Dancers are fighting for recognition in the sports world — should they have to?
I am an athlete. My sport is dance.
Whenever I tell people that I usually get a funny look.
“But dance isn’t a sport,” they say. I usually brush it off in an effort to not get into an argument with someone. But honestly, this comment bothers me.
Why do people disregard dance as a sport? I’ve heard everything from, it doesn’t involve a ball to it isn’t a part of the Olympic Games in order to justify the sentiment. In my opinion though, the definition of “sport” is always changing. I mean, if chess is considered a sport, dance is definitely a sport.
Let’s break this down.
Dance is like any other activity. As Malcom Gladwell says, if you want to be an expert you have to work at it for 10,000 hours. Dancers train for years to acquire the skills they have. Much like other sports, most dancers begin training as a toddler. To compare, many professional hockey players started skating at three or four years old. I began my dance training at two. I started out with ballet and eventually branched out to jazz, tap, modern and hip hop.
In high school I exclusively did hip hop and ballet. I was dancing upwards of 20 hours a week. Some dancers are in the studio even more than that.
Dancers are also team players. Take ballet, for example. Even though there is a prima ballerina, every other dancer in a ballet is vital to the success of the show. In competitions, each person on the team works together to impress the judges and earn medals. I was on several teams throughout my dance career. As a child, I spent ten years on a competitive tap dance team. After that, starting in eighth grade, I spent five years dancing competitively as a breakdancer and hip hop dancer. In high school, I was a member of the varsity dance team. Just as each player is important to the outcome of a game, each dancer contributes to the end result of the dance.
With a team comes competition. Dancers are intensely competitive — anyone who watches Dance Moms knows this. Many of them, including myself, competed in several competitions a year throughout their career. At these competitions, studios from all over the country compete for both individual medals and overall high scores. Dancers also compete within their studios to gain these opportunities such as a solo piece or higher recognition from the choreographer. Those who win enough medals or score high enough, often qualify for national competitions.
Dancers also compete with themselves. For me, competitions weren’t about the other studios but rather about me beating my high scores and improving my own skills.
Like any other physical activity or sport, dance is incredibly tough on one’s body. I still have joint issues and chronic tendonitis from my combination of ballet training and breakdancing. Dancers have to be incredibly strong to perform the choreography they are given.
Ballet, often seen as solely an art form rather than a sport, is one of the hardest forms of dance to execute well. Professional ballerinas put their bodies through turmoil in order to seem so graceful on stage. Have you ever wondered how ballerinas can look as though they are floating across the stage or flying while doing a leap? They need to have immense amounts of muscle control to pull that off.
Shoes are also a huge part of dance, and sometimes a point of injury if you aren’t careful with them. Most ballet dancers, including myself, dance “en pointe,” which means wearing ridiculously uncomfortable shoes made of fabric and wood. I would literally put all of my body weight on the tips of my toes and stand on a solid block of wood. These shoes cost me around $100 and I had to get a new pair every four to six months because the wood would break from all the pressure I put on them.
I was lucky, though, because I only did ballet once a week. Professional ballerinas who do it every day can go through 100 pairs per season.
As a breakdancer, my choreographer would often have me and the other dancers at my studio practice outside on concrete to get the experience of how professional breakdancers do it. This killed my hands, feet and knees. I would get cuts and bruises from rehearsals. And whenever we messed up a move, my choreographer would stop the music and make us plank or do pushups until he said stop. When we weren’t practicing, we were weight training and cardio training to build the strength and stamina needed to get us through our ten-minute dance numbers.
I don’t mention this to say you need to risk injuring yourself to be an athlete. In fact, injuries can ruin athletes’ careers and should be avoided. But dance is not as easy as many believe once you take a closer look. It takes an incredible amount of effort and endurance just like any other sport. Dancers put themselves through hell to perform with such grace. The crowd may not see the bruises or hear the crashes of bodies hitting the floor after an ethereal jump across the stage, but they are there.
Yes, of course, dance is an art form. Dancers are so graceful and beautiful on stage. But how do you think we are able to do that choreography with such grace?
It is because we are incredibly strong. We are incredibly disciplined. We have trained for years to be able to memorize and perform complex pieces of choreography. And we have to be intensely creative. Dancers are artists, without a doubt, but you cannot deny the amount of athleticism it takes to be that artistic on a stage.
While it may not be a traditional sport like football, baseball or soccer, dance requires just as much physical strength and prowess. Dancers are graceful, artistic and gentle, but we are also strong and determined, and deserve to be respected as athletes.
So, yes, I am an athlete. My sport is dance.
Header image and multimedia by Bridget Killian