Save the Last Dance
American folkstyle wrestling is missing out on one of the most important aspects of traditional wrestling competitions – the victory dance.
I remember sitting in the University of Virginia Wrestling room in 1999 listening to then-captain, now-coach Steve Garland and a half-dozen other wrestlers fantasize about what they would do if they ever win the NCAA championship. Almost every celebration included some use of available props, in this case ankle bands. Guys floated the idea of using them as a grenade (you’ve seen this before), others would lift them high above their head and then fall rigid to the mat like a tree in the forest. Still others had totally complicated, totally unprintable ideas they thought they’d like to express to 18k screaming fans. It was a comical moment that left an impression on me about the range of emotions and desires in the head of a post-match competitor. However, the truth is post-match victory celebrations in American folkstyle are exceedingly rare, in fact, they’re almost non-existent.
The most famous post-NCAA victory celebration might belong to Darrion Caldwell after his cow-catching, headlocking, totally improbable victory over cement-fisted Terminator Brent Metcalf in the 2009 NCAA finals. The floor routine he executed amazed both for its athleticism and its candor (you really can’t plan a full floor routine … can you?) Caldwell had scored an upset against the leader of the most hated team in college wrestling and the crowd seemed willing to give him some leeway in expressing his emotions. Of course, Metcalf had a different opinion of the celebration and ended it prematurely with his now-famous push. The incident caused a major debate among fans about the appropriate response after winning an NCAA title, a debate that seems irreconcilable.
Like most Americans I was brought up with “act like you’ve been there before,” “win with class” and similar mantras aimed at preventing individuals from inflicting further emotional trauma on their opponent. But that shouldn’t be the case in wrestling where the individual performs alone in front of thousands of people and in risking loss and humiliation is battle creates immense stress on his psyche — a stress best released in the form of a dance (maybe a jig?). But currently American competitors in all sports are chastised for celebrating these physical accomplishments, ostensibly to protect the self-confidence of the competitor. I’m not advocating for gloating at the expense of an opponent, just the option for these guys to celebrate their accomplishment in full.
In Mongolia the celebration is a long-established tradition dating back more than 800 years. Winning wrestlers sprint towards the crowd and perform a 2-3 second eagle dance, both in recognition of the eagle (a national symbol) and to draw attention to their accomplishment in winning a sometimes long, but always brutal affair. Regardless of who wins, the lower-ranking wrestler then ducks beneath the arm of the higher-ranking wrestler and is patted on the rear. At that point the winning wrestler the jogs over to the shrine (recently a flag of Mongolia) and encircles it while flapping his wings twice more. He then jogs over to a village elder sitting on the side and receives a kiss and handful of fried dough pieces to distribute as he sees fit — usually tossing them into the crowd, or towards the shrine as a show of gratitude.
By contrast American competitors are taught to keep their heads down and walk off the mat. Lame. Why not allow them to express their exultation? Display their joy within an agreed upon set of parameters? The typical NCAA champion has worked for over 15 years to achieve their goal, yet any natural impulse he might have is stymied by peer pressure to be respectful to the loser. To make matters worse they then have to go explain these emotions to Quint “Lax” Kessenich. In some ways this type of PR-driven false modesty is as American as diabetes, but we shouldn’t keep accepting it full-ladle. Now is as good a time as any to contribute ideas on how to allow these competitors a few moments to celebrate; yes, maybe even dance.
Despite our lack of dancing, Americans aren’t without our own celebratory traditions. Hugging your coach after a significant win is commonplace (I did this after my biggest wrestling achievement) but we should expand on that tradition and allow the individual to let go of their emotional energy during the post-match rush of adrenaline. I’m not advocating tee shirt guns, fireworks and intro music, but maybe something crowd-inclusive, a symbolic dance not unlike the eagle flapping his wings, or ten seconds to walk the stage and blow kisses to their mother or father or high school coach — I also like back flips. Are we so puritanical as to continue hastening these celebrations until they start only consisting of hugs and tears? If we don’t change the rules then the only kids who get to celebrate are those like Bubba and Darrion who don’t mind rule-breaking, and even they will start to receive retroactive penalties for their self-expression. I say let all the kids spread their wings, give them a moment to boast, they deserve at least that much from fans and their dark overseers, the NCAA.
I understand that Americans will probably never accept victory celebrations. The NFL forbids group celebrations, but (kinda) allows for individual and the NCAA severely penalizes both individual and group celebrations, but allows for hugging — always hugging. The NBA is less celebration-averse but those jokers tend to Dougie after every layup, thereby decreasing the worth of their dancing. Maybe celebrations are part of the reason soccer is so popular world wide? The fleet-footed ones are allowed to display the relief of their frustrations with coordinated dances and mini-plays — fans can relate because soccer itself is essentially a stress-building activity (made so much worse by vuvezelas). The post-goal dance is cathartic for the individual and enjoyable for the fans and I don’t think it’s anyone’s feelings are being hurt.
Most traditional wrestling cultures (like the Mongolian tradition I’ve experienced first-hand and which seems free of overly prideful boasting) incorporate dancing into the pre and post-match competitions and we should allow for the same. It seems unlikely that the NCAA would ever allow for such individual expression at-large; they’re too bastardized by bureaucracy and hamstrung by process to ever allow for the happiness of 18-22 year olds. Our current tradition is really nothing more than a system meant to protect the feelings of individuals, we’ve shown little interest in promoting our cultural ideals (outside ticket sales and merchandising). Gloomy I know, but all hope for the future of incorporating traditional dance into our sport isn’t lost. There still remains one way to teach fans about the power and elegance of a classy post-match dance.
Next year there will be two Mongolians ranked in the top ten nationally, Turtogtokh of the Citadel and Ganbayaar of American. I haven’t talked to them yet, but wouldn’t it be brilliant if Gana, after winning the NCAA championship, sprinted to the edge of the mat, opened his arms wide and showed off his eagle? Wouldn’t we all take note and share a smile?
It’ll probably never happen, and that’s too bad, because I bet you some of the wrestlers — the guys who’ve worked their entire lives to achieve one goal — would really like the chance to spread their wings.