Op-ed: Let Dance and Sports Exists Separately

Photo by Jeff Watts  Designed by Lauren Jessica Brown

Photo by Jeff Watts

Designed by Lauren Jessica Brown

by contributor Eliza Wright

Dance is not a sport. As someone who dedicated my entire childhood and now my higher education to the activity, I can definitively say that I am not an athlete.

Let’s get one thing clear – dance is hard, as physically demanding as any sport. As I’m sure any athlete reading this can understand, mystery bruises constantly plaster my legs that have prompted my friends to suggest iron supplements, my feet are always cut, blistered and burned, and my eternal back pain rivals that of my 96-year-old grandfather. But just because dance is as physically and mentally demanding as athletics doesn’t mean they should be categorized as the same type of activity to be equally valued. Additionally, physical difficulty should not necessarily be a benchmark for value.

A lot of dancers fervently argue that dance is a sport because it makes you sweat, keeps you fit, and requires a solid understanding of a certain technique that you’re in constant pursuit of honing and perfecting; this, all while making super unnatural and difficult movements look easy, breezy, beautiful.

And I totally understand where they’re coming from – it’s frustrating that people misperceive the difficulty of dance. To oversimplify dance to five-year-old girls putting their arms above their heads and spinning around does this art form a major injustice. Growing up, my parents’ friends commended my brother for his dedication to baseball, and frequently predicted great success for him through his sport. I, on the other hand, was always asked how my “little dancey thing” was going, and if I thought I would be able to continue finding time for my hobby once I had more real life responsibilities. I was always confused why they assumed baseball was an avenue for success but dance was just a side activity that would inevitably yield to more serious pursuits.

So, in an effort to get more people to recognize the value and difficulty of dance, there is a tendency to equate it to that which American society holds in the highest of esteem. I insisted that I worked just as hard as my brother and should be considered an athlete just like him.

But labeling myself as an athlete always felt kind of wrong, and I began to realize that this false equivalence has broader implications and is not the solution to creating more recognition for the work of dancers and other artists.

Art and sports can exist separately and still be of equal value. And semantics do matter – sport implies competition and winning; art should not. I was maybe 14 when Dance Moms came out, a show that completely sensationalized dance competitions. Competitive dance and the culture surrounding it manipulate the art form into a path to stardom and high acclaim for aspiring young dancers. That culture invaded my tiny dance studio on Maui, where maybe only three or four graduates went on to become professionals in its forty-five years of existence. With the infiltration of Dance Moms, the sense of competition dominated every moment I was in that studio. Conversations about upcoming auditions became snippier, judgmental eyes during class became more frequent, and a bleak energy shift came at a time that’s already rough for teenage girls.

As if the trials and tribulations of puberty aren’t hard enough, spending hours upon hours every day staring at yourself (and other girls your age) in the mirror, studying every imperfection in the pursuit of beauty & perfection, and ultimately succumbing to relentless comparison is a lot to take on. Adding organized competition to that petri dish of hormones is exactly what creates that staple ballerina culture of iced coffee with a side of cigarettes for breakfast. After two years of relentlessly pushing back against the girls who thrived on the more competitive edge and strove to bring the ultra-commercialized dance competition scene to Maui, I finally admitted defeat and quit.

I vowed to never step foot in a dance studio again, a vow I broke on the first day of classes at AU when I realized I had accidentally signed up for a dance class under the guise of the name “Creative Practice.” I immediately wanted to drop the class, but my mom encouraged me to stick it out and see how it went. Suspicious at the lack of shit talking and the absence of those painfully fake pleasantries among the dancers, I didn’t know how to conduct myself among people that seemed to genuinely like each other, and, somehow, me. I ended up at an audition for a show and walked in fully prepared to put my head down and pretend not to hear the nasty whispers and judgmental stares, only to be confronted with encouragement and compliments from people I had barely knew or had never met.

I can honestly say that I’ve developed more as an artist in the past year and a half here than I ever did on Maui, which has everything to do with the absence of any form of competition and jealousy within this community.

Rather than focusing solely on right technique from wrong technique, I am learning how to value mine and other’s artistry and our collaborative contributions to the creative process. This is the fundamental difference between dance and sports – sports don’t involve creation. They involve a task, and either accomplishing or failing the task. This doesn’t mean that people don’t also do sports for fun, or that unhealthy competition doesn’t exist in sports. But people find sports fun because of their inherently competitive and goal-driven nature. Dance, on the other hand, involves creating something new, something different from anything that came before. Evolving through the creative process, the outcome doesn’t depend on keeping score or winning and losing. While technique is important, the constant pursuit of perfection, especially as a product of competition, is exactly what creates unhealthy habits in artists.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t bad dance – of course there is. But no matter how shitty someone’s art is, it can still accomplish an artistic intention. Perfection doesn’t exist in art and exploring the imperfections is at the center of the artistic process. Dance does not have to live in the same world as sports to be considered just as difficult or demanding, and to ultimately be just as valuable.


If you want to see the creative process in action, come see DANCEWORKS:Fulcrum 2019 at the Greenberg Theatre on April 12 & 13 at 8:00 pm. Tickets here or at the door.

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