“The ballet of the masses”: Football and Dance from Shostakovich to ‘Pop’ Robson

In the endless quest for an explanation of football’s enduring and universal appeal, one aspect that is often overlooked is its aesthetic appeal: the elegance of its motions, the joy of its rhythms and its dance-like qualities. This is not to deny the game’s propensity for unscripted drama, its ambiguous relationship with violence or its role as the last bastion of tribalism. But ultimately, despite all the tedium and frustration, people watch football, in historian David Goldblatt’s words, “to capture singular moments of brilliance”. This facet of the game’s appeal has remained a constant since the time when the fast-paced athleticism, anarchy and grace of football first attracted the attention of ‘modern’ artists and captured the allegiances of working-class communities around the world. 

Sofus Heading (1917) by Harald Giersing Football Denmark Futurism Painting
Sofus Heading, 1917 (Harald Giersing)

Drawing on diverse examples from English, European and South American football, this article explores some of the linguistic, cultural and actual connections between the worlds of football and dance. It notes how journalists and writers have naturally drawn on the language of dance to aid their depictions of the silky skills and elegant movements of leading players; and how this metaphorical shorthand has been extended to encapsulate (accurately or not) whole styles and cultures of football. It argues that, despite the value that continues to be placed on athleticism and physical vigour, amongst its audience there has always been a deep appreciation of the game’s intrinsic beauty.  

The Soviet composer Dmitry Shostakovich, one of the giants of twentieth-century classical music, famously described football as “the ballet of the masses”. In doing so, he was not merely coining a catchy epithet to adorn hipster T-shirts; he was celebrating the game’s aesthetic as well as its athletic qualities. Moreover, he was prepared to put his art where his mouth was. In 1930, when just 23 years old, he composed The Golden Age, a sports ballet whose pivotal ‘Football’ scene kicks off with a blast of an authentic referee’s whistle.

Shostakovich was no ‘plastic fan’. A season ticket holder, he would bunk off early from his teaching commitments at the Leningrad Conservatory to catch Dynamo or Zenit games. When composing in his summer dacha in the country he would walk or hitch a lift to the nearest station in order to catch a train to get to a match. Shostakovich knew many of the city’s famous players personally and on one occasion invited the entire Dynamo team for dinner at his house. He was also besotted with the rhythms and culture of football. According to a fellow composer, Rodion Shchedrin, Shostakovich “loved football … He was fascinated by the atmosphere of football matches: the noise of the spectators’ stand, the shouts of delight, frustration, jubilation”.   

He devoured all the football papers and magazines and indeed wrote several newspaper articles about football, including one penned at the height of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (September 1942) when Shostakovich’s national and international celebrity was at its zenith following the amazing success of his defiant 7th Symphony, the ‘Leningrad’. In his report he perceptively analyses a morale-raising friendly between the Dynamos of Leningrad and Moscow at an overcrowded Moscow Dynamo stadium. Two decades later he planned to come to England to watch Lev Yashin and the Soviet team play in the 1966 World Cup, but a major heart attack in late May put paid to the projected trip and he had to watch the USSR’s run to the semi-finals from his bed in Moscow’s Sverdlov Hospital.

The role of sport and especially football in Shostakovich´s life should not be underestimated.  According to Lesley Chamberlain, who has written perceptively about the connection between his music and his football, it provides one of the keys to understanding his deep-rooted humanity and his music. She notes that “the Shostakovich family still has the notebook in which [he] kept a record of all the scores in the championship league over several years, together with, between the same covers, a list of his works by opus number and an attempt to catalogue the [musical] scores in his library”.

Shostakovich was not alone among contemporary artists in appreciating football’s particular combination of grace and vigour, fluidity and athleticism. It is easy to see how the unscripted drama of football might appeal to such a keen student of the theatre and a prolific composer for stage and screen. The sport´s ability to surprise and delight and recall the joys and pain of childhood may in part explain the enthusiasms of someone who was often described as being a man in a child´s body.

Viewed from the perspective of an ultra-monetized and conservatively governed twenty-first-century global game, it is difficult to appreciate how the fast-paced athleticism and dynamic anarchy of football captured the allegiances of both working-class communities and elements of the modernist avant-garde in the early twentieth century. Such artists used it as a prism through which to view the modern world. For a brief period, it straddled a cultural cutting edge, where jazz, dance and football intermingled.

Sport in general and football in particular figured prominently in the Italian Futurists´ manifesto, published in June 1914. The combative Filippo Marinetti, often the Futurists´ charismatic spokesperson, maintained a lifelong affection for the game and when in England enjoyed watching Chelsea. In 1913 his fellow futurist Umberto Boccioni had included a study of a football player as part of ´Dynamism Studies´. His highly abstract depiction apparently aimed to capture the “dynamic tension” between absolute and relative motion. Fellow modernist, Harald Giersing, in Denmark painted a number of football scenes, before producing his stunning football masterpiece ‘Sofus Heading’ in 1917 featuring an incident in a Denmark v Sweden game. Its faceless protagonists with incomplete limbs suggest the blur of action and the transient timelessness of the act of scoring. The painting sits in the ARoS Kunstmuseum in Aarhus alongside examples of his other main oeuvre: the depiction of ballet dancers.

This juxtaposition is striking and appropriate; for of all the arts, dance is the one with which football is most naturally aligned. Both activities are the product of extreme fitness and include disciplined training and the practice of routine moves. At their best they combine grace, fluidity and athleticism: and incorporate flowing collective movement. Shostakovich and other contemporaries understood the connection. Isaac Glikman, a lifelong friend, recalls that “In those days, the actual process of play was very important, characterised by elegant and intricate movements and a special kind of football choreography. Not for nothing was one of the stars known as the ‘The Ballerina’”.  

Indeed, the metaphorical link between football and dance has long been a journalistic commonplace: forwards waltzing through defences, wingers leading their full-backs on a merry dance, midfielders pirouetting on a sixpence. Even on the muddied playing fields of post-war Britain dance-related metaphors and images were associated with nimble-footed forwards like Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney or Len Shackleton. Journalists continue to draw on the lexicon of dance to provide a means of adequately describing the skills and distinctive moves of iconic players. A French magazine marked the departure of one graceful Barcelona midfielder with the headline: “Le dernier ballet d’ Andrés Iniesta”. Another, Xavi Hernandez, is remembered for his trademark 360-degree pirouette. 

Writers also have noted the connection. Barrie Hines, author of the novel that was filmed by Ken Loach as Kes (containing one of cinema’s iconic depictions of football), was a seriously good player. He had trials for Manchester United and supplemented his earnings as a teacher and aspiring author by playing semi-professionally for Crawley Town. His university dissertation explored football as a form of expression and included a section about football as ballet. He wrote the football scenes of his first novel, ‘The Blinder’, as if they were extended sequences of dance. For Uruguay’s revered historian and novelist Eduardo Galeano, football was “the art of the unforeseeable”. He was particularly “attracted to soccer’s capacity for beauty. When well played, the game is dance with a ball”.

Many of the game’s exceptional players, such as Denis Bergkamp, Andrea Pirlo or David Silva, are marked out as much by their aesthetic as their athletic qualities. Alex Young, immortalised in Ken Loach´s 1968 BBC drama The Golden Vision, is revered by Evertonians for his silky movement and effortless grace, rather than his shots to goals ratio or his assists. Equally adept on the disco floor as the football pitch, George Best is remembered as much for his style and grace as his goal tally.  Duncan Hamilton’s biography tells the story of an elegant stranger approaching Best in a London restaurant and asking for an autograph. The doting ‘hunter’ was none other than Rudolf Nureyev, the leading male dancer of his day. “You are a true artist” he told Best.

Johan Cruyff was similarly revered by Nureyev. Ian Herbert, in his obituary of Cruyff, notes that “Nureyev – who knew him and was fascinated by how he could move so suddenly, unexpectedly, swiftly and yet with control, balance, grace – always said Johan Cruyff should have been a dancer”. The accompanying headline: “The balletic genius who changed football all over the world” emphasises this connection. His signature move, the ‘Cruyff turn’, became part of the lingua-franca of modern football.  In the words of one commentator, “it is sport as dance, as ballet, a perfect marriage of physical control and invention”. In a neat reciprocation of adulation, a picture of Nureyev allegedly adorned the living room of the always elegant Marco van Basten, balletically nicknamed ‘The Swan of Utrecht’. 

More prosaically, older readers familiar with the football lore of North-East England will recall the furore when Bryan ´Pop` Robson, Newcastle United centre-forward and leading scorer, was revealed to be taking dancing lessons as part of his training. The brains behind this innovation was Lennie Heppell, owner of a dance school and father of Robson´s wife Maureen, a leading table tennis player renown for her nimble footwork. Robson was unabashed at his ‘exposure’ then, and continues to argue that the ballroom-dancing inspired improvements to his footwork and balance were instrumental in his scoring thirty goals in Newcastle United’s 1968-9 Fairs Cup winning season.  

This tale adds poignancy to the key turning point in the film Billy Elliott – set in the North East during the 1984-5 Miners´ strike. Billy’s father, after discovering him attending dancing lessons, confronts his son: ‘Lads do football…or wrestling…or boxing; not friggin’ ballet’. Around the same time, in real-life, in gritty Havana, Carlos Acosta, Nureyev’s modern equivalent, was experiencing an opposite version of paternal tough love. He played in the streets and dreamed of a football career only to be dragged kicking and screaming by his father to the state ballet school. In dubbing Acosta ‘the Cuban Billy Elliott’ in 2008, The Economist was in fact inadvertently inverting the analogy.

The connection between football and dance crosses continents and informs many different football cultures. Jonathan Wilson in ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ describes how the first boom of football in 1920s Argentina saw the development of a distinctive domestic style of play mirroring the rise of a home-grown way of dancing: the tango. Two decades later (in the Golden Age of the River Plate ‘la Máquina’ team) tango and football came together in a mythical fusion of beauty and flair and became “the embodiment of Argentinian culture as a whole”. 

Andrew Lees recalling Brazil’s “Seu” Mané Garrincha speaks of how “his footwork, element of surprise and capacity for improvisation had nourished the nation’s soul”. His team-mate, Tostão, wrote on the twentieth anniversary of his death “Garrincha was much more than a dribbler, a ballet dancer and a showman, he was a star”. However, not all his compatriots welcomed such presumptions about links between national football styles and dance. The late Carlos Alberto lamented the connection that journalists often made between Brazilian football and the samba; and challenged lazy stereotypes that assumed that the Brazilian style was all improvisation, thereby denigrating the practised skill, tactical awareness and hard work of the players. 

The outrage and hard-edged masculinity of the ‘Pop’ Robson and ‘Billy Elliot’ era have gradually given way to wider acceptance of some cross-over between these seemingly counterposed pursuits. Manchester in the 1990s welcomed the outrageously skilful but sometimes indolent Georgi Kinkladze, City’s Maradona-manqué, who was trained as a child in traditional Georgian ballet and gymnastics and displayed the balance and agility of a dancer. Earlier in the decade, future United lynchpin Rio Ferdinand was four years into a five-year scholarship at the Central School of Ballet in London before deciding to focus on football. After being released by PSG in 2020 Edinson Cavani joined up with Ballet Nacional de Sodre in Uruguay to build up his strength, stamina and flexibility. He too ended up at Manchester United. Innovative coaches now incorporate ballet’s pirouettes and turning movements into training sessions designed to enhance balance and operating on the ‘half-turn’. It is not for nothing that pundits talk about choreographed free-kick routines or coordinated pressing movements.

And what of the fans? As Richard Holt pointed out nearly thirty years ago, aesthetic appreciation was always an integral part of the working-class’s historical engagement with football in the U.K. It remains one of the defining traits of British fans that they are generally appreciative of both finesse and elegance and work-rate and bravery. They continue to applaud deft skill, nimble footwork and close control as much as a crunching tackle. This is important since it challenges deeply-ingrained prejudices that everything coming out of an industrial working-class culture is by definition brutish and devoid of beauty.

This duality runs through the game and helps to explain some of its enduring contradictions: the pressure to play ‘good football’ against the desire for trophies; taking off the handbrake against parking the bus; the clamour for flair and finesse against the pragmatic need for results. The interplay between these two poles helps to explain some of the game’s enduring appeal; and the mystery of why, despite the lack of ‘success’ that most clubs experience so many people come back week after week. Yes, it’s a precious communal experience in an age of rampant individualism. But football’s “stubborn capacity for surprise”, in Galeano’s words, also provides rare opportunities to witness the sublime in an epoch of dull predictability and uniformity.

Despite the wild shifts in the terms of trade between dance and notions of masculinity over the decades, the experience of going to a football match has retained at its core an appreciation of the game’s intrinsic, aesthetic qualities and an understanding of its internal, human logic. Such features, and the tensions between the game’s beautiful and ugly sides, may help to explain its appeal to Shostakovich: a profoundly humane man, who was by turns caustic and comical. Like his music football can be a strange combination of the burlesque and the profound, the acerbic and the sweet, the crude and the sublime. 

It has been famously argued that goals are overrated. Shostakovich may well have agreed.  He enjoyed the wider companionship and culture of football, but in Lesley Chamberlain’s words, was particularly moved by “the selfless absorption and even ecstasy with which the great players strove to achieve the apparently impossible task of putting the ball between the posts”. The joy and absurdness of sport, and of the human condition, are echoed not just in his football-related works but throughout his life and music. More profoundly, football may have provided “a kind of alternative ‘system’ of life that the Soviet authorities could never get at”. For modern fans, the game’s magical moments – the sublime skill, balance and poise of its protagonists and the dance-like precision of their movement – may provide a similar role in allowing them to escape at least temporarily from the mundane materialism of late capitalism

Dr. John Sanders

John Sanders, a former adult educator, lives in Manchester but disconcertingly supports Liverpool FC. Since retiring he has returned to historical research and writing about his other love: football. The game, for all its faults and frustrations, continues to fascinate him.