Pro Wrestling as Contemporary Dance
Updated: Mar 16, 2021
I have always been intrigued by pro wrestling – it seems to me to have so many parallels with modern contemporary dance, circus and theatre and yet, it holds itself apart from these art forms and demands its place in the sporting world. In a way, I’ve always thought that pro wrestling underplays the artistry and creativity that clearly goes into it. I wanted to find out the attitude of those in the notoriously insular pro wrestling community.
I was privileged to talk to Paul Green, aka Hank “the Tank” McCoy, who spent 10 years in the pro wrestling business, working numerous roles, and by the time of his retirement from the sport in 2017, was one of the UK’s most sought after pro wrestling master of ceremonies.
I spoke to Paul via Zoom on 12 March for 2 hours and what follows is a fascinating insight into this secretive sport.
How does one become a pro wrestler? What types of people are attracted to the sport?
The way to become a pro wrestler is to pay your dues as a trainee wrestler first. You join as a trainee at a pro wrestling school and slowly work your way up. I would say that this is the absolute best way to gain an understanding not only of the sport but of the business of pro wrestling. As a trainee with a pro wrestling school, you will help with every aspect of the business, not just the training and sparring, which is brutal. You’ll even be expected to learn how to put together and break apart the ring – which then feeds into a deep understanding of how to perform on the ring without getting injured. Every pro wrestler has started by putting in solid time as a trainee wrestler.
The types of people who are attracted to becoming pro wrestlers tend to be societies’ misfits - and I say this with full love and respect. Maybe a better way to say it is people who are alternative, who don’t quite fit into the mainstream; pro wrestling gives them a home and a family. That’s one reason why pro wrestling is such a close knit - some would say - secretive and insular community.
Is Pro wrestling a form of contemporary dance?
[Laughs] Yes, I suppose you could say that it is. There is certainly the brutal training which compares in intensity - though not in content - to the training of the best contemporary dance troupes, there’s the careful development of choreography, character, costume and character interaction. Each match helps tell the story of the show. Each show is carefully crafted within the traditional forms and carefully choreographed so yes, I suppose you could call pro wrestling shows a form of contemporary dance though I doubt any pro wrestlers would call it that! Perhaps another description, if you want to put it in its cultural context, is that pro wrestling is like a pantomime with muscles.
You mention that the shows are crafted within traditional forms – can you elaborate?
Pro wrestling shows and the matches that form a part of the show typically tell the same story; the oldest story of them all and perhaps the only story there is; the battle between good and evil.
The story always sets up evil as strong and brutal – building up tension against good – until there is a climactic resolution with good winning out over evil – but only just. There are an infinite number of ways that the battle between good and evil can be told and pro wrestling tells this story in a myriad of creative and carefully choreographed ways. Evil is represented by the villain, called the “Heel”, who is always arrogant, over-confident and swaggering and good is represented by a Captain America-type character. In fact, the word for the hero in pro wrestling is “blue eye”. Of course, you don’t have to have blue eyes to be the “blue eye” – it’s just a name. Perhaps that term needs to change.
Your stage name/persona is Hank McCoy. How do pro wrestlers develop their characters?
Pro wrestlers are generally given their first character, called a “gimmick” in pro wrestling speak, depending on the needs of the promotion/company that they belong to and the types of shows that company presents. They are told what character they should become. Then, they go on to develop that character. The very best characters are those that take some aspects of the performer’s real personality traits and dials them up to 100. Each character needs to be easily recognisable as either good or evil and by one main character trait. My character, Hank McCoy, is actually named after a Marvel character - because I’m clever (obviously… because I wear glasses) and am unexpectedly strong.
In the lower leagues of pro wrestling, you’re given more creative freedom with your character but the higher up you go, the control over character gets tighter. For example, at the top of the tree, pro wrestlers in the WWE get given their character and are trained in what to say, how to move, how to stand, their costume, their personalities…everything. Every single thing about a pro wrestling character is carefully designed, scripted, choreographed and rehearsed and to keep things fresh, each character evolves, for example a Blue Eye might turn Heel. The evolution of a character is carefully monitored and developed. There will be someone in the audience of a show whose job it is to check audience reactions to each character – these audience reactions will then feed into how the character develops.
Does knowing it's crafted diminish the enjoyment of a pro wrestling show?
I don’t think so. What I think does diminish the enjoyment is if you’re unwilling to suspend your disbelief. If you are willing to embrace the show, and boo, hiss and cheer – then anyone will have a great time.
The vast majority of pro wrestling shows are family friendly – it’s good for business - there’s no cursing, no overt sexualisation and no real violence – yes that’s right – you won’t see any pro wrestler really hurting each other unless it is an accident. The idea is to keep the shows within the PG classification. You’ll often hear people say, “Keep it PG!”.
In fact, the moves are exhaustively rehearsed, from both sides, so that no-one gets career ending injuries. You won’t even see pro wrestlers attacking a person’s right side. Most pro wrestlers have other jobs and most people are right handed – so there’s a gentlemen’s agreement – no-one’s right hand gets attacked so that everyone can go to work on Monday morning.
That’s not to say that pro wrestlers don’t get hurt. It hurts to bump (fall on the mat), it hurts to throw yourself into the ropes, it hurts to flip… all of these things hurt. You can’t fake gravity and in that sense, wrestling is very real.
All photos by Turning Face other than wide shots of the ring and the feature photo, which is © Paul Green.