These boots were made for dancing

The World Cup reached its finale on Sunday and this year’s tournament will be remembered as the one in which the hierarchy of footballing nations was turned upside down.

Yet an equally dramatic turnabout occurred in the profile of people watching, as soccer has been taking on the theatres and the opera houses at their own game.

How could anyone with a taste for drama not be relishing the toppling of the giants by a crowd of underdogs? How could dance fans not be entranced by the physically flamboyant jubilation that has ensued? As teams such as South Korea, Senegal and Ireland celebrated their successes, the body language of triumph had never looked so colourful.

It was Senegal, of course, who set the choreographic standard after their first, unlikely victory against the French. Stripping off their shirts with a near-ritual deliberation, the Senegalese players closed into a tight-knit formation, in which they executed a swaying, syncopated skip that segued gracefully into a pliant, rhythmic chug. This elegantly choreographed moment said everything about a team united in passion and discipline. It was a pure dance of thanksgiving—as touching as it was surprising.

But as every anthropologist knows, dance is one of the oldest, most potent ingredients in human ritual. If dance can function as the language of mating, prayer, supplication and commemoration, what more proper way for a team to mark its amazing progress in the World Cup?

Different cultures have traditionally prized the distinctness of their own dance forms, displaying them as a badge of their group identity. And even though no other team in this year’s competition has displayed a celebration dance as sophisticated and singular as the Senegalese, there are still revealing differences in the way each nation expresses its triumph.

The group hug for instance. Casual watchers may think that the collective embrace is an automatic response to every goal, but there are surprising variations in the form. The Koreans were clear masters, with a technique all of their own. Players and substitutes swarmed en masse to the sideline, where they fell in rapid succession on to the scoring player, building into a writhing honeycomb of interlaced torsos and limbs. Paraguayans and Japanese brought a more vertical lift to their group hugs, jumping up on each other’s shoulders as if attempting to erect a human tower of joy, while the hug with which the Turks celebrated their quarterfinal win morphed into a rudimentary circle dance—the kind of folk form that’s traditional to Greece and the Balkans.

Teams such as Denmark and Germany exhibited more restraint. Their hugs were less of a group thing than a laying of manly arms around the shoulders of the nearest player, with touchy-feely England scoring highest on the kissing. Scoring a goal obviously unleashes a massive energy rush. Punching the air and howling at the heavens were popular, also ripping off shirts. But these expressive solos shouldn’t just be seen as letting off steam. Another atavistic function of dance is its power to transform dancers into something fiercer and more primal than their real selves.

In tribal hunting dances men used to imitate the moves of their prey in order to absorb the animal’s strength and skills, while in rituals of war men danced with the ferocity of demons to psych themselves up and terrify the enemy.

Similar transformations happened on the football pitch. The trademark of Julius Aghahowa of Nigeria—a spectacular half-dozen backflips ending with a single vaulting somersault—was far more than an excess of exuberance. As Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has taught us, this is the kind of surprise choreography with which a martial arts superhero intimates his or her possession of special powers.

Robbie Keane’s alternative native American routine, Crouching Archer, Hidden Arrow, fell short of the warrior’s grand gesture, but how could we not weep at David Beckham’s contribution to the solo dance of glory. After scoring his penalty against Argentina, Beckham zoomed across the pitch, arms flaring out behind. It made him look like a little boy flying an imaginary Spitfire. Was it too fanciful to imagine that Beckham, at that critical moment, was summoning his very own ancestral spirits, the fighter pilots of the Battle of Britain?

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