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Save the Last Dance

7 July 2011 10 Comments

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.

Why are the referees always trying to stop the moment when these kids can let loose?

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.

Flapping my wings made me feel a part of the Mongolian culture and after seven weeks of travel and months of research this celebration helped relieve the stress.

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.

Flapping before the fourth round of Naadam.

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.


  • Anonymous said:

    I have to disagree with you. I believe that part of the reason the NCAA does not allow theatrical celebration from its athletes is to teach good sportmanship, which is something that is morally valued in the United States. Penalizations for boastfulness and/or showmanship teach composure and class. The reason they have these victory rituals in Mongolia is because it is apart of the their culture. I believe Westerners have a different outlook on celebration in athletics, an outlook that is somewhat negative. I think we accept some celebration. A kiss blown to the crowd; A finger pointed to the sky; Perhaps even a gymnastics back flip are all fine and dandy. But, my guess is full dance routines and using your ankle bands as creative props are frowned upon by most. I could be wrong. If I am wrong then it won’t be first time and won’t be the last.

    Changing the reguatlions for celebraion in the NCAA goes back to what the majority feels. If most people want the change then change it. But if not then keep things the way they are. But, if the NCAA is goign to change these rules for wrestling then they will have to change it for all other sports as well and I am not sure if they would be willing to do that.

    • admin said:

      My beef is with the American tradition and the NCAA’s enforcement of the rules they created re: celebration. I recognize that American sports culture largely disproves of post-match moments, allowing only for a minor few recognitions as you mentioned in your piece, but they should allow for more. We need to loosen the reins on these athletes. One of the points I trimmed from the piece is that these kids are increasingly becoming specialized in sports activities and what was fun is now seen as a job. Let them express themselves however they see fit. Like I said the undercurrent of false modesty is becoming of nobody and to continue that as a tradition is more shameful than having a few individuals incorporate a celebratory dance after winning the NCAA tournament. We’re a young traditional sport in a culture known to mix-and-match ideas, so lets borrow something from the Mongolians.

      The NCAA does not act on behalf of the people. They are an organizations whose mission has changed from protection of student-athletes to the protection of profit.

  • Gavin said:

    Dance (i.e. practiced & socially accepted body movement) is integral to most traditional wrestling styles around the world & the Turkish pezrev, the Persian zurkhaneh & Japanese shiko all support this. In Australian coreeda the kangaroo dance is integrated into the competition itself but I agree with what you are saying, victory celebrations should be formalised so ostentatious displays are eradicated or at least controlled. From a position of pure spectacle though, traditional wrestling dances only add to the flavour of the performance by increasing the sports appeal to the masses. By not embracing this maybe traditional American wrestling is limiting itself from its full potential & imposing an unnecessary false mask of pretentious civility, what fun is there in this? Tim I think you may have opened up a much needed area of discussion for the increased popularisation of collegiate folk style.

  • MEXICAN BOB said:

    In the U.S. the [hand raising] signifying the victor begins the celebratory action… from there is a hand shaking of the opposing coach and a run and jump into the winning coaches clutches. That’s it. The celebration exists already. All cultures have a controlled process to “celebrate” the accomplishment at the moment the honor is earned. Each cultures “dance” ensures that the celebration doesn’t get out of hand… example… the former NFL.
    Kids learn from watching their local H.S. and club team guys and the H.S. guys learn from watching the college guys… keep it simple and honorable so that kids learn sportsmanship and honor… and all of the other fantastic lessons wrestling teaches. I for one didn’t mind the push.

  • admin said:

    @Mexican Bob: I don’t hate your logic. You make a good point about the hand raising and I respect that portion as part of our tradition. Of course it’s hyperbole to think that we should consider introducing Mongolian traditions whole pie into the American system, but there is room for growth. The amateur wrestlers aren’t professional and between grueling practices and cutting weight wrestling can sometimes (read: often) feel like a job or punishment more than enjoyable practice. I just want to see these guys get our there and show everyone if they’re having a good time, why put such a severe limit on their self-expression? I acknowledged most American’s resentment for showboating, but I do think there is room for something less than a personal attack on your opponent and more celebratory of your school, or geographical area.

    Ha. You won’t bait me into a debate re: The Push!

    @Gavin: As always, I love your insights!

  • Anonymous said:

    How much celebration are talking here? It’s not like the NCAA does not allow any celebration at all, just watch what Bubba Jenkins did after his win over David Taylor in the national finals.

  • admin said:

    I’d like to see more Bubba Jenkins. Maybe we (the wrestling community) should actively encourage some types of celebrations?

  • Anonymous said:

    Agreed. But, how to do that…..

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