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Is Dance a Sport?

“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!

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Youth, the Arts, and Self-Actualization

I’m often accused of favoring the arts, especially dance, over sports. Some have even accused me of being anti-athletics. This view, however, is a misunderstanding of my actual and carefully constructed opinion that I’ve decided to attempt (please note this is an attempt!) to articulate here. Please bear with me!

My views are deeply influenced by the work of Abraham Maslow, who in 1943 began to lay out his ideas regarding human needs. Let me try to sum it up for you: Imagine a pyramid of human needs. Each level needs to be satisfied in order to be able to move up the pyramid. At the bottom are the physiological needs: food, water, air, the most basic stuff you need to stay alive. Only then, when these are satisfied can you worry about the next level: safety and security. This is the level concerned with having shelter, being safe from harm from nature and from other humans. This frees you up to worry about the third level of needs: love and affection. This can be accomplished by close relationships with family and friends—basically feeling loved and supported by others. Then, the fourth and final of the “deficiency needs”—the needs that have to be met or else you feel the deficiency and are less healthy—is that of esteem. This is the level where you feel confident, proud of yourself, and have a definite sense of self-worth. In essence, your self-esteem. Most people never get beyond these first four needs and many never even make it to the fourth.

But we’re not done yet! Those are the deficiency needs. These all must be accomplished merely to have a healthy individual—someone who is able to function and get things done. But simply being free from deficiencies is not living up to your full potential! There are two additional needs on this pyramid: the “growth needs.” These are the needs that take you beyond the basics of being physically and mentally healthy. The first is comprised of intellectual growth. This doesn’t mean formal education, but rather being curious about the world around you, simply wanting to know things, to be investigative and interested in learning. Then, once all these previous levels have been accomplished, one can hope to achieve the highest growth need—the aesthetic. At this level, you are able to see, appreciate, and passionately consume the beauty in the world around you. And not only that, but you also can see yourself within that beauty—you truly, genuinely, value your own contribution to the beauty in the world. Only then can you fully actualize your full potential as a human being. This is what Maslow called “self-actualization.”

I believe that one can find that beauty in a number of ways, but I believe the arts are best suited to that particular experience. When you watch a student work on an artistic piece for months and months perfecting their technique, developing their artistic stage persona, pushing themselves beyond the limits of what they thought they could accomplish and then, finally, it’s showtime and they are backstage, nervous, doubting whether they can do it in front of an audience.

Then, she goes out there, she does her dance all out, finding within herself the courage and passion and the emotion to express herself, in a way that never seems to happen during rehearsal. Instead, she is fueled by the adrenaline from performing in front of a live audience. But, she is not dancing to ENTERTAIN—the audience is not the boss here; she is. She is there to satisfy herself. She is there, performing on stage to prove something to herself. She is, in fact, transformed by the very act of performance. And when it is over, when she leaves the stage, she knows she nailed it. She accomplished something more beautiful, intense, and emotional than she ever thought she could have.

That is that moment of self-actualization. The moment of transcendence, when you stop being yourself and you are merely a part of the astonishing mosaic of beauty that is the wondrous world around us.

The difference between dance and sports is that dance is an art. I mean no disrespect and I certainly don’t wish to demean sports at all, but I do believe that the arts are in a unique position to satisfy those two additional growth needs on the way to self-actualization, mainly because artistic pieces emerge from within the artist. When you are onstage, daring yourself to go farther than you thought you could to express the feelings that you carry with you, you lose yourself within yourself before an audience. It is not about being better than someone else or playing a game better than someone else and “winning.” In dance, all of us win…

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