Our story ends at the International Ballet Competition in Jackson where our main character — Marcus Alford — instructs and trains dancers. Alford, once an accomplished dancer himself, moves with seemingly effortless grace as he shows a studio filled with promising sprites how to move as they must move.

Alford, who is 64 and possesses a lithe, athletic body easily passing for half that age, clearly connects with his students and often has them laughing even as they sweat. He is as graceful as they.

Now then, our story begins on a football field in Etowah, Ala., nearly half a century ago when Alford was trying to earn a spot on his high school’s traveling squad as a 5-foot, 8-inch, 145-pound halfback.

“I got the ball in practice and this linebacker about twice my size just crushed me,” Alford says, chuckling. “I mean, the guy almost killed me. After practice, the coach asked me, ‘Kid, you really want to make this traveling squad?’

“I said I did, and he said, ‘Well you need to learn how to tape ankles, because that’s the only way that’s gonna happen.’ And so I did.”

Alford became a manager, eager to please, who three years later was recommended to the University of Alabama where one Paul “Bear” Bryant was the almost mythic coach.

“This was 1971, when everyone was going to Astroturf fields,” Alford says. “They were having more muscle strains and pulls than ever before. Coach Bryant was looking for anything to help alleviate all the injuries.”

One staff member, a former professional football player, suggested that NFL teams had had some success with new stretching techniques, the same kind used by ballet dancers. And so it was that Bryant asked for a volunteer to take a dance class and learn all about it. And so it was that Alford’s hand shot up.

“I’ll do it,” he said. (As anyone associated with Alabama football in those days, he might have cut off a foot to help Bear Bryant win football games.)

A student looks in the mirror as she trains with Marcus Alford. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

And so it was that Alford found himself in a ballet class at Alabama, one guy in a class of about 20. He liked the odds and thought that was really cool until the instructor insisted he wear tights. Alford resisted, but eventually wore them when told he would not pass the class unless he did. He learned the proper stretching and exercises, and he learned far, far more. Mainly, he learned he loved to dance.

“I had been a swimmer and a runner, so I had the right body build,” he says. “I learned to dance. I learned to love to dance.”

He had planned to major in business management, but wound up with a double major – business management and dance.

“I have used both extensively,” he says.

At Bama, he became a favorite of both the legendary Bryant (who once took him up on his coaching tower) and the dance faculty. Think about it.

Did the dancing stretches help Bryant prevent injuries and win games?

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Alford says.

A quick check of the record books shows that Alabama won 43 games and lost 5 over Alford’s four years there.

Student dancers practice techniques while receiving instructions from Alford during the USA International Ballet Competition Dance School at Belhaven University  Tuesday. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Alford went on to Chicago where he danced, choreographed, taught and toured with the heralded Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago for a decade. Since then, he has served on the faculty of nearly every major dance organization around the globe. He has choreographed TV productions and entertainment events for both the NBA (All-Star game halftime show) and the NFL (most notably the NFL Commissioner’s Ball held annually at the Super Bowl).

Through all the dance, choreography and teaching over all these decades he has remained an inveterate sports fan, especially football. “Roll Tide, always,” he says. “And now my wife has become an even bigger fan than I.”

Grace and athleticism take center stage in Jackson

Most people would be surprised at the similarities of what it takes to be successful in both sports and dance, Alford says.

“Ballet dancers, at the IBC level, are most definitely incredible athletes,” he says. “Watch them jump, watch them move. Watch how graceful, yet explosive, they are.”

Is the reverse true, he is asked? Could many world class athletes be world class dancers?

Michael Jordan, for example?

“Totally, no doubt about it,” Alford answers. “Physically, M.J. had everything it takes for any kind of dancing, including classical ballet.”

Jerry Rice?

“So much grace,” Alford answers. “He would have been a magnificent dancer. He probably is.”

Walter Payton?

“No so much ballet. But he could have been an incredible jazz dancer. Same goes for Jim Brown. So strong. So explosive.”

Deion Sanders?

“He would have been a fine dancer. I could easily imagine Deion as a tap dancer.”

Dick Butkus?

We both just laugh.

“Not so much,” Alford says.

A student dancer stretches during a training session with Alford Tuesday. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

World class athletes and world class ballet dancers share attributes other than physical, Alford says.

Such as?

“Passion!” he says.

“All the great ones have passion for what they do. I don’t care how gifted you are, if you aren’t passionate and dedicated, you won’t be special. All the special athletes have it,” Alford says.

“Same goes for dancers.”

“Passion” comes up again when David Keary, Artistic and Executive Director of Ballet Mississippi, is asked about Marcus Alford, who is teaching for the sixth time over 24 years at this international event.

“Marcus has carved out a really unique place in the dance world,” Keary says. “He is one of those really intelligent, talented people who absorbs everything and then puts it right back out there for others to learn. His passion for dance is rare indeed.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.