The Last Waltz

The best ballroom dancer in the NFL recently called a press conference to discuss his future with the Miami Dolphins. Jason Taylor, the 33-year-old All-Pro defensive end and 2006 NFL Defensive Man of the Year—and a recent finalist on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars”—choreographed his latest public appearance with care. He told reporters that he wants to “win in 08.” He went on to say that he’d be happy to stay with Miami, but at the same time he would understand if the Dolphins chose to trade him away: “I’ve tried to give the Dolphins the opportunity, if they wanted to do something and move me, then I was OK with that. If they can get value for me, then do that.” No undue sentiment, no hard feelings, no trace of the bitterness you might expect from an elite player who was forced to spend one of his last productive seasons with a squad of goons that went 1-15 in 2007. Imagine how it must have felt for Taylor to watch on the sidelines as his team’s offense, led by a quarterback aptly named Cleo Lemon, imploded time after time after time.

Taylor didn’t make a habit of publicly complaining about the performance of his teammates, though, and he didn’t start rumors about his desire to be traded. While he was almost certainly demoralized by the Dolphins’ apocalyptic season, he played on and quietly made arrangements to appear in the off-season on “Dancing With the Stars,” an episodic televised dance competition that has featured other NFL greats (Jerry Rice, Emmett Smith) but never a still-active pro player, and never before a 6’6” defensive end.

Taylor, it turned out, was a talented formal dancer. He was especially good at the genres that required strength and precise footwork—the tango, the waltz. His partner Edyta Sliwinska taught him the steps, trained with him for long hours every week, and even helped him put together a paso doble dance to the pre-Hank Williams Jr “Monday Night Football” theme music. Sliwinska, whose last name perfectly evokes the slinky outfits female dancers tend to wear in ballroom dancing competitions, found ways to emphasize Taylor’s strengths (and her own spray-tanned midriff) and the pair made a legitimate run at the title.

Taylor wrote a couple columns about his “Dancing with the Stars” experience for the online version of ESPN the Magazine. These columns—like the press conference Taylor held after losing the competition to figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi—suggest that Taylor is perfectly in control of his own image and ambitions. “The dancing shoes… took some getting used to—they’re thin, flimsy light things, with no support,” Taylor wrote after his first week on DWTS. “My feet were killing me for that first week and a half. Then again, everything was killing me. Right now, I’m in, by far, the best shape I’ve been in in March in my career.” Note the way Taylor takes the questionable career move (lineman tries to tango) and spins it into a story about a punishing off-season workout routine.

Taylor managed his masculinity during the show’s run with similar savvy. He avoided the outright homophobia that the NFL tacitly endorses (consider the commentary of Howie Long or Boomer Esiason). At the same time, though, Taylor made it clear that ballroom dancing’s representations of masculinity were foreign and often confusing to him. “Supposedly, all dancers wear [onesies] to keep their shirts in, so you don’t look like a mess… I’m going to call the Dolphins equipment guy to get some two-way tape or something, maybe sew my shirt to my pants… But I’m not putting on a onesie.” The dances that Taylor struggled with were Latin dances like the mambo, that required him to do things with his pelvis that were arguably feminine. (The flimsy code word he and his partner Sliwinska used to describe these dances was “flamboyant.”)

One of the great pleasures of watching Taylor’s primetime ballroom adventure was the challenge of keeping two contradictory images in mind at once: Taylor’s fluid dance-floor footwork juxtaposed with the utter disbelief of the new Executive VP of the Dolphins, Bill Parcells. Rumor had it that Parcells snubbed Taylor after finding out about DWTS, but the Big Tuna has torn a page out of Taylor’s playbook and shown uncharacteristic restraint. When the Associated Press asked if Parcells still wanted Taylor on the team, he replied, “Why wouldn’t you want one of the very best players?” As if having a star defensive lineman miss mini-camp for pretty-boy dance competitions and Hollywood screen-tests (Taylor has announced an interest in acting) is perfectly acceptable in the Land of the Fish.

Of course it’s the blogosphere that offers the most undiluted, unselfconscious, and in many cases problematic pieces of rhetoric regarding Taylor’s career moves. Fans were able to write and post their responses to Taylor’s ESPN columns about “Dancing With the Stars”; comments ranged from admiring, semi-erotic longing (“go for it Mambo King.. whatever dance you have next week.. I know you’ll nail it”) to unimaginative gay-bashing (“Good job ‘Drill-butt Taylor’. Glad you’re finally coming out of the closet”). But the majority of fans congratulated Taylor for his success on the dance floor while reminding him that he still had work to do on the football field in the upcoming season. Judging from these comments, we may be on the verge of an era that is not only post-race in its politics, but also post-gender in its sports fanaticism. We may soon be ready for a man who can sack the quarterback and then celebrate with a nimble fox-trot.

Even more striking than this 21st-century open-mindedness, though, was the mix of appreciation and envy fans expressed in their brief notes to Taylor. A number of postings seemed familiar but jealous—as though the writers were dashing off obligatory thank-you notes to their most famous and successful friend. “Congrats on nailing the foxtrot in this first round of ballroom competition,” one fan diplomatically wrote. “I hear most people at work saying you are already as good as Emmitt Smith was when he won the title a few years ago.” If this is any indication of how and why we love star athletes, it might just suggest that we want football players to save their passion for the field not because we think dancing is too gay, or Hollywood is too phony, but because we don’t want to be shown up in too many different ways. We envy the control Taylor has over his image and his career; it’s easier to swallow if we can sum up his talents with inane phrases like “Miami Pound Machine.” We want athletes to amaze us with their physical gifts, but we don’t want them to outfox (or out-fox-trot) us.

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