GENE KELLY … LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD FROM THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE, 1985 … AWARDED THE L‰GION D’HONNEUR BY THE FRENCH GOVERNMENT, 1960 … APPEARED IN THE FILMS AN AMERICAN IN PARIS AND SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, AMONG MANY OTHERS … HOLLYWOOD DIRECTOR AND PRODUCER … BROADWAY AND HOLLYWOOD DANCER, ACTOR, AND SINGER The man who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely the one who dropped it. L OU HOLTZ, legendary college football coach 60 IT’S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH ALVIN YUDOFF, AUTHOR OF LIFE OF DANCE AND DREAMS Gene Kelly was not only a great athlete but also a sports nut. He had a theory on dance that the dancer should approach it as an athlete. Growing up a poor Catholic boy in Pittsburgh, he dreamed of playing shortstop for the Pirates. But what he really loved was hockey. Had there been more than a handful of teams in the NHL at the time he grew up, he might have had a shot as a pro. Kelly’s mom was very ambitious and used to clean houses so his sisters could take dance classes. Gene walked them to class, to make sure they got there on time and safely.
As the story goes, he was sitting, watching class, and he decided to hop up and dance up a storm. Before that, it was thought to be a sissy thing to do, but after trying it, he was hooked. He was a small but tough Irish kid, bright in school and great at all sports, but the idea of dancing had not occurred to him. Of course, back then there weren’t organized leagues to play in. Instead, he played in pickup games in backyards and ball fields. Soon he and his sisters started doing some shows, and people began to notice. There was a lot of talk about this tough, good-looking street kid who danced with a muscularity about him. They saw that he brought something different to dance. He always thought of it as a sport and approached it the same way. No doubt, that swagger and physicality he learned in sports created his superstardom in dance. On his movie sets, Gene was known to put together all kinds of games, from softball to volleyball. Everyone had to play. He felt it bonded them together and broke up the boredom. One day he went for a ball on the volleyball court and broke his ankle. By that time, Fred Astaire had been in semiretirement, but Gene called him in to fill in for him on the movie he was rehearsing with Judy Garland.
He did it, and it sparked something in Fred and he danced for years after that. (The film was Easter Parade.) GENE KELLY 61 TIM KELLY ON HIS FATHER: He thought dance was a real sport and compared the moves on the field to anything on stage. Lynn Swann was his favorite football player because he loved the body control Swann showed. Dad always believed he was a better hockey player than dancer. His dad used to ice over the backyard and he and his brother used to play ice hockey all the time. My dad was also a gymnast. Even when he was sixty-five he could sit in a chair, pull his legs up, and go into a handstand. He retired when he did because he didn’t think people wanted to see old boxers or dancers past their prime. He felt like an athleteyou have your time, then you’re done. What made retirement easier for him was that he loved choreographing shows and he was quite good at it. My dad loved testing himself and just competing. It wasn’t all about winning with him, it was about doing everything he could to win.
I watched him play tennis and I didn’t think he even knew the rules. Somehow he’d figure these games out, and he ended being an excellent player who used his head. SELLING HIS SPORT Gene and his brother got into a lot of fights. Later, when he started taking dance classes, they got into more fights. That’s why he wanted dance to be accepted as a sport. He wasn’t into the top hat kind of thing that Fred Astaire was. He wanted everybody to know he could dance, but he did it without compromising himself. Later, he would become friends with some of the biggest names in sports, including Mickey Mantle.
SUCCESS WITHOUT SPORTS It’s impossible to separate sports from Gene and his success in dance. He was great at any sport he tried, and I can’t imagine him being the person he was without sports. If he didn’t find the game, I have a hunch the game would have found him. MY WRAP Sports helped the great Gene Kelly create a whole new brand of dance. He was a masculine, muscular guy who made dance cool for a whole generation of 62 IT’S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME kids and parents. He also seemed to be a guy who would be honest with himself about his skills. If he thought he would have been a better hockey player than dancer, I’ll trust his judgment. I’m sure he made the right choice, though, because very rarely do dancers lose teeth or get tossed over the boards from behind. GENE KELLY
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