The Accidental Fan: What is a sport?

by Sabena Allen | 2/18/19 2:05am

Neither dance nor football is easy. Both take extreme skill and stamina. But while football is inarguably a sport, I wonder if dance can be classified as such. The 2007 movie “The Game Plan” intimates that dance is even more difficult than football. The lead female character, a ballet teacher, is getting ready to teach Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s character, an NFL football player, how to dance. She proceeds to take him through a crazy workout that has him gasping for air and in desperate need of water. As he tries to shrug off his exhaustion, she says, “If ballet were easy, they’d call it football.”

I danced from the time I was about 3 until I finished high school. Whenever someone asks me if I did a sport in high school, I say, “No, but I did dance.” This is mostly because it fulfills the “physical activity” requirement implicit in that question. No, I didn’t play a sport, but yes, I engaged in an activity that required physical strength and discipline. In fact, dance counted as a P.E. credit at my high school. This speaks to the athleticism required of dancers. My dance company did conditioning frequently, and many of the dances we performed were exhausting to run through. Not only do dancers require endurance, but they must also train their muscles to lift their legs high in kicks, to leap off of the ground and to stay perfectly aligned. Dance requires athletic feats as well as the physical strength and ability to make them look effortless. But why does that matter? Isn’t that just part of the performance? That is what dance really is. However, perhaps we need to consider the technique and endurance required of dancers as similar to that of athletes. After all, some sports require far less endurance than dance or football. 

Take golf, for example. As someone who has played golf, I can personally speak to the skill part. Golf takes an incredible level of precision and control, which is not something to take lightly. As far as physical exertion goes, however, I think players would have to walk the course (which some people do) in order to burn any calories. Nevertheless, I’ve definitely been sore after golf, mostly due to holding my muscles in strange positions, and because somehow the skin on my thumb is always getting rubbed off! So, in regard to pure physical endurance, golf falls behind dance. However, they both require extreme technique and skill, which is consistent with people’s cultural understanding of what a sport is.

That raises the question: what does golf have that dance doesn’t? Well, golf is competitive. Dance is not inherently so, and can be a form of art, storytelling and entertainment. But dance can also be competitive. There is a whole industry of dance competitions. Dancers travel around and hold competitions at different high schools, and dance schools from all over that area travel there to compete. Competitors can either perform solo or in a group or team. Some studios are very focused on competition, but others are not at all. Dancers may compete, but the activity does not demand that they do. This makes things fuzzy.

Let’s look at another example. I would consider cheerleading to be a sport, though I think the perspectives on this vary. There are cheerleading competitions, so in that regard, it is similar to dance and to golf. Of course, it also requires skill and athletic prowess. But when cheerleaders are supporting their team at a game, is that no longer a sport? They are still performing many of the same stunts that they do in competition. Does the activity change when the competitive aspect is removed as long as it has the other components?

It is interesting to consider this in relation to golf. People often play golf alone. Sometimes, this is to make up or play ahead of time for a league, which involves competition amongst league members. However, sometimes people play golf alone just to practice or for fun. In most sports, practicing may not involve playing the actual game, like playing catch with a football or baseball. On the other hand, in tennis, one might practice with two players and maintain the competitive nature, as the sport only involves two or four players. However, in golf, if you play alone, you are playing the full game. You could add other people and still go through the same motions. But who are you competing with? One could argue that in going out alone to play a round of golf, one is competing against oneself. So, in dance and cheerleading, it could be said that even if there is no “competition,” one is still competing against one’s own previous achievements and trying to push oneself further than before. There is a driving force in dance, both in rehearsal and in performance, to have a perfect run-through of the choreography. That is itself a competition. Even if competition is seen as a necessity in regard to classifying an activity as a sport, dance can fulfill this requirement whether or not the dancers are actually performing in a competition.

Regardless of whether or not people consider dance to be a sport, dancers are certainly athletes and should be recognized as such. In fact, a dancer is a blend of artist and athlete. As Monique says in “The Game Plan,” “You see, ballerinas can leap as high as you can, but when they go down, they land in plié and they hold and hold.” So perhaps people can think of dance as requiring both the physical endurance of long distance running or soccer with the precision of golf, the grace of figure skating, the flexibility of gymnastics and the expression of theater.