Why Do We Care So Much Whether Dance Is A Sport?
Is dance a sport? A Google search of that question will yield hundreds of results of impassioned arguments about whether or not we should consider dance a sport. The fact that breaking was recently provisionally added to the 2024 Summer Olympics program is certain to make the conversation even more heated.
I would like to make a counterargument: Those on both sides of the issue seem to agree more than they disagree. So who cares?
Breaking is on track to become an Olympic sport.
It’s not that either side doesn’t have a valid case to make: They do.
For example, those arguing that dance is a sport are right that dancers are put to physical tests as great or greater as any top sports players. Also that dance is competitive (whether we’re talking about dance competitions or just trying to get jobs) and that dancers have relatively short careers and often deal with major injuries.
And those who argue that dance is not a sport are right that dance is so much more than just physical training and executing movements correctly. Great dancers aren’t just athletes, they are artists. And though both sports and dance could be classified as entertainment, professional athletes aim to win, while dancers aim for many different things: to tell stories, to open minds, to disrupt and to inspire.
Maybe the question we should be asking is: Are sports a dance?
Ultimately, though they make the point in two different ways, both sides seem to be advocating for the same idea: That dance should be valued and appreciated for everything that it is.
But by insisting that sports be the measuring stick by which we judge our beloved art form, the framework of this argument doesn’t do anything to meaningfully advocate for dance—in fact it does the opposite.
My problem is not with sports. In fact, I like sports! (My obsession with the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team is well-documented.) I just think that when we obsess over how dance is similar to or different from sports, it speaks to the way our culture values sports so much more highly than the arts. (This likely needs little explanation, but think: public school arts programs cut while sports programs remain untouchable; principal dancers making a pittance compared to what most professional athletes make.)
We shouldn’t have to legitimize the athleticism of dance by comparing it to sports. But since we unfortunately do need to keep reminding the world that dance is incredibly physically difficult (and if you think this is also tied up in the ways in which dance is undervalued, you’re not wrong), let’s make the argument about dance on its own terms, by highlighting the incredible real-world feats of strength dancers perform, or the intense cross-training dancers do or the injuries they recover from.
Otherwise we’re just reinforcing the idea that sports are the highest form of athleticism that all other physical pursuits must live up to.
Far more interesting arguments about dance await; let’s start having those instead.