Dancers as Athletes

The human body is an amazing machine and in everyday life we use merely a fraction of the muscles and movement permutations available to us. Contemporary dance is one dance genre that constantly explores the movements of the body striving for innovation and originality.


Posted on

Samuel Lee Roberts in Robert Battle’s In/Side, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Photo:  Paul Kolnik

As knowledge about the body increases, dance training improves and the competition for excellence paired with innovation is greater, dancers bodies are pushed to the limits.  The physical ability and disciplines expected of a dancer can be easily related to those of an athlete and increasingly, dance critics are describing dancers as athletic.

So, can we consider dancers as athletes?  Why might some people in the dance profession and in sport be unwillingly to accept this concept?

Firstly, let us consider the definition of athlete; a person trained or gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength; a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill.  A dancer must certainly achieve physical agility, stamina and strength in their profession and physical skill must be mastered.  Daily training involves repetition of exercises to achieve the physical attributes necessary to execute movements required of a dancer, however the focus is not on sport or games.  Whilst many dancers will compete in contests and will audition against other dancers for a place in a company the real emphasis in dance is on the performance itself.  There is an element of competition across the dance profession but the reward is a particular role in a company or a promotion from chorus to soloist rather than a gold medal.

Dance critics have described dancers of Rambert Dance Company as ‘elegant and athletic’, Alvin Ailey’s dancers as having ‘athletic beauty’ and the moves of Company Kafig as ‘athletic feats’.  Each company mentioned is known for their very different styles however the common thread here is athleticism which in these instances is seen to refer to physical skill and fitness.  The term athletic when associated with a company will always form an image alongside other adjectives used, as well as the company’s past history.  For example Rambert’s Dancers as elegant and athletic reflects their classical ballet past but still indicates their extreme physical ability.

One might compare the life styles of athletes and dancers and the similarities may be surprising to some. Due to the physical demands placed on the body health, diet and self-discipline are all crucial to both dance and athletics.

The careers of both dancers and athletes are threatened by injury and therefore the conditioning and care for the body are similar.  Exercise models such as Pilates are designed to complement the needs of athletes and dancers alike without making a distinction.  A career in either profession is likely to begin at a young age and end by the time they are 40 due to the extreme physical nature.

The thrust of dance as fitness into mainstream media has made dance popular as a means of keeping in shape.  When an audience member who has experienced dance goes to see a professional company they may appreciate better the skill and physical fitness required to achieve such feats.  When dance critics describe companies as athletic readers may relate to the concept through experience of athleticism at the gym or on the football field.  Dance companies who promote themselves as athletic such as Australian Dance Theatre may find that this connects then to their target market and they draw in new audiences.

With hip hop dance hitting the major theatres it becomes apparent that the ‘athletic feats’ referred to are what make this dance so popular.  It could be argues that the moves that receive cheers from the audience are all about physical virtuoso and little to do with artistry.  However, the hip hop culture demands a certain confidence and flair alongside the physical skill and it is these qualities that make the movements impressive.

Often dancers described as athletic such as Australian Dance Theatre have trained in many different genres giving them powerful muscular physiques and an element of attack in their movement.  In the case of ADT the Artistic Director encourages his dancers to train in capoeira and martial arts alongside dance in order to increase their physical strength and breadth of movement to accomplish the daring physical feats prevalent in the choreography.

Whilst it is clear that the physical attributes of a dancer are similar to those of an athlete, dance is considered an art form and there is much more to the art than physical skill and virtuosity.  Musicality, expression and creativity are often included in the criteria of what makes a good dancer.  In auditions and competitions the technical skill of a dancer can be near to perfect but if they do not have the ability to evoke the viewers and dance with the music then they will not necessarily fulfil the criteria.  Dancers may be feel that if they are described as athletic their ability is being reduced to their physical skill alone whereas it is the joy of dance that will drive a dancer to continue their training at such a pace for so many years.

In many respects dancers are athletes but they are also artists and it is this combination that makes for a stunning emotional and physical performance.