If you’re a dancer, you have probably heard various forms of the “is dance a sport?” argument for longer than you can remember. You probably got into debates about it at some point and even used it as an essay topic in middle school (with a quote from Martha Graham, Balanchine, or Einstein thrown in for good measure).
Whatever. Yes dance and sports have some similarities, but I say they’re asking the wrong question. Sure, I get why people would want to align dance with something which has more funding and social support in our society, but what if dance was the standard which we compared other things to?
You know what’s more fun and mildly subversive than arguing why dance should be considered a type of sport? Arguing . . .
Why Sports Should be Considered a Form of Dance:
It is true that sports can be performed purely for competition, but at least in the professional world, athletic teams rely on the support of audience members (either live or though the use of film). Therefore, it is fair to assume that sports are primarily a form of theatrical entertainment which attracts audiences through both the virtuosity and dynamism of the movement itself and ongoing narrative arcs (which typically have predictable outcomes, but the exceptions can move entire cities to the streets).
Some people have been inclined to exclude sports from the category of artistic performance because of their largely un-choreographed nature. However, this ignores the importance of improvisation in today’s concert dance world. Furthermore, it is a mistake to assume that improvised movement lacks structure or intention. Football players, for instance, engage in a rule-based structured form of contact improvisation centered around a creatively-shaped ball prop.
Then there are the performers themselves: while it is difficult to generalize about their training, it is fair to say that many of them work hard at shaping their technique and consistency of movement, while also developing serious expressive abilities (tennis players, for example, even expand their expressions of anger and frustration to the realm of dance theater with vocal embellishments).
Of course, if we are to consider athletes as dancers, it is completely reasonable to judge them by standards of aesthetics, movement quality, musicality, and emotional appeal. Basketball players do quite well, impressing with their complex footwork, suspended jumps, and lively sense of rhythm, along with tense and quickly shifting partnerships. Baseball players are not as engaging on their feet, but their occasional floor work sections are delightfully fearless. I find golf players lacking in this department, but to be fair, I’ve never been much of a minimalist.
One might even argue that athletes deserve the same respect, pay, and access to medical treatment that dancers do.
So yes, I’m kidding, but I’m also a little serious. While I’m sick of dance getting the short end of the stick, I’m really not interested in claiming superiority over athletes.
In fact, on some level I honestly think that there is something radically beautiful in seeing sports, and any other movement in the world as dance. It means the viewer is the one deciding what is art (even if the creator thought they were just chasing a ball). It means the viewer has the authority to give art meaning. It means anyone can watch dance whenever they want. It means that we don’t have to teach people how to watch dance because they already do it all the time.
And then there’s the idea that dance is enough* in itself. The idea of “dance” is a perfectly legitimate and valuable framework for looking at what dancers do, and even for looking at the rest of the world. We don’t have to associate it with sports or other art forms or other academic fields for it to become legitimate.
Now get that football costume on and dance.
*An phrase I stole from this awesome post about Dance Movement Therapy