Dance and Sports

There was a post made in which the following question was posed: “Is dance a sport?” and a colleague suggested that I give this topic some thought. So my initial opinion was “NO, dance is most definitely not a sport”. And being the type of person that I am, I looked up the definition of sport and this is what I found:

Sport: an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.
“team sports such as baseball and soccer”

And then I looked up the definition of dance and this is what I found:

Dance: 1 : an act of stepping or moving through a series of movements usually in time to music. 2 : a social gathering for dancing. 3 : a set of movements or steps for dancing usually in time to special music. The samba is a popular dance of Brazil. 4 : the art of dancing “She is studying dance.”

In looking at these two definitions, it would appear that dance is not a sport. But I have come across this question many times in my life and so I figure that there must be something more to this comparison. There are certainly similarities between sports and dance: both require enormous skill and talent, both require extensive physical training, and both generate enormous excitement for its audiences. There is, however, one enormous difference: the ultimate goal. The goal of a sport is to win. This is why a sport is played. This is what the fans come to see. It is the thrill of the win that inspires the excitement. It is the suspense of the competition that keeps the fans enthralled. The goal of dance, however, is different. The goal of dance is, in most instances, to create a work of art that moves its audience. It is the need for this artistic expression that keeps dancers dancing and it is the art that they make that thrills its audience. The world of competitive dance does blur the line somewhat; but even when dancers compete, I believe that the goal is (or should be) artistic expression. The “win” is secondary.

So why the comparison? Why have I heard the phrase “Dancers are athletes”? And why have I heard that phrase come from the mouths of dancers? I have NEVER heard an athlete say “Athletes are dancers”.

I think that this stems from how our culture views sports, how our culture views the arts and how we in the dance industry feel about these viewpoints. Clearly, the average American is far more likely to be interested in sports than in the arts and is certainly more likely to know the name of a star athlete than a great ballerina. When I was a child, I actually thought there was something fundamentally wrong with me because I wasn’t interested in, and had no aptitude for sports. There is, for the most part, an importance and status placed upon the athlete that is not shared by the dancer. And in response to this inequity, some members of our industry have suggested that “dancers are athletes” or that what we do as dancers is “harder than sports”. I remember many years ago an episode of the television series Fame, in which football players took a dance class with dancers. The dancers sailed through the class with ease while the football players failed miserably, thereby proving that the dancers were superior to the athletes in their abilities. But if you think about it, the comparison is a bit ridiculous. Dance requires training; grueling, strenuous, repetitive, meticulous training. Training that athletes simply don’t have. Of course the football players failed. And should the dancers have been asked to engage in the training that experienced football players undergo, they would have failed just as miserably.

Those of us who are serious dancers, those of us who have made dance our lives probably have this one thing in common: We did not choose dance. Dance chose us. We simply have to do it. We have no choice. And if we try to stop (as I did…for 9 years) it simply pulls us back. The love and the passion that we have for this art can be all-consuming. And since dance is so very, very difficult to excel at and to make a living at, why on earth would anyone CHOOSE it?

One of the benefits that comes with age is that one no longer cares what others think. When I was younger my peers’ opinion of me, my family’s opinion of me, and society’s opinion of me were all very important. But with each passing year I cared less and less. And when I finally stopped caring how others viewed me, my life changed, my teaching career took off and I started to be truly happy (for the very first time in my life). I think that we, as an industry, need to stop caring how we are viewed. We are never going to convince the “average American” that we are athletes and that what we do is as hard or harder than sports. We are probably never going to gain the admiration that athletes enjoy. We are probably never going to make the money that athletes make. And I think that every time we try to make the claim that we are “athletes” or that what we do is “harder than sports” we are, in a way, telling society that we, ourselves, hold sports and athletes in higher regard. If we did not, we wouldn’t be making these claims. As I said earlier, you never hear an athlete say “athletes are dancers”.

I do think that there is one more very important similarity between athletes and dancers: we both love what we do in a very deep and profound way. I think that athletes have the same drive and passion that dancers do. And what a gift that passion is! I can’t imagine what a life would be like without that passion. Even when I was not dancing, the passion was still there; smoldering just below the surface. So rather than trying to convince the world at large of our value, importance and status, why not just celebrate the beauty and joy in what we do? I would like to believe that if we make art with real integrity it will find its audience. We can best show the world our importance by simply being who we are and doing what we do. And perhaps one day our society may view us with the same regard, respect and awe with which they view great athletes. And perhaps they will not. And as far as I am concerned it doesn’t really matter because I simply no longer care. I get to live my life as a dancer. I get to bring this art form to my students. I get to live a life that is filled with passion for what I do. Is there a greater gift than that?

2 thoughts on “Dance and Sports

  1. My main exposure to the concept of pitting dance and sport against each other is from dance memes online. I’ve not liked the entire concept, and as the pictures of ‘football’ are of American football, I’ve mainly dismissed is as one of those distasteful things you learn about American culture through the internet, and and moved on.

    The only other times I’ve ever compared dance to sport has been with my brother, comparing it to his great love, cricket. We concluded that both dance and ballet work towards the same thing, the ability to do the same collections of actions over and over and over, so you can stop thinking about what you’re doing, and just get on and do it and focus on other things. In cricket (he was mainly a batsman) to respond to the ball and field placements, without having to think about how to respond, and in ballet, of course, to ‘forget’ your technique and just dance.

    And then there was the one time when, my brother told me in great amusement, his team had been told by their coach they were ‘like a bunch of ballet dancers!’ when they weren’t working hard enough. I got all up in arms, and my brother assured me his coach did indeed know how hard ballet dancers worked! I think I was being teased 😉

    I can’t remember the other kids in ballet either comparing ballet to a sport defend ballet in the face of it. It’s almost as if they were two such completely different worlds the idea of comparing them wasn’t there. But also, both as a kid and later as an adult, dancing with teenagers and other adults, we’re all doing other physical activities, mostly sports, and mostly (yes, the girls!) one of the various forms of football played in the NT of Australia, or basketball or netball.

    But, looking at that comparison and need to defend ballet as better than football, does it come from the esteem football is held in the US?

    It seems ‘distasteful’ because … to quote a friend ‘I believe you should be very careful what you give power to.’ Comparing ballet to football gives football a level of power that … well does it have in the community in general? does it have compared to ballet? should it have?

    And if you’re trying to build ballet’s esteem, wouldn’t using the power of football to help hoist ballet up, instead of diminishing footy? ‘Come and see the dancers, they’re as spectacular as the footy!’
    I too have always thought it really dumb to take an athlete out of the area they train in, to a completely different one, and expect them to cope with it at all. Only people who’ve never, as my brother and I both have in our different loves, cricket and ballet, focused on honing your body to perfection in a very limited area.
    Speaking of ‘the footy’, that brings me to my final point. US football is actually kinda considered pretty lowly in Australia. Like uh what kind of game, and what kind of urban warrior does it make you, to play a game you pad yourself up with so much protection to play?! I refer you to Rugby league
    or Rugby union! ;-D


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