Edward Villella grew up with a passion for ballet in World War II-era Queens, N.Y., so if theres a barb or taunt, hes most likely heard it.
Soft. Effeminate. Weak.
And those are just the ones suitable for genteel conversation.
Theres a certain stigma, a latent homophobia when it comes to ballet, and its a very unfortunate thing, said Villella, artistic director and co-founder of Miami City Ballet. I had to stop [dancing] for four years, because my father [Joseph] was embarrassed his son was wearing tights.
But count Matt Baiamonte, the chiseled part-owner of the famed Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach, among those who know the two athletic sides of Villella as
he closes in on his 75th birthday.
Hes a dancing boxer.
Villella, 145 pounds if youre generous, is a former amateur boxing champion. But hes best known as the famed principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, and was largely considered the premier American male performer of his era if not ever.
Still, Villella has also spent a considerable part of his life in South Florida, training decades back alongside some of prizefightings greats at Fifth Street Gym.
This week, he returned to the boxing landmark, strapping on gloves for the first time since his days at New York Maritime College.
Apparently, the left hook still works. Just ask Baiamonte.
The trainer was working Villella through a jab-cross drill when his septuagenarian student stunned him with a left uppercut to the temple.
Youve still got it, Baiamonte said with a laugh, after his head cleared. I didnt see that one coming.
Notice to those with preconceived notions about ballet: Underestimate dancers at your own risk.
Long before it was trendy for pro athletes to dabble in training regimens outside their comfort zone, Villella was the ultimate cross-trainer.
A child dancing prodigy forced by his parents to put his ballet aspirations on hold while pursuing a marine transportation bachelors degree, Villella needed a physical outlet.
So Villella took up boxing, an interest of his since watching Friday night fights with his father as a boy. He quickly discovered that the dexterity, body control and strength that set him apart in dancing also made him a more than passable fighter. He won a championship as a junior welterweight, and once knocked an opponent out of the ring for having the temerity to bloody his new sneakers.
Yet when asked what was more taxing on the body, ballet or boxing, he responded with dancing No question.
It takes eight to 10 years to train [for ballet], a sweaty Villella said after his sparring session. You use your entire body. You seek perfection. Its the feet, the legs, the upper body. So, if youre going to move, you have to move the entire body.
And he did so for more than two decades, entertaining a national audience that included four U.S. presidents.
Villella performed at John F. Kennedys inaugural, and a decade later, was the subject of a 4,000-word profile in Sports Illustrated in which he tried to dispel longstanding myths about the fortitude of male dancers.
As a boy, Villella, who is married to former Olympic figure skater Linda Carbonetto, wore his baseball uniform over his tights so his friends wouldnt know he was off to ballet practice. More than 60 years later, Villella believes similar prejudices have dissuaded generations of young men from pursuing the craft.