A linguistic perspective on dance as a sport

As dancers, we know the hours of work we log in the studio. We know the time we’ve spent injured, watching class, dancing with our hands. We know the bloody feet, the sore muscles, the sweat-soaked t-shirts. We know the feeling of our bodies screaming at us to stop yet pushing for perfection one more time.

We know we are athletes.

We also know the feeling of devaluation when we hear another athlete tell us that dance is not a sport. I fought this battle numerous times, as every dancer has done, until I came to a realization about the way we talk about art and athletics.

I first critically examined how I thought about art as a sport while watching competitive figure skating. The careful examination of body placement and subjective scoring in sports like figure skating, gymnastics, half pipe, and diving mirrored the Irish dance competitions I had experienced countless times.

How was competitive dance different from other subjectively judged athletic events?

My need to feel the validation of dance as a sport came down to the power I put in the label itself. For me and for everyone I argued with, being able to call dance a sport meant recognition of my athleticism.

To examine why I needed to change my perspective, let’s talk about the dictionary. Most people think of the dictionary as a prescriptive tool – something that tells us how we ought to use words. In reality, dictionary definitions are a lot less powerful than this. A definition is actually a descriptive tool that illustrates how a word is used by most people at the time of publication.

Think of a dictionary as a snapshot of the way most people use most words. This is why dictionaries need constant revising – language is always changing. Everyone has a slightly different understanding of each word and we constantly revise and evolve our own internal dictionaries.

So here’s how I would define a sport: an athletic event that involves competition. But this doesn’t really matter to the puzzle of whether dance is a sport or not. Everyone classifies sports slightly differently. If I include all athletics in my umbrella of “sports,” dance certainly fits in. But if I think a sport has to involve a clear winner through objective points, I wouldn’t consider dance a sport, even when it is competitive. This kind of variation means that there can’t be an obvious and clear answer.

According to my subjective understanding of the word “sport,” competitive dance would fit into this category, but other dance would not. This does not cheapen the incredible artistry, precision, strength, and performance of dance in general. For every athlete, their sport involves the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears we see every day in the dance studio.

What we label dance can never detract from the hard work dancers put in. It doesn’t matter how we define dance – whether or not we call it a sport is irrelevant. A label doesn’t validate of the hours of training, the strain on our bodies, the blood on our feet, and the passion in our movement.

Photo credit: Paul Buckowski / Times Union