Why isn’t dance an Olympic event?

Of course, my favorite event in the winter Olympics is figure skating. And with its primetime spotlight at these past Olympic games, it seems to be one of America’s favorites, too. But, since figure skating is probably the closest Olympic sport to dancing, it holds special interest to anyone in the dance community, like myself.

As I soaked up almost every moment of the coverage, enjoying all the fancy footwork and hoping for clean axle landings, my natural tendency was to compare the sport to dance. Gia Kourlas did a recent article for the New York Times considering the parallels, but her main focus was on whether figure skating was sport or art. (She concluded, “It’s a sport with delusions of grandeur.”) I would like to consider the flip side – could dance be a competition? A sport? An Olympic event?

First I’d like to look at the similarities. Dance involves movement of the body, which makes it physical, like a sport. Like figure skating, dance can be considered athletic and technical, with individuals varying on execution of the movements. Dance can be a performance just like a figure skating routine. While dance is often considered artistic, skating also values artistic elements, even considering them in half of the judging score. Both dance and figure skating are usually done to music, which plays an integral role in the performance. Finally, like Olympic figure skating, dance can be done solo and in pairs. With all of these similarities, it starts to seem that skating is simply dancing on ice.

And yet dancing is not in the Olympics, no summer off-the-ice equivalent. (No, I certainly do not consider rhythmic gymnastics or gymnastic floor routines to be even close.) As to why this is the case, I can only offer more questions.

Is dance not in the Olympics because of its origins? It’s hard to pinpoint what unifies all the events currently in the Olympics. Putting aside contemporary trends and financial persuasion, I would venture that most Olympic events began as some sort of recreational activity that rose in popularity to the point of becoming competitive. I imagine the shot putters out on the valleys of Greece and the crazy Scandinavians that first attempted to put boards on their feet to slide down the snowy mountain. And so perhaps the origins of dance – as performance, social activity, or religious expression – were simply different than the recreation and competition of the other sports. Dancing as part of a theater production, or inside a royal court, or central to a religious ceremony was probably not thought of during the races and rock-throwing competitions by the Parthenon.

And maybe this separation is because dance is considered a performing art. So the question is, can dance ever not be considered as art? In other words, can dance be dance without being art? I’m not even going to give an opinion on this because this question could probably be eternally debated. It is certainly subjective as it depends on an individual’s definition or perspective on art. And in the end some might believe that dance could be an art AND a sport, thereby making this an unnecessary distinction. In any case, when I think about this whole topic, the pivotal question seems to be whether dance can depart from the realm of art and enter the realm of sport.

For further investigation, I’d like to press on, though, and assume that dance can be a sport, whether still an art form or divorced from that identity. And so the next question is, can dance be competitive? Can it be judged? For this answer, one only has to look to the myriad of dance competition shows on TV (DWTS, SYTYCD, ABDC, etc.). Without regard to the integrity of those shows (surely a topic of later discussion), it is clear to see that many believe that there can be winners in dancing.

So then is dancing not an Olympic event because there is no extra factor, like skates and ice? Is it that moving around on solid ground with friction is too easy or not athletic enough to be a sport? As a dancer, of course I would rise up against the idea of dance being easy. (I’m envisioning the t-shirts from my youth emblazoned with “If dance was any easier, it would be called football.”) So, while others may contest it, I’m going to quickly move past this point to…

Would dance just be too impractical to be an Olympic event? To me, the only way dance could be fairly judged would be if it were separated by genres/techniques, gender, and number of performers. Yet this would make for a hundred possible categories of competition, far more than any other current Olympic event. And if only select techniques were included, like ballet and tap, then many would be left out, making for an incomplete representation of the form as well as many angry dancers worldwide. So is dance just too broad and complicated to fit in easily as an Olympic event?

Lastly, even if all of these things could work out – dance could be included, separated from art, considered a sport, considered athletic and competitive, and fit in as an event – maybe those in the dance community just don’t want it to be an Olympic event. On one hand, it would broaden the audience for dance and bring many into appreciating the form. But on the other hand, it could take the focus away from dance’s ability to be art, to be expressive, to be transcendent, to be culturally important. Maybe since dance can be so much more than sport, we have no desire to reduce it to such.

And so perhaps for any number of these reasons, or for many other reasons, dance has never been and is not currently an Olympic event. Yet, I’m sure that won’t stop me from continuing to wonder why, especially in another 4 years when the next Evan Lysacek and Kim Yu-Na take to the ice. 

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8 Comments

  1. Sassy

     /  March 31, 2010

    Hey Meagan!!!
    You bring up some great points in this posting, some of which I would love to debate and divulge in further, however, we know many of the topics mentioned will never be resolved and be in constant discussion with each other.
    To give you a little hope with your want for dance in the Olympics you should know:

    The way the IOC (international Olympic committee) chooses and recognizes Olympic events/sports is based on the number of countries that can be represented/participate and whether the discipline fits into a larger federation. The Olympic committee does in fact recognize competitive ballroom dancing as an olympic sport under the International DanceSport Federation. The thing is, however, that although a specific sport can be recognized and on the roster does not mean it is chosen to be in the Olympics. The IOC can change per Olympic year what sports are in and which ones are out. For example, baseball and softball have been removed from the Olympics because there was not enough representation worldwide. For the 2016 Olympics, golf has been put back and they have just added Rugby for the first time. If you want ballroom dance back in the Olympics you have to write a letter to the IOC and convince enough people on the board that Ballroom dance deserves consideration and re-voting to put back in the summer games. The committee votes and you never know– maybe you will be the reason that Competitive Ballroom Dancing is seen in 2020.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for all the info! I don’t think that I will take up the fight for ballroom to be in the Olympics, though. Not that I would be opposed to it, it’s just not something I’m really passionate about. I just think the whole discussion of sports and dance is interesting. Though if ballroom or DanceSport were to make it into the Olympics, it would probably be one of my favorite events to watch. I wonder what countries would be big contenders…

    Reply
  3. lilly

     /  July 27, 2012

    i think that dance should definetly be in the olympics ballroom is cool but regular dance is what i want to see like ballet, tap, jazz, modern, lyrical etc. i dont think that type of dancing gets enough publicity only dance moms which is very negative and not what dance is about in the least bit

    Reply
  4. Adrienne Weisman

     /  July 29, 2012

    Just came accross your blog and had to put in my two cents worth. I taught(8 hours/day/6 days a week) for the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in San Jose, Ca. for 5 years. Even back then, 1970 we were scratching our heads wondering why our sport had never made it to the Olympics. The people I worked with and studied under had for the most part all won championship titles in other countries, like the UK and Lithuania, Russia and Spain. They were mainly mid 20’s and had been training since they were 5,6 or 7 years old. Our sport is a sport. To be proficient takes years and years.

    Oddly enough the standard for gauging ones competency levels are Bronze, Silver and Gold. You earn your “star” by learning and executing all of the components. You are judged on many levels. In the end it all ends up being judged on how you execute your “school” figures”. Same thing with figure skating. You use “school figures” to put together your routine and are judged on how they are executed.Technique, etc. We’ve all seen a “pot stir” in figue skating. It comes from a dance called the Paso Doble. The “pot stir” is where you put the weight on the ball of your right foot, Your parther then spins you down with one hand and stirs you around until you either go up, or end the action in a pose.

    And so it goes. Yo have no idea what kind of physical and mental training goes into ballroom dance. In my prime I was 5’6, 104lbs and strong as an ox. If it looks effortless then it’s being executed correctly.

    I could go on and on, 40 years of frustration waiting for my sport to be recognized. I guess the main thing I’d like to verbalize is that all of the components of ice skating(except the going backwards part) comes from “school figures” of ballroom dance. And the reality dancing you see on tv is not even judged properly. I’ve never heard one of the judges say any thing about rise and fall. (A technique)

    Thanks for listening.

    Adrienne

    Reply
  5. Frankie

     /  August 2, 2012

    Dance is far more physical and technically difficult than ping pong and in my opinion is far more interesting to watch. Also, I know motor sports are not allowed but I have to ask why horse events are allowed. In dressage, the horse does all the work and it really isn’t widely practiced outside the realm of the wealthy “horsey set” who can afford all the expense. I have a hard time understanding why curling and ping pong are more “Olympic” than dance and motocross. (And what about “Extreme sports” like cross-country skateboarding and parkour? Will we see these in the olympics in the future? They certainly are athletic!)

    Reply
  6. Shay

     /  February 18, 2014

    im a dancer and I compete. I find it quite silly that dance isn’t a sport. like you said ice skating is just dance on ice. so take of the ice skates and go onto a hard non-carpeted floor. what do you have? DANCE! I shure hope that they have dance become an Olympic event someday.

    Reply
  7. Liv

     /  December 31, 2016

    When was this published?

    Reply
  8. Amy

     /  June 4, 2017

    Hello,
    I am a figure skater and part of me would have to disagree with some of your comments on how ‘dancing is skating off ice’. Obviously, I don’t want to ruin your hopes or seem rude but figure skating has much more stuff than dancing. There’s technical (jumps and spins) and programme components (skating skills, choreography, transitions/linking footwork, performance and interpretation). These things all make up your score and technical jumps and spins can take years to master. Footwork can be hard and sometimes confusing and skating to this all non-stop for 2:30 seconds is tiring. You need to be strong and flexible to succeed through skating and early mornings (5 am!) is not unusual.

    Skating isn’t all about being on ice either. Sometimes people spend hours training and working out (planks, press-ups, insanity) and over all it makes the sport very different from just going on ice and dancing around.

    I don’t want to come off as rude or anything but this is my view on skating:) Thank you.

    Reply

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