This is a debate that has gone on to no end, and it’s possible that the question will always exist. If you’re a dancer, are you an athlete or an artist?
If you ask dancers this question, you will likely get a different answer each time. Athleticism requires strength, persistence, flexibility, coordination, speed, and more physical attributes. Dancing involves all of the above along with balance, agility, expressiveness, and artistic movement.
While dancers must be athletic in order to perform, athletes are not necessarily dancers. Subtle nuances exist, so let’s explore them.
Athleticism vs Artistic Movement
There’s no denying that dance is physically demanding. Dancers must build and maintain the endurance necessary to successfully complete a performance. But beyond strength, and swift feet, dancers must visually communicate emotion to their audience, with skilled intention.
The Same, But Different?
Similar to athletic sports, there are many different forms of dance. Some athletes, like Michael Jordan for example, performed well in more than one sport. For him it was basketball and baseball. He did pretty well as a baseball player, but he was exceptional as a basketball player.
Dancers usually specialize in one form of dance as well. Whether it’s ballet, tap, ballroom, or so forth. There might be some crossover, but ultimately, a professional dancer will perform one type of dance really well. For instance, when I hear the names Sammy Davis Junior or Savion Glover I automatically think of tap dancing, although they both engaged in other art forms.
In terms of performance, though, dance can be more versatile. Basketball players must adhere to rules and guidelines, one of which involves the gymnasium they play in. For example, the three point line has to be a certain distance away from the basketball hoop. There’s also a free throw line, and lines around the perimeter of the play space. If a ball or foot goes out of bounds, then that team is penalized.
Dancers can perform on live theater stages, cruise ships, on the big screen, in music videos, you get the idea. Because it’s more of an art form, its presentation is more versatile.
Discipline and dedication are two words often used reserved for athletes, not necessarily for artists.
Merriam-Webster defines an athlete as “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.”
I recall an old interview of a professional ballerina conducted by Tavis Smiley probably over fifteen years ago. In it, the prima ballerina stated that onlookers see the final result on stage. They see the costumes, beautiful lines and muscles, delicacy and so forth.
The performance is so captivating that it appears effortless, but the audience may not always understand that dance requires a lot of physical strength, stamina, and dedication to get to the point of the final performance.
Just like athletes, dancers must practice daily or at least on most days of the week. You may have heard the phrases, “hitting the barre with friends,” or “this is me at the barre.” The barre they’re referencing doesn’t involve alcohol. Ballet dancers must do barre exercises daily in addition to choreography practice.
Dedication to Training
In The Creative Habit, dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp describes her morning routine, which was never complete without her hailing a cab to the dance studio every morning.
Khiara Bridges is a law professor and anthropologist who also happens to be a classically trained ballet dancer. In a Boston University article, The Balletic Legal Scholar, the author explains how Bridges hit the barre daily and continued to perform all while teaching then as a professor at Boston University and staying up until early morning hours grading papers. That’s dedication.
Professional dancers in the Royal Ballet practice in a “75-minute class and five to six hours of rehearsals every day, six days a week, and typically three to four performances every week.”
Dancers in the Broadway show, Wicked, condition and train to perform in eight shows per week. To my knowledge, sports athletes only perform this often within one week during the Playoffs or Olympics.
Competitive Dancers or Artists?
Sports are seasonal so training usually coincides with that. For instance, football players compete in the fall. Unless they are in another sport during the off-season, they will have to work with someone privately, join a camp, or develop their own off-season training routine.
My understanding is that dancers on competitive dance teams, on the other hand, typically train and condition year-round.
For instance some college level dance teams engage in workouts aimed at core strengthening and flexibility. Weightlifting, cardio, and cross-training are done in addition to dance drills. They compete against other dance teams and for this reason, many refer to them as athletes. The same might be said of cheer teams.
Whether competing or not, though, dancers must keep up with their training in order to maintain stamina and endurance for stage or other performance. Without athletic abilities, it’s possible that they would not be able to handle rigorous competition schedules.
Training schedules can vary by dance genres just as they can for athletic sport but their high level of dedication remains. Consistent training is paramount for both.
Rigorous training is not without its hangups. Dance careers are as vulnerable to injury as athletic careers. Hours and hours of practice means that overuse injuries are common to dancers and sports athletes.
Beyond muscle inflammation, dancers can experience:
- stress fractures
- anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears
- spinal injuries like spondylolisthesis
- shoulder impingement
- lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow)
- herniated disc
- snapping hip, and more
Repetitive movement aids in muscle memory leading to peak performance, but it’s also taxing on the body.
Fortunately, more and more medical centers are opening specialized clinics focused on treating and preventing dance injuries. Though this particular clinic has been open for thirty years, dancers still struggle to receive specialized treatment options that are on par with sports athletes.
More research is being done to help optimize dancers’ training in order to prevent injuries and enhance their ability to perform. The same article points out that “Dancers suffer an injury rate comparable to American football, with a mean of 6.8 injuries per year.”
The physicality of dancers is certainly comparable to that of sports athletes.
Movement is the tool skilled dancers use to convey artistry. One description for an artist is “as a skilled performer.”
In terms of physical stamina, artistry is what separates dancers from athletes.
Professional dancers move with precision and elegance, regardless of dance genre. Their movements are captivating, expressive, and demonstrate musicality. Athletes simply do not move in the same way.
Professional athletes connect with their fans when they show exceptional athletic ability at one point or another throughout the game. They might also make connections through the way that they engage fans when they’re off the court or field.
But the connection that dancers make with audience members is a little different. Dancers are often telling a story with their body movements. They draw in their audience members. In the best case scenario, viewers’ eyes are glued to a dancer’s every move. But beyond that, the artform of a dancer also speaks to the heart of each audience member.
The dancer is sensitive to the music in a way that pulls in the viewer, levitating their spirit and soul right along with the dancer.
Dance doesn’t exist without expressiveness. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes “the art of dance [as] that impulse channeled by skillful performers into something that becomes intensely expressive and that may delight spectators who feel no wish to dance themselves.”
Athletes sometimes release emotion while on the field, but it’s usually in response to something external. The referee made what they considered to be a bad call during the soccer game. A teammate making a basket right before the timer buzzed during the last quarter of a tied game, making them the winners.
Not so with dancing. During a dance performance the dancer becomes the character, the musical note, the sound in motion. As with all other artforms, their expressiveness comes from within.
A Penn State dancer, Meghan Lee Thompson, stated, “A dance can be physically impressive and technically perfect but will not be as entertaining to watch if it lacked emotion. After all, that is how we as dancers tell our stories.”
Athletes, artists, or both? Dance is usually categorized as one of the performing arts, along with singing and acting.
But athleticism definitely spills over into the artistry of dance.
Dance wouldn’t be dance without the emotional performance aspect of it. At the same time, athleticism helps dancers carry out their artistry on stage.
It makes me wonder, without the artistic component, to what degree would any of us be willing to watch a dance performance? I view dancers as athletically trained artists. They infuse movement with expression in a way that those who are purely athletic don’t.
Ultimately, it’s up to each individual dancer to decide what they would like to be called.