Is Dance a Sport or Art form? It's Not As Controversial As You Think

There is no doubt that dancers are athletic. The sheer physical demand it takes to be a dancer is immeasurable and ever-changing. There is no doubt that dancers are artists. Through the physical body, the expression of dance is unlike any other in the performing arts. There is beauty, grace, emotion, power, and communication. There is a long-standing argument regarding how dancers are referred to, especially in relation to athletics. The question, “Is dance a sport?” has been a hot topic for many years. I am here to discuss why it is unnecessary and potentially harmful to continue separating dance’s artistry from its athleticism. 

I walked into a faculty senate meeting at the university I was teaching at a few years ago. Having come directly from teaching an advanced jazz class, I was drenched in sweat and red in the face. A particular person of influence that was present asked what we had been doing that day. I was a bit surprised by his question. We had only ever spoken in person at my interview, and he admittedly had very little knowledge of dance, so it was a quick interaction. I started to take him through a typical warm-up and technique class, and he seemed to be more confused as I carried on. As a father of multiple athletes, he clearly was familiar with athletic training. When he began to hear that there were many similarities between sports and what our dancers did, he was shocked. He actually looked at me and with utter disbelief and said, “They do like push-ups and stuff?” I tried to keep my facial expressions in check (I’m not very good at hiding my reactions) and I quickly jumped on the opportunity to continue the conversation. I loved watching his interest perk up as we chatted, and I quickly realized that going on the defense in that moment wasn’t necessary nor productive. I invited him to come peek in on a class sometime so that he could better understand what a dancer’s life looks like. I saw his face a couple of times, and then not long after, he came to the first theatrical performance he had attended there (and maybe anywhere). I’m certainly not taking credit for his new found interest, but I was thrilled to see how much our relationship changed after that day. He approached me at intermission to compliment the work on stage. This was the beginning of a genuine respect for each other and our areas of expertise. It didn’t hurt that he found out I was also a sports nut, which he was surprised by. 

Instead of cutting out certain titles, we should be embracing all of the things that encompass what a person is.

It really began to rack my brain that there was still this massive wall between athletics and dance. It’s one thing if you’re unfamiliar with dance training to not understand the similarities, but certainly another when you’re in the field. Instead of focusing on the differences, I tend to favor the similarities. It seemed bizarre to me that so many people in the dance world were offended by the idea of dancers being athletes, because they were adamant about them being called artists. Acknowledging all of the skills of a dancer certainly better represents them than not. 

Time and commitment. I’ve kept those words separated for good reason. Once the decision has been made to train to be a serious dancer, the amount of time spent in studio hours begins adding up quickly. Even at a young age, students can sometimes spend 40 hours a week on their dance training. This includes class time, rehearsals, cross-training, stretching, and studying. This is all comparable to what joining a football team entails. Practices begin during the summer, and even when school begins, the majority of time spent outside of school is at practice, training, and games. Commitment to this time is absolutely necessary, and different than just showing up. When you make a commitment to a team, a promise is made. This promise includes being on time, being prepared, working your absolute hardest and smartest, and having your team’s back. As a committed team member, you are expected to keep showing up and understand that you are but one small part of a much bigger entity. Commitment for dancers is very similar. Most dancers are registered in classes that meet regularly, as well as the countless hours they work privately. When committing to a class, you hold a responsibility to give to the class just as much as everyone else. You are a part of an ensemble, not just an individual person in the space. This includes being on time, being prepared, working your absolute hardest and smartest, and respecting the class and the artform. Sound familiar? 

Neither of these activities are easy. They are challenging, taxing, exhausting, and demanding. The commitment portion is mostly reflected in the grace of those hard moments, and the ability to never give up. Some days you will succeed, and some days you will fail. Whether it is on a football team or in a dance studio, there is so much more skill that is necessary to progress, other than physical. If you think that’s all it takes, you couldn’t be more wrong. 

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Back to the question: is dance a sport?. It has been announced that breakdancing is on the books to participate in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. It is being recognized as not only world-wide and diverse, but creative, inventive, and physically challenging. Does this mean that breakdancing is no longer an artform? Absolutely not. Martial Arts literally has the term in its name. It is most certainly an art, but is widely recognized as a sport. Other sports that participate in the Olympics include less commonly recognized forms of dance; Gymnastics, figure skating, and artistic swimming (formerly known as synchronized swimming). I’m not even going to open the discussion up about the multitude of dance forms that participate in competitions and adjudications. Bottom line: dancers are athletes, but also still artists.

It seemed bizarre [...] so many people in the dance world were offended by the idea of dancers being athletes

Instead of cutting out certain titles, we should be embracing all of the things that encompass what a person is. Labels can insult, limit, as well as create conflict. We tell our dancers to not put themselves in a box, so why would we do it to them? Instead of arguing that they are either artists or athletes, we should widen our scope in order to support proper representation of what dancers truly are. Yes, there are differences. However, the similarities are much greater, and keeping the discussion progressing in a positive forward motion is necessary.

photo © Pete Linforth

About the author

Megan Glynn Zollinger holds a BA in Dance from Chapman University, and an MFA in Dance from the University of California, Irvine. At UCI, Megan worked directly under the tutelage of Donald McKayle, who was her thesis mentor and advisor. Formerly an Assistant Professor of Dance and the Director of the BFA Dance program at Colorado Mesa University, Megan is currently an Assistant Professor of Dance at Chico State. A native of Napa, CA, Megan began dancing at the age of four and by the time she was 15, she was teaching and choreographing. Megan’s training was focused in commercial dance, as well as musical theatre and voice. She is an active member of NDEO, ACDA, and MTEA.