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Karl Lindholm: Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee

Muhammad Ali was a dancer.
He danced in the ring, light as a feather, sticking and moving, bobbing and weaving, avoiding blows, floating as if on air, stinging his earth-bound plodding adversaries, mere mortals, beating them up, knocking them down and out, in a world of hurt.
Ironic, isn’t it. Such grace of movement, such beauty of physical expression really, in service to violence and pain. Ali wanted to knock you out: his end, his purpose, was your end.
When I first saw Ali, he knocked me out. I was a teenager when he burst on the scene with his catchy “slave name,” Cassius Clay, and his outrageous style, a total original. We had never seen anything like him.
He and I were contemporaries — or nearly so, he’s just three years older.
As teen-agers, my friends and I identified primarily as athletes — we loved sports. Our heroes were local (my cousin Billy Finn, Pep Gagne, Johnny Doyle and other high school stalwarts) and bigger and more distant (Ted Williams and all the Red Sox), and we were total in our worship of our athlete heroes.
It was as an athlete, purely, that Ali astonished us at first. He was so fast, so agile, and so big, 6’3”, 220 pounds. He was Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan. The boxer he most resembled was the flashy Sugar Ray Robinson, a middleweight, four inches shorter, some sixty pounds lighter.
I remember watching Ali on TV at the house of my best friend Butch Bouchard, the basketball player. We thrilled to Ali’s lightning fast fistic combinations, his fancy footwork. We went to school the next day and practiced with our friends the Ali Shuffle, his furious dancestep in the ring that taunted and bewildered his overmatched opponents.
The most famous photo of Ali was taken in Lewiston, Maine, my home town, on the occasion of the second Ali-Sonny Liston fight in the Central Maine Youth Center, where I once watched my football teammate Leo Fortin knock out a middle-aged man in the bathroom at a hockey game there (the guy had cursed him for no good reason, a bad idea).
In this iconic image, Ali, young and lithe, magnificent in his anger, gesticulates with cocked fist at the prostrate Sonny Liston: “Get up, old man!” (See the famous photo by clicking here.)
I have been stimulated to think about Muhammad Ali by the recent performance at the Town Hall Theater of Christal Brown’s “The Opulence of Integrity: A Movement Odyssey Exploring the Life and Legacy of Muhammad Ali.” Christal is the chair of the Dance Department at Middlebury College.
In the “Opulence of Integrity,” six male dancers, African-Americans, and Christal herself, fill the stage with a stirring tumult of dance, accompanied by provocative audio and lighting elements and images of Ali flashing on a backscreen.
The dancers’ leaps and bounds are punctuated by graceful and deliberate movements. The choreography of the ring, the fight game itself, the shadow boxing, the fancy footwork, is acknowledged in action. The dancers had done their homework: Ali was poignantly evoked.
In the Q&A after the performance, one of the dancers discussed performing in Addison County elementary schools. He noted, unsurprisingly, the absence of racial diversity here, and said, “I hope that some of these kids, when they see a black man, they’ll think, ‘Maybe he’s a dancer!’”
Ali was a dancer who packed a punch. “I am the Greatest!” he constantly reminded us. “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.” And we believed.
Ali was never going to age, he would never suffer the fate of boxers in general, punch-drunk and pitiable, brain scrambled by too many blows to the head. “I’m so pretty,” he boasted before the first Liston fight, “I don’t get hit.
“The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!”
In 1966, when confronted with the military draft — “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong … no Viet Cong ever call me ‘Nigger,’” — he spoke for his generation. He was despised and admired in America in equal measure, larger than life, always. He didn’t fight for three and a half years, 1967-70, ages 25-28, suspended from boxing for his defiance, until freed from this purgatory by the Supreme Court.
That’s when I saw him in person in Cleveland, during his hiatus, at John Carroll University, in a big room overflowing with raucous admirers. He spoke at the top of his voice for nearly an hour, mostly in rhyming couplets, to wild approbation: he was indeed the Greatest.
But Father Time, as the cliché goes, is undefeated. He taught us that too. He fought too long, even after his near-death combats with the indomitable Smokin’ Joe Frazier (the Thrilla in Manila) and George Foreman (The Rumble in the Jungle). He couldn’t quit till he couldn’t not quit.
His old age came early, he grew old fast — his speech a slurred mumble, his movements slow, the Ali Shuffle no longer a dance, but the shuffle of an old man. His fate was always larger than ours: his decline nearly as dramatic as his ascent.
Ali was a dancer — as are we all, sooner and later. 

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