More than 50 years ago, an unlikely pair of legends appeared on screen together: Hollywood hoofer Gene Kelly and quarterback great Johnny Unitas.
It was 1958, and the venue was an episode of Omnibus, a television series that showcased science, the arts, and the humanities. Host Alistair Cooke had invited Kelly to do an episode about the relationship between sports and dance, and Kelly, whose entire dance philosophy was based on athleticism, readily accepted. The result was Dancing: A Man’s Game, in which Kelly used a split screen to translate an athlete’s movement on one side into a dance movement on the other.
Gene Kelly tap danced alongside boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, soft-shoed with figure skater Dick Button, turned the motion of Mickey Mantle catching a baseball into a powerful leap, and translated a pass from Unitas into a sweeping lunge. According to biographer Clive Hirschhorn, “No movement, Gene insisted, was more balletic than Johnny Unitas fading back to throw a pass.”
Kelly himself was no stranger to sports. A notoriously competitive perfectionist, he often hosted “friendly” games of volleyball or touch football for friends and family. He can even be indirectly credited for the relaunch of fellow dancer Fred Astaire’s career, when he broke his ankle playing volleyball and his starring role in Easter Parade subsequently went to the previously retired Astaire.
“The only difference between sport and dancing is that one is competitive and one is creative,” Kelly asserted in his biography. Is it no wonder, then, that so many football players have recently leapt from the gridrion to the ballroom on Dancing with the Stars?
To date, nine football players have competed on Dancing with the Stars — Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Jason Taylor, Warren Sapp, Lawrence Taylor, Michael Irvin, Chad Ochocinco, Kurt Warner, and Hines Ward — and two of them (Smith and Ward) have won the Mirror Ball Trophy. Just as Kelly had advocated years before, they were able to successfully apply the strength, discipline, and rhythm from their football days to floating effortlessly across the dance floor in a tux.
Gene Kelly would be proud. He knew back in the Fifties what Dancing with the Stars shows us today: that real men can dance.