Et Tu, Brodus?: Dancing gimmicks then and now
Above is a quote from Laurence de Garis' essay 'The "Logic" of Professional Wrestling' which outlines de Garis' view on how pro wrestler should play their part during a match, using the example of a dancer character. Why is dancing so fascinating to the sport of pro wrestling as a whole? There's been a hundred dancing wrestlers, a hundred dance-offs, a hundred skits where the guy you didn't think would dance ends up dancing - why? Perhaps we will never know, but the sheer amount of examples we have of this trope means we can make a pretty good comparison between two prominent dancer wrestlers: Disco Inferno and Fandango.
A few bits before I get into this - first off, Brodus Clay gets to be a quote background but isn't enough of a thoroughbred dancer character to be looked at in much more detail, in my opinion. Clay as a dancer is based around the fact that it was not the way you thought you'd see him before he debuted, and even now his whole deal is that he doesn't look like he's cut out for it. It's a subversion of what I'm wanting to discuss just now because he's a wrestler who dances and not a dancer who wrestles, like these two.
Secondly, since Disco Inferno was around for longer than Fandango has been so far, I'm going to try and keep it equivalent in terms of timescale. With that in mind, here's the pre-debut vignettes for both characters.
Character vignettes, seemingly making a bit of a resurgence in WWE programming just now, are a very to-the-point way of establishing a character. They're typically short, perhaps a minute long, and as such focus on the most unique aspects of the character to get those traits ingrained in the audience's mind. Looking at the two snippets above, you immediately get that both of them are dancers, because they're both dancing. It's not exactly rocket science. However, it's worth taking a moment to look at the common elements of both; lurid colour, daft clothing and hair product. Whilst ballroom dancing and disco dancing are very different, these two characters are playing on some of the assumptions that they suspect their audience hold about dancers - that they're self-obsessed, superficial and obnoxious. Both of these vignettes are meant to grate on their audience, so that when the wrestler comes out the crowd are already riled up from having to watch their epilepsy-inducing vignettes.
As it goes, I think both of these bits do what they're supposed to. The Disco Inferno one has Disco talking and dancing a lot, so it really gets across the character, whereas the Fandango one just shows him doing some dancing with a woman then saying his name. What's more is they made several of them with different partners, but didn't really change up the formula, when you think they'd have him talk or do something to get across who he is. The Disco one is certainly a better attempt.
I'm looking at two matches, each from around a year in to each character's presence on TV, Disco wrestling Rey Mysterio on WCW Worldwide in October '96 and Fandango wrestling Justin Gabriel on WWE Main Event in September of this year.
When de Garis talks about a character being 'performed consistently and
seamlessly', it's important to consider what effect that has. A
wrestler who does a dance move now and then is asking the audience to
boo him, and that's fake. Meanwhile, a wrestler who behaves like a
dancer throughout the match is reiterating who they are again and again
to the audience, constantly telling them that they are this dancer
through their movements, without the audience really paying attention to
it. At this point, if that wrestler has done the work in vignettes and interviews to tie their being a dancer to their being a villain, then the audience will respond to that character, not just what they are doing. For the most part, Disco Inferno spends this match goading the audience. He is obnoxious, but it's not his character that's getting a response, it's what he's doing. The .gif above shows the amount of times Disco fell back on his hair stroke over the course of this minutes-long match, which is exactly the sort of thing that de Garis warns against doing, and watching the match as a whole, his over-reliance on this motion really does single it out as his signal to the audience that he's a villain.
The two .gifs above are, to me, the best and worst parts of Disco's performance as a dancer in this match. The pirouette on the suplex and the swinging neckbreaker both have an element of graceful, dancerly movement without seeming out of place as a wrestling hold. On the right, we see Disco utilizing a powerbomb and a strike in ways that make sense considering he is facing a small opponent, but don't fit so well with him being a dancer. Combined with him falling around the ring in shock after the match, they stand out as stock villain bits, with very little to do with Disco's character specifically. While this seems minor, it's the sort of thing that waters down a character bit by bit.
First, on the left we see Fandango's use of kicks, in particular showy, flippy kicks. Whilst it's not quite as unique as the spinning suplex that Disco used above, it gives the commentators a lot of scope to talk about his fancy footwork/educated feet and effectively plays up that he's a dancer through the match itself. To the right we see Fandango whining to the referee and his post-match celebration, both of which exemplify Fandango's movements. Whether he's on offence or defence, there's something in the way that Fandango moves that suggests a certain type of camp, Dancing with the Stars ballroom type and it's subtly obnoxious in a way that Disco's hair taunt isn't. That's not to say Fandango is a subtle character, because he is far from it- but the way he carries himself is a subtle way of reminding the audience that he's a dickhead and that they should boo him, without actually telling them to do so.
Ultimately, Disco Inferno and Fandango offer two different takes on the same character archetype, and find success in different parts of it. Disco Inferno, perhaps as a product of the era preceding his work, has his character down and can get a reaction out of a live crowd, even if his techniques aren't the most refined. Fandango, on the other hand, can inhabit his character in the ring, but the character itself is a little thin and doesn't lend itself to interviews and such quite like Disco does. With de Garis' words in mind, Fandango is better at expressing his character between the ropes, possessing a nuance that Disco does not, but that's not to say that he is a 'better wrestler' than Disco - but that's not the aim of this comparison. Being able to compare performers like this is a good start in being able to recognise what works and does not work, and therefore being able to comment on what makes 'good' wrestling good and 'bad' wrestling bad.