo players.
    White men make the best skiers and rodeo cowboys. and so on and so on.

    Possible reasons why:
    Black Men do not have access to swimming pools as much as white men do.
    Hockey is very expensive to play and there are not many hockey rinks in East LA or South Central.
    Golf is run by racist white men at such esteemed country clubs as Augusta National and Muscle Shoals Alabama

    In fact there was a time that a black man was seen as unfit to be a quarterback. It was too complicated for them to be good at. Doug Williams changed that thinking pretty much after winning a Super Bowl Ring.

    I would point out that the Klitchko brothers would probably make terrible dancers. And I have a very hard time visualizing Jake Lamotta performing a waltz. However watching Sugar Ray Robinson jump rope is poetry in motion. He would have made a terrific dancer as would Oscar De La Hoya.

    I dont know if this quote applies here but I will include it nonetheless.

    “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” ― Albert Einstein

  6. vic on July 1, 2012 8:46 am

    one believes there is a dominant gene for great dancing.Artie, my father was a great dancer. the kind that all in a room would stop and circle around to watch. i am the worlds worst. I took lessons for seveal years from Yuval Hod, who won the world’s swing championships 5 years , even a man of faith from Israel with judges from the Mideast ( so he had to be 10 times better to win). i couldnt get it. but my kids are great. galt was the best dancer for american dance machine and would have been a great star had not the founder passe awa. now her daughter Magnolia has the gene. vic


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