Ah, the age old debate: Is dance a sport? This was the question I decided to tackle when I was assigned an argumentative essay in my composition class. Though quite lengthy, I decided that it was worth sharing on here because I really had fun writing it and I firmly believe everything in it. So here it is! (Also, enjoy these photos of me from 2015!)
When a dancer is onstage, they are thoroughly alive. In fact, it is a feeling of being more than alive. As the dancer stands anxiously waiting backstage, their stomach turns over and over, like an internal game of “heads or tails”, but with their intestines instead of a coin. However, the activity of their stomach is nothing compared to what is going through their mind. Among the ocean of mental noise rising in tides, thoughts that float to the surface include (but are certainly not limited to) “Is my ribbon tied?”, “My shoes are dead.” ,and “What the heck is the first step?!”. However, as soon as the dancer hears their cue and steps out on stage, the ocean of malicious voices in her head are calmed and silenced. Instead, the buzz of adrenaline fills her mind. For those few moments of pure bliss, it is just she, her body, the music, and the movement alone on stage; even the large audience sitting before her fades from her immediate awareness. Before she knows it she is in her final pose, and the sound of applause is drowned out by the blood pounding in her head. Once she exits the stage, she bends down -hands on her knees- completely out of breath. The performance she just executed was not only one of emotional and artistic expression, but one requiring extreme physical exertion. From her first entrance onto stage every inch of her body is engaged, and all of the hours of physical training become evident by the toned muscles flexed beneath the skin tight costume she had to hold her breath to get zipped up. She engages her core in order to maintain lengthy balances on the three inch platform on her toes, and summons all of the strength in her quadriceps to bound gracefully through the air. The extreme physical demands placed upon dancers lead many to call foul when dance is excluded from the list of various activities that are called sports. Dancers without a doubt deserve the credit they don’t often receive for the athleticism involved in the wide range of complex movements they perform, but joining the metaphorical fraternity of physical activities that hold the title of sport is not the way to receive this due credit.
Dancers often get defensive when this controversy is addressed to them. To say to a dancer that the physical activity they pour an unbelievable amount of hours into for an incomprehensible number of days a week ( I guess incomprehensible if you are incapable of counting to seven) is enough to receive the harsh (and deserved) backlash they are sure to dole out. They are sure to engage in a lengthy lecture about the difficulty of dancing in toe shoes, where a dancer’s entire body weight is placed a three inch platform that allows her to stand on her toes, and if not about toe shoes the lecture is sure to contain a vivid description of how to perform the splits. At this point the (often unintentional) antagonist will, more than likely, attempt to take back what they have said and appease the dancer in any way possible. The brave (or incredibly stupid) few will continue to insist dance is not a sport. As a dancer, I would be expected to jump in and fly to the defense of my art form. Conversely, if told dance is not a sport, I will agree. (Gasp! No! Dancers everywhere cry out in rage. A mob of individuals in tutus carrying torches proceeds towards my location.).
In order to explain why dance is not a sport, I will explain what it actually is: an art.According to an article published in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy written by Adajian, “something is a work of art if and only if (i) it has a subject (ii) about which it projects some attitude or point of view (has a style) (iii) by means of rhetorical ellipsis (usually metaphorical) which ellipsis engages audience participation in filling in what is missing, and (iv) where the work in question and the interpretations thereof require an art historical context (Danto, Carroll)” (Adajian 2018). Dance checks all of the boxes on this list, specifically the one about ellipsis engaging audience participation by filling in what is missing. This is one of the strongest points of dance: the ability to fill in the gaps that words can’t. Dance is far more than a physical pursuit- it is intellectual, emotional, and, in some cases, spiritual.
As Alice Blumenfield puts it in a Dance Magazine article, “when we separate movement from intellect, we limit what dance can do for the world.” (Blumenfeld,2018) This statement speaks volumes. In calling dance a sport, it completely ignores the metaphysical aspects of dance and focuses purely on the physicality and competitiveness of dance. Dance has the power to cross cultures-to allow communication to take place where it would normally be absent. In a Croatian Medical Journal, a multi-author paper was published discussing the use of art to communicate with patients stating “ Although one of the simplest, art is the most effective way to approach the patient and produce the effect that no other means of communication can achieve.”(Braš, M., Đorđević, V., & Janjanin, M., 2013) This speaks to the power of art, not just to communicate across language barriers, but to even be applicable in communicating to medical patients in a therapeutic way. This is a power that dance possesses, and sports lack. Although sports may be enjoyed by people across cultures, they don’t facilitate communication the same way an art, such as dance, would.
Now, there is one exception to my belief that dance is not a sport, and that is competitive dance. A sport is defined as “an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature,. ”(Sport 2018) which is a description that competitive dance fits. In competitive dance, studios will form teams of dancers that compete against one another in order to receive a distinction of first, second, third (and so on) place. Sometimes they are competing for cash prizes, or scholarships to prestigious dance schools. The main objection I have to competitive dance is that it devalues the artistic quality of dance by reducing it to simple scores. Art is subjective; it can, and should, be interpreted uniquely by each individual that witnesses it, and it should be allowed to move them each in a different way. It is impossible to score art; if it were possible to express feelings in numbers, then rather than writing a poem for the person you love you would write them a lengthy math equation.
This discussion has even become controversial on the Olympic level as there has been conversation surrounding the addition of break dancing to the games. In the New York Times, Mather writes, “Plans are going smoothly for a new break dancing event at the Youth Olympics in Argentina in October”.(Mather, 2018) If this were to happen, a form of dance would be receiving recognition as a sport on a large scale. However, there is still hesitation to do so, as later in the article Mather writes, “ to many people it is still an art form most associated with the 1980s”. I am among those people that would agree with this statement. Saying that dance is an art rather than a sport is not an attempt to discount the great physical effort and ability it requires, but rather an attempt to elevate it above the physical and give it the respect it deserves as an athletic art form.
The dancer is in the wings gasping for breath. And through the cramping muscles, bruised toenails, and aching limbs, she smiles. She knows that what she has just done has moved someone. She knows that what moved them wasn’t the powerful leap through the air, or the leg lifted up to her ear. It was the subtle placement of her hand, the slight flutter of her lashes, and the shine in her eyes. This is what sets dance apart from sports. She communicated a message, she calmed a mind- maybe even inspired a heart.
Braš, M., Đorđević, V., & Janjanin, M. (2013). Person-centered pain management - science and art. Croatian Medical Journal, 54(3), 296–300. https://doi.org/10.332S/cmj.2013.54.296
Mather, V. (2018, April 23). The Olympics Would Be Better With a Breakdancing Competition. Discuss. Retrieved October 15, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/23/sports/breakdancing-olympics.html
Blumenfeld, A. (2018, July 30). Don't Get It Twisted: Dance Is An Intellectual Pursuit. Retrieved October 15, 2018, from https://www.dancemagazine.com/dance-intellectual-2589248186.html
Adajian, T. (2018, September 21). The Definition of Art. Retrieved November 5, 2018, from https://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=art-definition
Sport. (2018). Retrieved November 5, 2018, from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/sport