Body Language: Telling a Story Without Saying a Word
Professional wrestling. Sports entertainment.
Some people see these terms as philosophically opposed. They wish it was more wrestling, less entertainment. Other people see these terms as interchangeable, because they know it’s “wrestling” no matter the label. The aim is to tell stories within (and surrounding) the structure of a wrestling match.
In its purest sense, wrestling tells a story through physical competition. Wrestlers use their bodies for sport, playing out a story that usually pits good against evil. But the win/loss column isn’t the solitary plot point. The stories are fleshed out, if you’ll pardon the play on words, in other ways too. Wrestlers also use their bodies to gesticulate. As much as we rely on the commentary team to narrate the action in the ring, the wrestlers rely on gestures to say the words no one can hear. They use facial expressions to show emotion, but they use the rest of their bodies to further the tale.
For example: a wrestler stands at the top of the ramp, staring down another who is in the ring. He uses his hands to motion around his waist, over and over. Everyone watching knows what this means: he wants the other guy’s championship belt. He doesn’t need to pick up a microphone to say it, and the commentary team doesn’t need to tell us what the gesture means. It’s like a universal sign built into the collective consciousness of professional wrestling fans. If you were to stand up in a boardroom and make that gesture to the new HR person, chances are you’d be met with confusion (and possibly workplace sensitivity training). It’s amazing how much and how many gestures play a role in sports entertainment.
One gesture is so overused that it borders on comedy, but it has become so entrenched in WWE tradition that the month of March wouldn’t be the same without it. I am referring, of course, to the WrestleMania Sign Point:
It could mean “WrestleMania is coming!” or “I’ve qualified for a match at WrestleMania!” or “I’m Jack Swagger so I’m not sure why I’m pointing!” We joke about it, but we would be bereft without it. Long live the WrestleMania Sign Point.
Some gestures are unique to their owners, especially when it comes to ring entrances. Can you imagine how challenging it must be to devise a ring entrance that conveys your personality in a unique and thrilling way? Ring entrances are an opportunity to set the mood for a match, and reinforce how fans feel about you. On one hand, wrestlers with gimmicks have it a bit easier. Los Matadores and Fandango need only look to what a bullfighter or a ballroom dancer would do for a grand entrance. On the other, gimmicks can be a handicap when it comes to making a connection with the audience. The relatively gimmick-free Rob Van Dam had to conjure his own theatrics, deciding that the most memorable gesture would be to point at himself. It is befuddling to witness its power.
The Miz comes out with a cocky bow, a gesture that he should have scrapped for something more endearing after his babyface turn. Santino’s race-walking has become so beloved, we forget that it has nothing to do with anything, other than being comical – which I guess IS the point. And even at the age of 48, Shawn Michaels upholds the Heartbreak Kid traditions of praying on the ramp, jumping to his feet, and flexing his biceps with a side lunge in the ring. It’s nostalgic, but it’s also a bit silly, which he acknowledges by feigning pain and exhaustion after performing his entrance rituals. We love him because he used to be the Heartbreak Kid, but holds no allusions that he’s still that guy. And he doesn’t have to say a word.
The repetitive nature of ring entrances serves to build expectation. When CM Punk comes out, we expect him to get down on one knee and yell “It’s clobberin’ time!” It’s a nod to his love of comic books and a battle cry for everyone to join. On the rare occasion that he does not take a knee, the absence of that gesture speaks louder than the battle cry. We take greater notice of what he’s going to do instead, be it swing a kendo stick with a menacing glare, or run into the fray without pause. The beauty of repetitive gestures is that they play with our expectations.
Without the accompanying gesture, Daniel Bryan’s “Yes” chant is little more than a suggestive affirmation. It’s like a physical cue tied in with a verbal cue to make it even more habitual. It reminds me of a guy that I worked with, who loved to listen to self-help tapes in the car all the time (a CASSETTE tape, look it up). Based on the advice of a self-help tape, he programmed himself to “get down to work” by snapping his fingers in a certain sequence. Whenever he snapped his fingers that way, it meant he was going to have optimum focus and productivity. Try chanting “Yes!” without your arms going up in the air. Now try just the arms without even thinking “Yes!” It’s so brilliant.
And then we have the wonderful range of gestures used in the matches themselves. Once the bell rings, Bray Wyatt puts on a body language clinic. Even though his debut relied heavily on the power of words to intoxicate us, I would argue that his gestures have been equally powerful. The ever-present twinkle in his eye disturbs more than R-Truth’s entire offensive repertoire. His spider walk across the ring served up a terrifying message: do not assume that you know anything about me, or what I can do. When he assumes the crucifix position at the end of each match, he is not only showing fearless bravado, but also challenging our sense of propriety. That is no small feat in the world of wrestling. He has waltzed with the limp bodies of his opponents, and has anointed them with a kiss before his last gesture of violence. Bray Wyatt makes every move count.
Just as the Sister Abigail is heralded by a kiss, so many wrestlers’ finishing moves are signaled with a gesture. Yes, there is art in the RKO out of nowhere, but sometimes a gradual build to the finish is more suitable. Whether Shawn Michaels is tuning up the band for Sweet Chin Music, or CM Punk is motioning for the Go To Sleep, heart rates climb when we see the signs. Does Sweet Chin Music require a tuning of the band every time? No, but the build to it allows for more options in the storytelling. If we didn’t rely upon certain gestures to build anticipation, we wouldn’t experience the highs of the follow through, or the lows of the counter-move. A wrestler of measured temperament, when Jake “The Snake” Roberts’ raised his forefinger and swirled it in a lasso motion, there was little uncertainty as to what would happen next. Times have changed, and not every finisher results in victory. Those false finishes are usually met with another universally-accepted gesture in wrestling: an expression of disbelief and three fingers held up in protest.
A properly-timed protest can be a game-changing gesture in wrestling. Be it a tag team partner distracting the referee, or an indignant heel showing his nasty side, they need to get the job done without the benefit of a microphone. One of the all-time greatest protesters was Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. He was a man of conventional appearance, save the occasional sequinned jacket. But Bobby could work himself into a lather when the occasion called for it, or incite a “Weasel” chant just by cocking his eyebrow at the crowd. The more he protested the chant, the louder it got. How poetic that today’s best manager, Paul Heyman, can do the same to start a “Walrus” chant.
Just as wrestlers can conduct a symphony of jeers, they can summon our support. Who doesn’t recognize the sign for “I cannot get out of this hold unless you clap rhythmically for me!” And clap we do, most every time. Sometimes we clap because they clap first (especially if it’s Christian, he’s a clapper alright). Sometimes we clap because they’re clapping for us, and we want to clap right back. Gestures that encourage audience participation play an important role in the storytelling process. Starting up a clap may seem insignificant, but it captures our attention. Once they have that, they can show us what’s really important.
Call it an oddly-costumed soap opera, a violent ballet, a circus without the bears… today’s professional wrestling defies labels because it encompasses much more than simple grappling. I’ve enjoyed musing about how body language is used to tell a story. For me, eloquence on the microphone is helpful, but eloquence in the ring is everything.