Grown men in tights that aren’t ballerinos?! Must be the century-old art form of professional wrestling! Its blend of dramatic storytelling and raw athleticism has a unique way of keeping audiences on the edge of their seat.
Most of us associate professional wrestling with its 1980s camp, the golden age of Hulk Hogan and André the Giant. But this underground subculture is still going strong, as today’s professional wrestlers mix different performance techniques into their matches. Professional wrestlers are athletes, performers, actors, dancers, gymnasts and comedians. As a dancer, I’ve learned a lot from watching these performers and how they incorporate movement into their work.
“You know it’s fake, right?” is the general attitude when you talk about professional wrestling to just about anyone. Not to be confused with amateur wrestling, the combat sport that contains grappling, professional wrestling is somewhat of a misnomer. Yet from watching these pros, I’ve learned that it’s not fake, it’s scripted. The distinction may seem minor, but pro wrestling has more similarities to a ballet than to an episode of reality television. If you watch it through that lens, you’ll start to understand its appeal to millions of fans around the world.
Similar to professional dancers, wrestlers execute feats of athleticism, all while staying in character and working through injury and pain. Like a ballerina who undergoes intense and robust training, professional wrestlers spend hours perfecting their moves, bodies and performance skills — all because they love their chosen discipline. Although the wrestlers are taught how to land, it does not mean the landing is not felt. “Faking” these feats does not mean they’re easy or don’t hurt. When watching Swan Lake, you understand that the story is fictional, but the physicality is real. No one taps on your shoulder to express that the lead is not actually a swan. So why do we do this with wrestling?
I was first introduced to Toronto’s wrestling scene by my sister, who had also been invited by word of mouth. Superkick’d, one of the city’s top professional wrestling leagues, presents monthly wrestling rock shows at The Great Hall. At these shows, you are greeted by hardcore fans of all ages, hilarious costumes and entrance music and, of course, incredible athleticism. This is all mixed with heartwarming storylines; at one point Psycho Mike gave a valentine to his buddy Homeless Brooks before helping him in a tag team match.
I was instantly enamoured with the physicality and characters I saw during the matches. After contacting the company, I was invited by the owner and head trainer, Kris Chambers, on a Tuesday night to watch one of their three weekly training sessions.
The beautiful brick building full of character in Liberty Village contains a full wrestling ring. Among the brick walls are blackboards with lists of wrestlers’ names, branded banners from their monthly shows and an old-school wrestling arcade game tucked into a corner. The fifteen wrestlers in attendance all hang out and catch up while hip hop plays. Anton Alexiev, also known as the White Russian, jumps in the ring and leads the warm-up. Together they count out loud to 100 through a mix of jumping jacks, squats, push-ups and sit-ups. Any second a wrestler is too slack on exercises or counts, they are called out and kept accountable.
Chambers guides the group through conditioning drills and partner holds, most of which make more traditional methods of exercise look easy. A wrestler jumps on the back of another and manoeuvers around their entire body without touching the floor … and then all the way back around. Partners switch. Typical sit-ups are transformed into “stand-ups” as they hold each other’s calves and bring their bodies fully upright before lying back down into the traditional position. Leapfrog jumps over each other’s heads with a slam down to the floor in between are the company’s version of burpees. There are no shortcuts in the training; if you are asked to do ten leapfrog-style jumps, the group will wait until you get them done. These athletes are incredibly fit and have a blast together while going through the intensive training. I couldn’t help but laugh as some wrestlers impersonated Hulk Hogan’s catchphrase “Brother” through harder moments of the warm-up to express their strain.
Alix Kell, a Toronto dancer and gymnast, has trained with Chambers through multiple private lessons. While working in fitness, she considered herself in shape; however, the gruelling training had her almost throwing up on her first day with Chambers. She decided to start the training after her stepchildren were watching wrestling on television. She was surprised to see more women involved in the event than when she viewed it as a kid. Today, a lot of the women in the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) were trained as gymnasts, dancers or cheerleaders.
Before researching professional wrestling, I assumed the matches were choreographed from the first moment to the last. I soon discovered I was mistaken. “I’ve watched wrestlers have a five-minute conversation and then go perform a twenty-minute match,” says Kell. “Although you might know the story, you still need to go on the journey to get there.”
The audience is eager to go on this journey with the performers, especially in the front row. I have done my fair share of dodging wrestlers, flying chairs or props thrown to fit a wrestler’s narrative. Any objects in the room are fair game and more often than not flung by “bad guys” known as “heels.”
Kell describes the sport as similar to many dance styles, in which there is a standard vocabulary that is used to put combinations together. The wrestlers must work cohesively in the ring, where communication is key. In fact, communication is heavily emphasized in training. It’s an incredibly high-risk type of contact improvisation style connection, but with an added level of performance and character. The physicality of these matches takes an incredible amount of presence in body and spatial awareness, with an added agility that dancers would die for. “It married everything I have studied in the past: dance, gymnastics and theatre,” Kell says.
Professional wrestling is most commonly written about within a theatre context. Online wrestling training tutorials talk about projection, exaggeration and posture in a live space and how the acting must differ from a televised performance. On television, the camera comes to you, while in the live arena, you want everyone to clearly see what is happening in the ring. But by connecting the form solely with theatre, we’re ignoring the physical aspect of the performance. Wrestling is part complex choreography and part high-stakes partner work made even more entertaining by its absurd characters, gimmicks and storylines. I find that professional wrestling would be better understood and respected by studying it through a dance perspective — one that considers the high degree of physicality and performance.
However, an interesting deviation between dance and professional wrestling is the performance of pain. Many dancers, especially in ballet, work their whole careers towards a performance of nonchalance or effortlessness. This study of concealing painstaking work was termed sprezzatura by Baldassare Castiglione in his 1528 The Book of the Courtier. In contrast, professional wrestlers train throughout their careers to overact pain, to further sell the narrative they are proposing to the audience. Within wrestling, this is termed kayfabe and relates to anything done to suspend disbelief in the performance. If a wrestler were to fall and not react, or not overreact, the audience would lose faith in the storyline proposed.
After the conditioning at the Toronto training session, wrestlers are paired up and given a task to perform in a mostly “on the fly” match. Pairs are given five to ten minutes to plan. The more experienced wrestlers can easily talk it through, whereas newer wrestlers sometimes need some hands-on help, which is happily shared by the more seasoned of the group. Pairs enter the ring one by one and demonstrate what they’ve worked on, receiving feedback from Chambers on performance, timing and communication. Chambers is undoubtedly a knowledgeable trainer — patient with all levels of participants but knowledgeable about how to push performers to the next level.
Alexiev, a Superkick’d wrestler and program alumni who led the warm-up, is currently a theatre major at York University. Initially accepting a position in the dance program, he decided after a month it wasn’t for him and switched to theatre, with a double major in criminology.
Alexiev openly admits that he doesn’t look like a typical wrestler. “When you think of a wrestler, you think of someone who is huge or jacked, and I am not that,” he says. “So I have to make up for it by just being a risk-taker, and that’s what I can do that no one else will because I’m willing to put it all on the line; a lot of people are afraid to.” He expresses that the sport is physically demanding no matter how big or small you are because your body has to be ready for anything and everything.
Alexiev’s fearlessness is what makes him a favourite of many, and it’s also what he thinks is often missing from dance training. “In dance, there is a lot of fear of what you can and can’t do,” he explains. “My coach would always say fear causes hesitation; hesitation causes injury. That is the motto we live by.” Kell also mentioned this hesitation. She expressed learning how to let go and be in the moment within her training. Having more injuries from dance than from wrestling (although she had danced for much longer), she encouraged me to give it a try. I, in turn, replied that a wrist injury would prevent me from being able to do so. But all my excuses were crushed at the end of the Tuesday-night training session.
A wrestler is brought into the ring. It’s his birthday. Chambers asks him to tell the story of how he got started with Superkick’d. He begins: a wrist injury from a year ago kept him from signing up to train. However, Chambers did not let that excuse fly and explained modifications the wrestler could make around the injury. Although disguised as a birthday celebration, Chambers raises the wrestler’s hand, says happy birthday and that he has been green-lighted. Getting a green light in wrestling means that you have finished your training and are now recognized by your trainer as a free agent in the wrestling world — a special moment in a wrestler’s career. This news is met by a big congratulations by the other wrestlers in the room, jumping into the ring to give hugs and pats on the back.
Superkick’d monthly showcases, which usually take place the third Friday of the month, are a must-see. Most of the wrestlers also travel to different cities within a given month, visiting wrestling scenes in Kitchener, Waterloo, Barrie and Buffalo. The company is also planning a training camp without the aspect of wrestling. Many fans of the show are just interested in the physical fitness aspect of the sport without the fighting.
The World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) YouTube channel is the second most-viewed channel on the platform with ten billion views and counting. The popularity of this art form is only growing in viewership and technical skill. Its mix of popular culture, drama, comedy and sport is for all to enjoy.