Recently Wendy and I were interviewed by a student preparing a detailed essay on whether ballroom dancing was an art or a sport. I’ve written about this in the past, and it’s a topic much in debate around the world. As the nearly 2-hour interview progressed, I was struck by how much my own thinking on this issue has matured over the past couple of years. Forced to define my view in terms that she could write about, the interview was a helpful process in clarifying my own perspective on the issue.

Subjective vs. Objective rules

As I’ve said before, sport should be defined as any physical activity where the winner can be easily measured using a set of objective rules. Those rules might define which team has put the most balls into a net, which runner has crossed the line first, which athlete has jumped the highest, thrown the furthest, or lifted the most weights. There are many activities which fall under a clearly measurable set of results.

In sharp contrast, there are very few sports measured in a subjective way. Skating is the most obvious example. In my opinion, skating should never have been defined as an Olympic sport. Diving is somewhat questionable, although there are some clear criteria to define an accurate entry into the water. A few of the gymnastic styles, such as Rhythmic Gymnastics where athletes prance around with a ribbon, are also highly subjective and should never have been allowed into the Olympics.

But for better or for worse, these sports are now in the Olympic family and so we’re stuck with them. That doesn’t mean ballroom dancing should be added. I’m pleased that the IOC has not simply taken the political bait and added dancing. In fact, ballroom dancing — which was on the short list of sports being considered — has been removed from that list.

Athletes vs. Athleticism

As Martha Graham famously said, “It takes an athlete to be a dancer, but it takes an artist to dance.” Dance is an exceptionally athletic art. In my view, it is the most athletic art on the face of the earth. But an art form it is, and not a sport.

Everything about ballroom dancing reflects its artistic nature. Beauty is an integral part of what the athletes try to achieve. The judging is measured in significant part on the athletes’ physical look and visual elegance, even in the high-energy Latin dances. Musicality is a key component. Look back to the roots of ballroom dancing and you see how it began as an elite social activity.

In the interview, we were asked if we could put a percentage to each side of the equation. That was an interesting premise. Could we define how much of ballroom dancing was sport and how much was art? I came up with 70% art vs. 30% sport as an arbitrary figure. I’m not really comfortable with defining it in such a way, but when forced to give it a ratio that one made the most sense to me.

Even though the activity itself must be recognized as an art form, to perform it well requires us to be at the highest level of athletic ability. You need a strong core, incredible stamina, and you must be in terrific physical shape to dance at a high level of performance quality.

What about practice?

We were then asked if that same ratio would hold up in practice. Again, an interesting question. I realized that even in practice nothing changes. Even as we prepare to learn the technique, it is still rooted in art and not sport. Leg action needs to be done a certain way to create beauty. If you throw that out, you may gain speed but lose the beauty that makes dancing so special. Too often today we see dancers simply running around the floor in Quickstep as if the goal was to see who could make the most circuits around the dance floor in the allotted time. When we practice we work on many things that still define art and not sport. Connection to the dance partner. Musicality. Focus of energy. Foot placement. Posture. In both Latin and Standard, all these things are related to art and not sport.

Is floorcraft more sport, or still art?

Even floorcraft, an essential component of dancing in which the man both protects his lady and allows her to be seen by avoiding crowds and collisions, is more art than sport, although I compare it in many ways to the excitement of a breakaway in cycling, a two-on-one in hockey, or a long pass to a wide receiver in football that allows him to make an unstoppable run for the end zone.

Floorcraft is still art and not sport because the goal is not to be first across the finish line, but to be consistent in demonstrating two people presenting beautiful movement together that is matched to the music. That’s the whole objective of ballroom dancing and why we love watching it as much as we love performing it.

The danger zone ahead

If you look at how skating deteriorated after it was made an Olympic sport, it becomes easy to see how the same elements would destroy ballroom dancing over time. You can even see some of those things at work today.

Take, for example, the silly rules about costumes. They make a certain amount of sense when applied to young people. There is a need to protect juveniles from the inevitable parental pressures of trying to use fancy costumes to overcome shortcomings in quality. But for seniors? Come on! The main reason anyone over 35 wants to compete is to get dressed up in those beautiful ballgowns and tailsuits. Why in the world do the governing bodies force them to meet a rigid dress code where they can’t even wear a necklace? No wonder there is a rapidly decreasing interest in competition. We are denying couples the most basic reason why they would want to compete in the first place! Then we wonder why they aren’t interested!

Should ballroom dancing ever be placed in the Olympics, we would see a steady decline of focus on musicality and quality in favor of speed and power. We would see competitors focusing on the wrong things, then having those things become new standards for expectations, just as in skating it is now generally regarded as essential to do a quadruple jump, even if the rest of the routine is boring.

We have enough politics and drama in the ballroom dance world. We shouldn’t be adding to it with this emphasis on sports. Let’s celebrate the art form for what it is and allow it to be restored to its proper place in the eyes of society. Is it too late? I’m not sure, but I’m pleased that a number of professionals around the world are continuing to focus on this issue.

A big thanks to Renata, the student who innocently asked for an interview, for allowing the opportunity to explore this subject in more detail. Let’s hope that more people see the big picture and get off the sports bandwagon.