Edward Villella grew up with a passion for ballet in World War II-era Queens, N.Y., so if there’s a barb or taunt, he’s most likely heard it.
Soft. Effeminate. Weak.
And those are just the ones suitable for genteel conversation.
“There’s a certain stigma, a latent homophobia when it comes to ballet, and it’s 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.”
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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.
He’s a dancing boxer.
Villella, 145 pounds if you’re generous, is a former amateur boxing champion. But he’s 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 prizefighting’s 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.
“You’ve still got it,” Baiamonte said with a laugh, after his head cleared. “I didn’t 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 bachelor’s 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. It’s the feet, the legs, the upper body. So, if you’re 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. Kennedy’s 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 wouldn’t 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.
“It’s unfortunate; it’s awful,” Villella said. “We can’t cultivate a major portion of our art form, which is the males, [because of it]. We need someone to put those ladies down, present them, look after the women on the stage.
“I was a physical person all my life.”
And still is.
Despite hip replacement surgery, nagging arthritis and back problems, he continues to teach a 90-minute class every day at Miami City Ballet.
Much of his life these days is spent preparing for the company’s first-ever trip to Paris in July, appearing at the Theatre du Chatelet July 6 through 23.
“He doesn’t talk about it, but you can tell he was a boxer and a dancer, because when’s teaching us, he’s always moving, always light on his feet,” said Suzanne Limbrunner, a Miami City Ballet dancer. “He’s super-active.”
Still, his fighting days are long done, aside from last week’s eventful visit to South Beach. Even when he trained there decades back, he kept mostly to himself — and out of the ring.
But his love affair with the sport has never faded. At the same time his dancing career was at its zenith, boxing was experiencing a similar boom. He attended the celebrated bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971, known as the Fight of the Century, and later mused to reporters that Ali had lost in part because he was not fully aware of his body.
Now, four decades later, boxing and ballet are connected again, but this time for less celebrated reasons. Both have seen interest wane in recent years.
“These things sometimes are cyclical,” he said. “In ballet, it would take a brilliant choreographer, or a number of brilliant dancers who are guest artists all over the world, which would raise the visibility of the art form.
“In boxing, you need charismatic, strong heavyweight champions,” he added. “You look at a [Manny] Pacquiao now, and why isn’t the whole world going crazy?”
Maybe it would if more fighters had Villella’s left hook.