Athletes take the spotlight

By Marc Katz

You might say I had three surprises recently when I was at the Schuster Center for some Dayton Arts Alliance event.
Yeah, that was the first surprise, that I was there. Obviously, the other person in the house is the big arts fan and, you know, the arts in moderation isn’t harmful
to your health.
The second surprise, is that I have a passing acquaintance with Karen Russo Burke, the artistic director of the Dayton Ballet. That’s right, I know her and philharmonic director Neal Gittleman, again, because of that other person in my home. I also know Joey Votto and Earle Bruce. Imagine that unlikely name-dropping two-pair.
But the really big surprise is that I was looking at a photo of Jose Altuve of Houston on my phone after the Astros won the World Series. Astros assistant hitting coach, Alonzo Powell (he’s head hitting coach of San Francisco now), sent it to me.
Russo Burke took one look and said, “Oh, that’s Altuve.”
I’m not sure I would have recognized Altuve before the playoffs and World Series, even though he has been an American League hitting star for a few years. And yet, the artistic director of the Dayton Ballet knew him instantly.
And then it hit me. Sports and dance. The World Series and Swan Lake. Maybe it’s not so different.
And maybe some of these arts people know more about sports than I know about ballet. Russo Burke grew up in New Jersey and has attended Yankees games, has been to the Louisville Bat Factory, and some day hopes to visit every major league ball park.
She insists she’s not unusual, introducing me to two of her 19 company dancers—Paul Gilliam and Daniel Rodriguez—who tried not to be offended when I suggested they probably weren’t as attracted to sports as someone like me, who eats and watches sports about the same amount of time each day.
Gilliam is from Oklahoma and follows the Sooners. Rodriguez is from New York and was thrilled when the Giants fired coach Ben McAdoo after their disappointing season.
“We’re normal people,” Rodriguez said. “I grew up in America. I grew up in New York. I love the Giants.”
“I played sports when I was younger, but I wasn’t great. I didn’t commit to it. I played on a baseball team that went 0-10. We lost every game.”
Rodriguez was the shortstop on that team, so he must have been a good athlete, even on a bad team.
“I guess I was athletic enough to be out there, but I wasn’t very good,” he said.
He’ll be in the Dayton Ballet’s production of Swan Lake, Mar. 9-11, at the Schuster Center, as Will Gilliam.
Gilliam had already participated in track and field, and football (and some baseball and basketball) when he followed a cheerleader to a dance class when he was 14.
The cheerleader is gone, but the dance part remains. Gilliam has been part of the Dayton company since 2003.
“In Oklahoma, sports is ingrained in you,” Gilliam said. “The high jump in track obviously helps dance, and I wasn’t large enough to be a football player.”
Well, try to watch a sporting event and say there aren’t similarities to ballet.
Even I know that.
Certainly on the training end it isn’t so different. What patrons usually see is the finished product, the game, the ballet, the philharmonic, the opera. Ballet matches the regimen of sports more than the other arts’ forms.
To get ready for Swan Lake, Russo Burke has had her company go through more than a month of six-day-a-week training, extending from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
“It is exhausting,” Russo Burke said. “This is our job. When they (the dancers) leave here, they go to the gym. They’re not done when they leave here by any means.”
They don’t spend all their spare time just talking about arts-related subjects, either.
“We have an avid Jacksonville (Jaguars) fan who was just destroyed (when New England came from behind to beat the Jaguars in the NFL playoffs),” Russo Burke said. “We have another dancer who has a pair of warmers with Yankees stripes. We have fantasy football league players.”
And, they have players, or at least, former players, such as Gilliam and Rodriguez.
“I got into dance when I was 11, 12, and my school introduced dance to kids in New York,” Rodriguez said. “I became interested at the same time I was watching the Giants every Sunday with my dad. My family never went to shows until I got to high school.”
Gilliam drifts mainly to football as well.
“We have no pro team in Oklahoma (putting aside the NBA’s Thunder, which were not yet in Oklahoma City when he was growing up),” Gilliam said. “I root for (the University of) Oklahoma and I like the San Francisco 49ers. That was the first Super Bowl I watched, the one where they beat the Bengals.”
Neither dancer thought much of New England, so now that the season is finished and the Patriots have been put down, it’s time for Swan Lake.
The Super Bowl and Swan Lake. Sounds like a match.

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Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at

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