The Sports Sermon: The case for dance

September 18, 2014

If you’re a sports fan, and you happen to be friends with dance enthusiasts, I promise you, at some point, you’ll be out to dinner and someone will turn to you and say, “So, why don’t you think dance is a sport?” Fun fact: unless your answer expounds on how competitive dance is underrated and is deserving of a prime-time slot on ESPN, your night’s about to get a whole lot worse. 

The vast majority of dancers are adamant that their pastime has what it takes to be considered as, if not more, difficult than the sports we’re used to watching. For the most part, they’re right, but the definition of “sport” is changing and leaving behind activities that would otherwise be included. 

Serious dance training is hard—take it from a kid who quit tap class four months in. I can only imagine what it takes to become truly great at a style that’s a little more intense, like ballroom or ballet. Rehearsals are long and arduous, both strength and balance are required, and you’re working in a team environment. Precision is a must if you really want to make it in the world of dance, from the top of your head, right down to the direction of your toes. 

There are, nonetheless, a few aspects of dance that make many a sports fan a little skeptical of its legitimacy as a sport. For one, points and competition are not necessarily intrinsic to dance. The spectacle can be conducted simply for the purpose of entertainment. The point of a dance performance is to do the style right, to perfect the ideal aesthetic form. There’s also a distinct lack of running in dance, which seems to be a staple in the land of sportsdom. Asking those indignant dancers if they could make it through a four-mile jog has been my only defense on those fateful nights. 

You might think you’ve sufficiently argued against competitive dance, but every point made against its inclusion as a sport categorically eliminates other athletic activities that are unquestionably considered sports. Some dancers might not be able to run three miles, but the same could be said of more than a few players in the MLB, or golfers on the PGA circuit. It’s also true that certain sports, such as NASCAR, involve little to no running whatsoever. ( If we’re going to use intrinsic performance quality as an argument against dance, we had better eliminate snowboard freestyle and gymnastics from the Olympics.

The truth is we really don’t have an objective definition of sport that excludes dance to the benefit of all the activities that popularly retain the label. That’s not for lack of physical qualifications, but rather an intangible cultural standard that dictates how we decide what’s sport and what’s art. 

Unfortunately, Americans tend to fall prey to binaries. Something can’t be sports and art: it has to be one or the other. We’re taught that when you lace up cleats, you’re playing a sport, and when you lace up pointe shoes, you’re performing an art. For many, it’s hard to fathom that an activity can be considered both.  

It’s the same sort of binary that has led Americans to classify activities like competitive equestrianism, figure skating, and sailing as something other than what they intrinsically are: sport. For whatever reason, as it matured, America just couldn’t find a space for them in the box that also contained football, hockey, baseball, and basketball. 

Should fans of such pastimes be worried about the popular opinions of those that would deny them the moniker of sport? Probably not. Do what you like, like what you do. But sports fans would do well to remember that you’ll find athletes outside of Fox Sports 1 and ESPN. Just because someone is performing a plie or releve doesn’t mean what they’re doing deserves a sports fan’s dismissal.


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