Ron Swanson from Parks & Recreation thus spoke about poise: “Sting like a bee. Don’t float like a butterfly. That’s ridiculous.”
The trainer I watched obviously had not listened. I came to the gym to help out a friend with his deadlift and I was early. I was killing time sitting on a machine in the corner and watching the circus. The trainer was going through his own workout. He took hold of a high cable attachment and hit a stance he no doubt thought “functional” and graceful. It looked like inspector Clouseau’s neko ashi dachi. The only difference being, Peter Sellers was having fun and this character was serious as a heart attack.
The trainer produced an enlightened facial expression meant to highlight the nobility of his character and cause. I had seen the same expression on the faces of the actors on a poster for the TV show The Americans. I think they are Soviet spies thinking about their undying love for Mother Russia.
He checked his expression in the mirror, did a row, then leaped to the side, swinging on the cable like Tarzan, I kid you not. As he flew through the air, the fella folded his legs underneath him, an imitation of a flying kick.
When I was a kid, my prized possession was a foreign martial arts magazine with Joe Lewis on the cover. This full contact karate champion was famous for his tobi yoko geri, the jump side kick. There he was, the right leg viciously extended, the left folded under, dispatching some unfortunate opponent to a better world. I have no way of knowing if the club trainer had seen Lewis’ kick, but his footwork suggested he had. The only problem was, he stung like a butterfly.
He was so preoccupied with being graceful, he totally missed the point. Grace is not the goal but a side effect of a skilled performance.
The Meaning of “If It Looks Right, It Flies Right”
There is no question that a high-level athletic performance—unless it takes place in an artificial event like speed walking—looks beautiful even to the uninitiated. John Inzer’s or Maxim Podtinny’s deadlifts are poetry in motion.
Even when an event is performed with a highly unorthodox technique, it usually looks graceful when the performer is elite. Inzer and Podtinny have textbook technique; Konstantinov has anything but. Yet his humpback pull is remarkably easy on the eye. A biomechanist could take it apart and marvel at the efficiency. An engineer famously quipped, “If it looks right, it flies right.”
Several years ago, my wife and I had the pleasure of watching Mikhail Baryshnikov dance. Even though my mother is a former professional ballerina, I know exactly nothing about dance. Which did not stop me from being extremely impressed by my fellow countryman’s performance. There was zero extra movement and every action was initiated from the center; Baryshnikov moved like a fighter.
In contrast, the supporting dancers did something that jarred the eye. They threw their legs into the air and then wiggled their tails as an afterthought. Biomechanically it made no sense. Aesthetically it was offensive.
They tried to be graceful. And grace cannot be contrived. Try to hold on to it, and it will elude you.