Is Dance an Art or a Sport?
It’s a heated debate. If you’ve ever talked to a dancer about this topic, you’ve probably been scared away by their forceful assertion that dance is very much a sport, requiring just as much blood, sweat, and tears as football or fencing. If you’re a dancer, you’ve probably had your blood boil more than once when people make assumptions about your very dear craft. But in the end, one side has to win. Is dance an art or a sport? Let’s settle this now.
Step Into the Dancer’s Shoes for a Moment
No pun intended. As always in arguments and debates, it’s important to practice empathy and understand each other’s points of view. So let’s try to understand why dancers want their craft to be called a sport. In short, society has a much better opinion of sports than it does of dance. Society’s view of dance in general could be described as one or more of the following:
- A fun social activity that you do at parties
- Dabbing, nae-nae-ing, and stuff you see on viral YouTube videos
- Flitting around in a pink tutu
- “Interpretive dance”
Society’s view of sports is more like this:
- Blood, sweat, determination, competitive drive
- Hours in the gym
- Pursuit of high honors, be it an Olympic gold or a World Cup
- An exciting thing to follow on TV
If you were a dancer who had been training pre-professionally since age 6, spending hours a day being yelled at by your coaches (teachers), bleeding through your gear (pointe shoes), and relentlessly attending tryouts (auditions) for a chance to make it big, which list would you want to be associated with?
Notice I said WANT to be associated with. Just because you want something or think you deserve something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.
The Definitions of Sports and Arts
According to dictionary.com: “An athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature.”
According to Oxford: “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”
According to dictionary.com: “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.”
According to Merriam-Webster: “The conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects .”
Which One Best Describes Dance?
In order for something to be a sport, it must require skill and physical prowess/exertion, and it should probably be of a competitive nature. Dance requires skill and physical exertion, and it can be of a competitive nature. (Dance Moms, anyone?)
In order for something to be an art, it must consciously use skill and creative imagination to express something beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance. Dance fits this pretty well, too. It would be hard to argue that a classical production of The Nutcracker wasn’t beautiful in some way, or that a provocative modern dance piece had no significance.
So… is dance an art or a sport? Is it both? Is it some weird hybrid? My answer may annoy you, but if you keep reading I think it’ll make sense.
I am of the opinion that dance can be either a sport, an art, or both, depending on what kind of dance you do, your approach to the study of it, and in what context you perform for other people. Let’s look at a few examples.
A 14-year-old girl who has been training at a studio in LA since she was 6, studying jazz, contemporary, tap, and ballet. She competes regularly and is preparing herself for a professional career.
Dance is definitely a sport in this case. The routines she learns for competitions might be artistic in nature, but her teachers choreograph them with the intention that they will be pitted against other dances. You can liken this to ice skating or gymnastics, where coaches compose an aesthetically pleasing combination of tricks that athletes perform for the judges.
A professional dancer/choreographer who performs mostly site-specific modern dance works, using a combination of movement, music, and spoken text to address social issues in our society. They have little technical training, but their work has been very successful at moving audiences and inciting discussion.
100% art. This dancer is striving for very different goals than the girl above. One seeks a national title, the other seeks to communicate artistic intent. Both goals require a lot of hard work and refinement of the way the person moves their body onstage, but our site-specific modern dance friend is refining an art form, not a sport strategy.
A hip-hop dancer who learned some moves by watching YouTube videos and going to the club with his friends. He and his friends get together to “jam” every once in awhile, but they don’t put on performances per se.
This is a tricky one, because you can liken it to friends getting together to toss a basketball around, or to jazz musicians getting together to improvise some cool tunes. One is sport, one is art. Whether this kind of dance is sport or art depends on the attitude of those involved. Maybe they have regular dance-offs with each other and it’s more competitive, or maybe they’re more cooperative in coming up with creative new moves and routines. You would have to assess this kind of dance on a case-by-case basis.
Where do You Fit In?
I could go through many more examples like those above, but I think you get the picture. Consider what kind of dancer you’re talking about, and use that in your explanation next time you tell someone why dance is a sport, an art form, or both.
Non-dancers, be considerate when you talk to a dancer about how you would categorize their craft. No matter what, make sure they know you understand how difficult, complex, and underrated dance is as a field of study. That’s what the whole “art vs. sport” debate is really about when you boil it down.
Dancers, next time you want to bite someone’s head off for insulting your craft, take a deep breath and look at the bigger picture. Acknowledge the ways that, yes, dance is not like a sport, then politely state your opinion about why it is. Remember that you can’t change everyone’s mind, so don’t be discouraged if your argument doesn’t work. There will always be a few haters to deal with, no matter what you choose to do with your life.