“Jesse, don’t you think that dance is a sport?”
“You ask that like it’s something desirable to be.”
Probably the most common question that I am asked by dance moms, dancers, and even athletes is that of whether or not dance is a sport. Most often the question is posed in the suggestive form–“ISN’T dance a sport?” or “Dance is a sport, RIGHT?”
Let’s take this seemingly simple question apart. The question is often asked in the suggestive because the person asking is assuming that my answer will be “yes, of course dance is a sport.” Why do they confidently assume that answer? Because one thing they know for certain about me is that I hold dance in high regard–probably the highest, as a matter of fact–and they are correct about that. Which is exactly why they are so surprised when I throw another question back at them, asking why a sport is something dance would desire to be.
So…why are so many people assuming that dance somehow needs to EARN the recognition of being a sport, or perhaps more accurately, why is it a put down to label dance as somehow outside the arena of sport? Why do young people want to be able to say to their non-dancing peers “yes I do a sport too–dance!”
Clearly the reason is that because sports enjoy such an exalted place in American society, the widespread assumption is that sports are unquestionably loved, enjoyed, and respected. Therefore, shouldn’t another activity so deeply invested in the movement of the human body that is also loved, enjoyed, and respected be enveloped within the category of sport? The unstated logic is that if dance is acknowledged as a sport, then it would be entitled to the same respect.
I argue, however, that we can respect and love dance and still acknowledge its profound differences from sport. Here’s where I draw the line:
Dance is an art. Its primary and fundamental purpose is to express the vision, emotions, and message of the artist and evoke an emotional response in the audience/viewer. The purpose of sport is to compete–to push the limits of one’s physical capabilities and skill for the purpose of beating a competitor. I know, I know, as a dance judge I should realize that dance can be competitive and that sports can evoke emotions in the spectator, but in both cases, those are not the ultimate and stated goal. Dance competitions are structured such that every competitor receives critiques from the judges–for the express purpose of educating young dancers and inspiring improvement. The ultimate goal (for many) is to become a professional dancer–in a non-competitive performance venue.
I’ll certainly entertain the notion that dance is the most athletic of the arts and–if we temporarily imagine dance as a sport–the most artistic of sports, but let’s remember why we dance in the first place. I don’t think anyone chooses to become a dancer because they love trophies. I think we choose to become dancers because we remember the moment, sitting in the audience, that we fell in love with the emotions this art form evokes in us. We want to do that for our audience, whether that is a panel of judges, our friends and family, or passersby. I often tell my students that their primary goal should be for–and they’ll know they’ve “made it” when–a stranger takes a date they want to impress out to see their performance. Is there any better indicator of quality? I love the idea that dancers’ ultimate competition is with themselves, not with others.
My concern is not the question of “whether or not” dance is “good enough” to be included in the realm of sports. My question is what’s wrong with being an art? Why don’t the arts enjoy the same respect and prestige in American society that sports do? Let’s make that our issue!