An age-old debate: is dance a sport?

by Bridget Schwerdt


Every time I attend a football match I’m in awe. Not of a player’s ability to take a mark, kick a goal or land a tackle. I’m fascinated by everything in between; the fluidity of their movement; their strength and grace of as they launch towards the ball; their cleanly pointed toes and extended legs when kicking the ball. I look for all of these things not only when watching the football but when observing another activity. That activity just so happens to be dancing.

This had me thinking about the differences between the two ways of life, thus I have come to the conclusion that there are two differences between sport and dance: tulle and facial expressions. Of course, if you want to be finicky about it the list of differences would be more extensive but that’s not the point. It is an age-old argument about whether dance is an art form or a sport. I believe that it is both. BOTH? Yes, both. By stating that dance is both a sport and an art form, I am breaking the first commandment of the Debaters’ Association of Victoria: ‘Thou shalt not sit on the fence.’ This very-legitimate-not-made-by-me venn diagram demonstrates my point.

Bridget diagram

I believe dance is an art form for the most obvious reasons. It’s expressive, diverse and can be whatever you want it to be; it allows complete creative control. So what is my justification for dance being a sport? Sit back as I delve into my sporting past and the reasoning behind my view.

If playing under a parachute at the local netball courts under the guise of ‘Fun-Net’ constitutes  netball, then up until last year I had been playing netball for ten years. I’m not ashamed to say I was the designated Wing Defence due to my equal lack of stature and skill. Every week I was bound to be injured. I have tripped over, suffered an elbow to the head, been sandwiched between defenders, tripped over, skidded along the court and tripped over. You name a trivial injury and I’ve had it.

Around two years ago I became bored with netball. I’d tried hockey and while it was definitely a great release, the distances and times of matches were just too difficult to manoeuvre. That, and the fact I was too embarrassed to show my face after hitting a girl in the face with my stick (it was an accident, I swear).

Anyway back on topic. Along with netball I had been attending weekly musical theatre classes where I got to perform in two concert seasons per year. I’d hit a point where I was not moving anywhere at theatre and I wanted to get an edge. That was when my childhood dream of being a ballet dancer came busting out from the depths of my soul. After consulting with one of my friends I signed up for a class at her dance school specifically for beginners, or as Dad calls it, unco-kids ballet. After four months I had already noticed the differences. I was picking up theatre moves faster and my balance had improved. I became more aware of my body and I felt as if I had become more coordinated. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t pirouette perfectly or lift my leg up past my head because I was, and still am, enjoying myself. I feel as if I had become a happier and healthier person in the space of one year of ballet compared to ten years of netball.

Ballet has me constantly challenging myself to improve. I know I’ll never be a professional but neither will half the kids who have been dancing their whole lives. That’s another reason why I view dance as a sport, because of its competitive nature and parallels to the sporting world. Almost all self-respecting dance schools, like sporting clubs, enforce a uniform policy. While they can be flexible on uniform for jazz and tap classes, ballet uniform will rarely stray from the guidelines. We’re talking leotards, ballet flats, pink tights and of course, a bun.  Most dance schools have an end of year performance (a grand final, if you will) and everyone gets to participate in these grand finals. Throughout the year there are dance competitions where the best and brightest dancers vie for a medal, the dance equivalent to a Brownlow or an Allan Border medal. Serious dancers also fight to the death to gain prestigious spots in companies (equivalent of being drafted). Attending a school, such as the Australian Ballet School, can also be likened to be selected to play for the Australian youth team. These are the more obvious comparisons between sport and dance.

Going professional in dancing, like sport, takes years of dedication in order to achieve elite performer status and become skilled in producing the illusion of perfection. Not only do professionals attend daily classes/rehearsals (training), but they have many other appointments including visiting the physiotherapist, taking pilates/conditioning sessions or hitting the gym. They prepare all day for their nightly performance (matches) and when it’s all over they go back to their dressing rooms and perform post-performance rituals, eg. putting their feet in icy water.

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There are also certain expectations placed on dancers, including maintaining their fitness, strength and flexibility. Like other sports, certain genetic predispositions will get you further in the dancing game; height, body shape weight. There are even more expectations placed on dancers. Companies love long, slender bodies, beautiful feet (high arches and insteps) a 180° turnout (a rotation of the leg which comes from the hips).

In recent years dancers have begun to receive the same treatment and regard as athletes. Just last year Misty Copeland, the first African-American soloist for the American Ballet Theatre in 20 years, was sponsored by Under Armour with a killer campaign video ( Copeland displays the sheer athleticism not only in her campaign but also in every performance that is admired by sportswomen and men worldwide. Even as far back as 2007 Nike had jumped on the dance bandwagon with a campaign featuring a hip-hop dancing actress, Sofia Boutella, and the slogan ‘Tell me I’m not an athlete.’  And let’s not forget the man, the myth, the legend, Mikhail Baryshnikov. This year he starred in an advertisement for fashion label Rag and Bone at the ripe age of 67, joining the ranks of David Beckham, Rafael Nadal and even a recent quintet of Carlton footballers in the world of fashion modelling.

While dance does not receive quite the same television broadcast as sports, it is still there. Last year I was delighted when the ABC broadcast the Australian Ballet production of the Nutcracker. Whilst in recent years dance on television has become sullied with guilty pleasure broadcasts (*cough* Dance Mums *cough*), you cannot deny the joy it brings to see a perfect grand Jeté (that split jump-thingo) or pirouette (that turny-thing).

On another note, footballers have forayed into the world of dance. Out of the six AFL competitors on Dancing with the Stars, four were placed in the top five, with Anthony Koutoufides and David Rodan taking out the top prize in 2006 and 2014 respectively. In fact, many male dancers also start out with football backgrounds as young boys.

You already know that dance is an art form but if I have not convinced you that dance is also a sport, then I don’t know what will. Dance ticks all of the sport boxes as it requires strength, discipline, dedication and talent. The parallels are most definitely there, but if you are still unsure,  you’ll just have to attend a class and see what all the fuss is about.



About John Harms

John Harms is a writer, broadcaster, publisher, historian, speaker and teacher. He loves stories.

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