Competitive dancing, art or sport? This was, in another time, a recurring question in interviews with relevant couples, but ceased to be after the recognition of the IDSF as an official member of the IOC, which supported its sporting character. This article discusses the meanings of the term “sport” applied to analyze competitive dancing, leaving perhaps the artistic component for another occasion.
Usually competitive dancing has been characterized as an artistic sport. Marcus Hilton described it perfectly in an interview with Ruth Gledhill: “A ballroom dancer needs the style, elegance and flair of a ballet dancer and at the same time the energy of a marathon runner and the leverage of a high, triple or long jumper. A mixture of these aspects will produce the complete ballroom dancer.“
The physical effort of competitive dancers has already been proven by comparing certain vital signs of a high level couple, performing a quickstep on the floor, and an athlete running the 800 meters at the track. Also in the nineties we had occasion to see another spectacular comparison that showed in a split screen the evolution of a skating couple and the quickstep of a high level couple. Both couples had prepared similar routines with similar paths, and the spectator could see similar movement speeds and equivalent positions at all times. But is physical effort and energy expenditure the reason to consider competitive dancing a sport?
Naturally, good physical condition allows dancers to achieve better performance while keeping the appearance of ease and little effort despite their exertion. And so it should be, according to the description of Marcus Hilton. I have seen great champions excessively panting to get to the locker room after an explosive quickstep, but surely they would have danced another quickstep without break, no showing signs of fatigue, and exhibiting the same brightness. However, the physical effort is not sufficient to consider competitive dancing as a sport. Great dancers of scenic dances also make a great effort during the show, with an energy expenditure certainly comparable to dance a competition with four or five rounds concentrated in an hour and a half of show. But that is not a reason for considering that they are making a sport activity.
In my opinion, Xavier Mora interviewed in 1995 by the spanish magazine “Ressons de Ball” was right when he highlighted the sporting condition of competitive dancing from the fact of its being subject to a regulation activity. Etymologically, the word “sport” (“deporte” in spanish) comes from the Latin word “deportare” that means transfer, transport, suggesting perhaps the idea of distracting the mind and escaping from the daily work. The dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy of Language (DRAE) has two meanings for “sport”, one of which is reminiscent of the essence of the word, its etymological sense, and refers to the sport as a “hobby or entertainment”, and although it adds “physical exercise”, it makes sense because of the recreation or amusement. With that meaning, not only competitive dancing is a sport, also social dance and of course go to the pool for taking a free swim or go trekking with the family.
The other meaning of DRAE for sport is what was cited by Xavier Mora: “physical activity, exercised as a game or competition, whose practice involves training and subjection to standards”. This is the most restricted and specific sense that people of a variety of sports have looked for, including competitive dance. However, in our times, an activity is part of the family of sports when also joins another feature not explicitly contained in the DRAE definition: the existence of an institution, usually a Sport Association or a Sport Federation, guardian of the rules, under whose coverage the activity is taken place.
We can imagine the first dance competitions, in the early twentieth century. They should take place in the same dance halls where couples used to go to dance for entertainment. Couples were inscribed when they entered the ballroom and competitions simply imitated what happens on the floor during the general dance: some couples dancing at the same time, trying to prove their quality and their ability to manage their space among the other couples. Surely they entered the dance floor from the zone they have their table and seats, and couples knew if they had been selected to the next hit at the time of being called to dance. It would have also some rules, although very simple, and, of course, there were results. It was the era of the pioneers and soon, with the participation of the best couples they organized what could be described as world championships of that time. But all this is not enough to consider that those were sport competitions in the specific sense, because it lacked the organizational and institutional element. At first there was not a distinction between amateur and professional, but in the late twenties the first two international associations, amateur and professional, were founded. However, the predecessors of today’s organizations are FIDA, founded in 1935 (Federation Internationale de Danse pour Amateurs), the embryo of the current WDSF, and ICBD, founded in 1950 (International Council of Ballroom Dancing) and origin of the current WDC.
The feature that allows us to include competitive dancing in the collective of sports is not related to the physical effort but to its institutionalized competitive condition, with rules and standards, rankings, competition calendars and championships. If competitive dancing is considered a sport is not because of it is in its essence, but because in the world of dance there has been since the fifties a firm will to be part of the family of the sports. In September 1997, long time after competitive dancing had been organized in associations functioning as true sport federations, the IOC gave official status to what was already a reality, accepting IDSF (the name in 1997 of current WDSF) as an official member. It was the recognition of the term DANCESPORT, which in turn facilitated in many countries, integration into the national Olympic committees.
In the interview quoted at the beginning, Marcus Hilton asked himself, about the impact it could have on the format and characteristics of dance sport competitions, the IOC recognition. That will be seen over time. What did already happen in fact was that the cordial relationship between WDSF and WDC, who in 1965 had signed an agreement to respect each other in managing the amateur and professional fields, was broken in the years after the IOC recognition. Probably, only the domes of both organizations know the ins and outs of their disagreement, beyond what was published. But no doubt many others lived those years with disappointment and sadness.
By Vincent Mengual
Epilogue by Barry Peinke
Whilst the parting of the ways ending many years of friendship and co-operation between what had been Professional and Amateur Organizations was unfortunate and also sad it has not been without some benefits. Let us think of the positives.
The division means that we are not faced with a world-wide monopoly, one size fits all, which is not always the most productive and serving the customers best interests. The division has resulted in two Professional worlds and two Amateur worlds and dancers and Coaches have the opportunity to choose according to their own beliefs.
WDC is a member of TAFISA, The International Sport for All Association and also WADA for the discipline of Competitive Dance but it has allowed dance to develop where the elegance and art of dance, the character of the dances, great musicality still have an important and vital place. Artistry is the essence.
Without any doubt huge physical demands are required by Competitive dancers of today, as is the case within the ballet and theatrical dance world, but the artistic element is still vital. The Olympic and Sport ethos Faster, Higher, Further, Stronger, should not dominate the thinking of Dance.