On a January morning, two weeks before New Jersey hosted Super Bowl XLVIII, ballet teacher Courtney Cooke set up a combination in the form of a three-person pass play. Tomboyish with a headband around her blonde pixie cut, she positioned one pre-teen boy as quarterback in second position plié. He wore a winter beanie, gym clothes and athletic socks, and held his beginner ballet posture as best he could. “Remember, we’re using our turnout in this class,” Cooke said. Another boy in ballet slippers squatted in front of the QB clutching a foam football, while a third waited as receiver on the other side of the studio. It was the final combination of a FOOTBALLet class, part of a six-week dance program for boys ages 9–13 at Cora School for Dance in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Though she had never thrown a football before, Cooke designed the workshop in hopes of introducing a new group of athletes to ballet.
Dance and football have long shared an unlikely partnership. In the 1970s, famously graceful Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann set the trend of cross-training with dance. He openly attributed his sky-high jumping ability and body control to 14 years of jazz, tap and ballet training. (He even performed with Twyla Tharp and Peter Martins in Tharp’s Dance is a Man’s Sport, Too.) Since then, other NFL players have taken to the studio to limber up, increase their agility and build endurance.
At Cora, the idea for a football/ballet workshop came two years ago from a parent, whose 12-year-old son Matteo plays on a flag football team in addition to taking several weekly dance classes. He proved to be the perfect liaison. “Matteo’s extremely athletic but also really loves and values dance,” says Cooke. “He and his mom talked about getting his football team in the studio.” Cooke and Cora Dance director Shannon Hummel initially discussed starting an all-boys ballet class, “but the more I thought about teaching adolescent boys,” says Cooke, “the more I wanted to include sports.”
They timed the program for the flag football off-season and billed it as “a ballet workshop designed for football players, focusing on footwork, balance and strength-building.” Like all classes at the studio, FOOTBALLet operates on pay-what-you-can tuition. It’s Hummel’s goal to reach as many children as possible in the economically divided Red Hook neighborhood. During its first year, in 2013, all FOOTBALLet students came from Matteo’s flag football team.
In the first class, Cooke’s top priority was making sure the boys didn’t regret their decision to sign up for ballet. “It was about making them feel comfortable in the room with me,” she says. “I brought in images from Sports Illustrated, things that had caught my eye that resembled dance movements. Rather than approach it with the attitude, ‘I’m a dancer, and this is what we’re going to do,’ I approached it from the angle, ‘You play sports. I’m interested in sports, too.’ Immediately they were drawn in and engaged. It got a dialogue started, like, ‘I wanna do this! I wanna look like this guy!’”
Once she had their attention, Cooke used barre work as a means to an end, the essential hard work to build skills and strength before the fun part—incorporating the football into center combinations, or drills. Accompanied by a recording of pop songs adapted for piano, students perform basic barre exercises. “The barre is definitely more my place, where I teach the ballet vocabulary,” she says. She sprinkles in jumps and chassés away from the barre to diffuse the boys’ bursting energy. And she leverages students’ eagerness for center drills to keep them focused. “Let’s have some control of those arms. You’re about to have a football and that would’ve been fumble, fumble, fumble.”
To plan center work, Cooke did her research. “I looked at the drills they do in sports and deconstructed them, incorporating movements that are more appropriate for ballet class,” she says. “They’re really dance combinations, with a football added to them.”
That’s good enough for middle-school boys. They pas de chat across the floor, each manipulating a yoga block as if it were a football during port de bras. (As a cost-saving measure, there is only one foam football, and Cooke maintains control of it.)
The clear favorite, of course, is the three-person pass play, which students helped design. “They suggest different ways to approach the combinations to show what would really happen in a football game,” says Cooke. “The second half of class has been a lot more collaborative that way.”
On that January morning of the workshop, Cooke cued an upbeat Top 40 song and counted the students in, “5, 6, 7, 8.” The studio smelled more like gym class than dance, but the boys were focused on ballet. The center snapped the ball to the quarterback and the receiver performed a single, if slightly off-balance, tour in time to make the catch. The trio chasséd in a circle to rotate positions, while two more boys waited their turns at the back of the studio. “I originally didn’t anticipate making such large ‘drills,’” says Cooke. “But that has been the most fun for all of us.”
After the first workshop, some students signed up for year-round classes. Even if they didn’t, each student who attended returned for the second workshop. Since she hopes to draw in more FOOTBALLet newcomers next time, Cooke is planning for an increasingly mixed-level group. “It’s going to be a variety of skill levels and experience,” she says. “I’ll have to keep everyone involved and confident in their movement.”
No matter their abilities, Cooke is glad to welcome the athletes to class. “Dance is for everyone,” she says. “It’s just about finding the right entry point.” DT
Dancers Take the Field During College Bowl Post-Season
Behind the scenes at college bowl games, there’s a hidden dance convention going on. In December, as NCAA football players get ready for the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl and other post-season match-ups, dancers will flock to the arenas, too, but not to watch the game. Instead, they’ll be taking master classes, learning choreography and performing during halftime for crowds of thousands.
At this year’s Orange Bowl (December 28–January 1), commercial choreographer Dee Caspary will stage the halftime show. Luther Brown, Kevin Andrews and other established teachers will lead a day of master classes, as well. Dancers can take up to five classes that day. Then they spend two days in rehearsals before the game. Student travel organization Worldstrides coordinates the event, open to students ages 7–21 on dance and cheer teams.
Andrews, a former University of Wisconsin–Madison dance teacher and flash mob specialist, says he’s looking forward to working with a group of eager dancers. “They want to be there, and that’s half the battle,” he says. “I do a lot of flash mobs with people who sometimes aren’t even dancers, but as long as you have a good attitude and make it fun, it turns out wonderful.” —AM
Photos from top: by Andrea Marks; ©Thinkstock