Since the beginning of civilization, sports have been a source of recreation and physical activity for people across the globe. Yet dance, which has been present in every culture in history and by definition requires skill and physical prowess, is not considered a sport. Though generalized as a performing art based on its expressive nature, it is undeniable that dance possesses the four characteristics that define any sport:
Athleticism. Watch any dance performance by a professional dancer, and athleticism is obvious. Comparable to that of a sprinter who bursts into movement out of the starting blocks and a cross-country skier who travels miles of flat terrain, the mix of explosive energy with endurance is unquestionable.
Practice. Dancers spend countless hours perfecting technique and practicing the finesse needed to accomplish the physical feats demanded of their bodies.
Competition. Dancers nationwide compete against one another in various styles. Many believe dance is not competitive because it is largely judged on audience appeal on shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, but not all sports are determined by a goal or finish line. Like diving, figure skating, and even baseball, there are judges and referees in place to determine the degree of skill or execution by the athlete on well-defined technical criteria.
Talent. If you don’t think dance displays the talent of the athlete, go watch an old Homecoming video or attend your friends dance recital. If not more than in other sports, dancers know how to showcase and utilize talent. Not everyone can dance.
Cultural Indian dances are just as rigorous as other forms of dance but are not as well known. Though there are numerous different types, the prevalent ones are Bharatanatyam, Odissi, and Kathak.
A large part of these dances include what is called nritta, the elaborate footwork. Dancers move their feet faster than most people can count. These steps are set to taals, or beats, and are intricate as well as insanely fast. Performing these steps intermingled with sudden pauses in specific poses requires a great deal of athleticism.
Training is similar to that of many other sports, including dozens of squats and lunges and running miles to increase endurance. As most of these dances are usually 8-10 minutes, a great deal of stamina is necessary.
During most sports, athletes are allowed to sweat freely, but how many athletes can manage to sweat and still look perfect? Most Indian Classical Dances require layers of makeup as well as costumes with over seven pieces, not counting accessories. All this added weight makes the routines even more tiring. This is similar to athletes trying to play with butter slathered on their face while decked out in five layers of clothing.
Mastering any of these forms requires the same things needed in other sports, talent with practice. As with many sports, you simply can’t perform at a high level without talent, but that alone won’t get you very far. Along with it comes hours and hours of practice. Some dancers average over 20 hours of practice a week.
The ultimate gratification for an Indian Classical Dancer is performing well. The thrill the dancer feels after a perfect routine is similar to a runner beating a personal best or a soccer player scoring the winning goal. There are also numerous competitions which are judged on aspects such as clarity of movement, intricacy of steps, and other criteria. Cultural Indian dances are sports in every way, requiring tremendous amounts of physical exertion along with grace and poise.
Even if you’re not a dance fanatic, you have probably heard of Martha Graham by now. Thanks to the increasing popularity of So You Think You Can Dance?, contemporary dancers are beginning to receive the recognition they deserve, both for artistic qualities and athletic abilities.
Contemporary, or modern, dance is a paradox within itself; dancers must display the precise technique of ballet—pointed toes, turnout, core strength—while allowing their bodies to move with greater fluidity than if simply doing conventional forms of dance. Essentially, contemporary dancers must do the impossible: train every inch of muscle on their bodies so that once onstage, their bodies can perform on autopilot. Typical athletes usually do the same (building up stamina, etc.), yet they do not have to add the second element to their performance: emotional appeal. Dancers, whether leaping across stage or completing a series of fouettes (turning sequence), must “tell a story” and convey a believable feeling across to either the judges or their audience.
An extremely talented dancer will never look pained or exhausted; if you look up videos of Desmond Richardson, you can see for yourself that there isn’t one moment where he seems ready to collapse from exhaustion, yet every muscle in his body is fully engaged. He possesses great strength, just like other male dancers (they often have to effortlessly lift women above their heads), yet never appears strained.
Although contemporary dance does not have a race-to-the-finish-and-destroy-your-opponent attitude, nor was meant to, it would be a mistake to discount it as a non-athletic activity. Between the need for extreme physical strength and mental engagement, contemporary dance is without a doubt a sport.
One of the most popular forms of dance in pop culture today, hip hop (including break dancing) is one of the most athletic forms of dance out there.
Originally beginning with the cultural movement in the African American community, it has blossomed not only into a stunning performing art, but a perfect example of the physically demanding nature of dance. Synchronization, muscle strength, and perfect execution are more than enough to make hip hop qualify as a sport. The physical condition of the dancers is obvious in their complete control of isolated movements in their torsos and legs and the sheer muscle strength needed by break dancers to hold a handstand suspended past 180 degrees.
For those unconvinced by the pure physicality of the sport, consider the raw talent needed to make their moves look easy. LeBron James makes a slam dunk look like he’s playing leap-frog; similarly, the ease of execution created by hip hop dancers is nothing more than illusion and talent. It is obvious that the rapid succession of controlled movement and complicated tricking can be incredibly tough, but a talented dancer can make it look effortless.
In addition to the talent and athleticism required, there is no doubt that competition is fierce and technical in the world of hip hop. Though it is often judged subjectively, many hip hop dance competitions are also graded on execution and technical skill. Hip hop conventions and competitions are abundant and highly competitive, gaining huge audiences for the unrecognized athletes. Break dancing in particular has become a highly competitive sport, with huge competitions across Europe and Asia. With athleticism, talent, hours of practice and competitions abound, hip hop dancing has all the makings of an athletic sport.
People may assume that ballet dancers have it easy compared to other athletes. Classical music, little running—how can ballet dancers be considered athletes?
Ballet is just as strenuous as any other sport, utilizing many muscles and demanding great endurance. Every time dancers lift their legs into the air, they must think about keeping their body straight, rotating their leg from the hip joint, pointing their toes, and maintaining their balance. Furthermore, ballet dancers must keep in shape. Balance and strong core muscles are essential. Men need strong shoulders for lifts to support not only their own body weight but also their partner’s. In pas de deux (ballet partnering), men must lift a 100-pound woman and make it look effortless.
Training is just as intense as many physical sports. Take football for example. In both activities, athletes are assigned specific positions. Each follows choreographed plays and travels using certain steps and routes. However, while football players bulldoze their way through the opposition, dancers must always look graceful, light as a feather. The best ballet dancers can make the most difficult moves look easy. This is why ballet is a mental sport as well, since dancers must overcome challenges without showing any strain.
While athletes train for games and meets, ballet dancers rehearse for competitions and performances. Competitive dancers are judged on many criteria: technique, posture, timing, poise, musicality, and presentation. With the specific standards of ballet, judges are able to score objectively rather than abstractly. Also, during a performance, the audience is the opposing team, and it is the dancer’s job to make sure that everything runs smoothly. If one ballerina in the corps de ballet (a group of dancers performing together) blunders, the entire show can be ruined. The fact that ballet dancers need to step up to the spotlight and perform under pressure makes them athletes in the truest sense of the word.
Written by Hannie Dong, Diya Roy, Megan Bernstein, and Alissa Gwynn
Mar 19, 2010 at 04:20 PM