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Are Dancers Athletes? Merging Aesthetics and Expectations

The physical demands of a professional dance career are continuously growing. Current young dancers (across various genres) are expected to meet fantastic expectations for jump height, number of turns, leg extensions, use of rotation, and so much more while maintaining a certain aesthetic in the discipline. I advocate for the work I do to merge dance aesthetics, dance education, and dance science by referring to scholarly studies and data that discuss these expectations. This is how I support the approach I take to teaching dance, and explain why it is so beneficial to dancers. To be fair to this approach, it does not need me to be it's guard. It speaks for itself in the results dancers see, but it can be difficult to widen perspectives on dance enough to give the science aspect a try. Why is this?

We have all heard some form of the phrase "Dancers are Athletes", and the many arguments that may follow after. As a young dancer, I would fight for the right to call myself an athlete, knowing very well the amount of physical demand that was placed on me and how hard my body had to work to perform. I was just as much an athlete as those who played sports. That argument did not stand beyond my friends who also trained in dance, unless I was fortunate enough to make a few friends who expressed appreciation for dance. That was back in the early 2000s, before social media made dance so wildly popular (we're talking Myspace was buddy social media here). The argument has become, well, less of an argument in some circles over the years. The larger appreciation and understanding for athleticism in dance that the general public has developed may partially owe its existence to that wild popularity on social media. Wonderful news for dancers! Especially seeing that this understanding has helped to pave the way for the field of dance science and the advancement of care for dancers.

A brief example of how we can observe dance skills and assess for areas of development

I could see that the ways in which we teach dance was in need of development as well in order to stay up to date with the advancements in dance science (kinesiology, anatomy, health & wellness, and more). We can now understand more of what is required of the body to achieve those amazing skills and abilities! Our approach to teaching could use this information to design better ways for dancers to develop such skills and abilities. I found this very exciting and was eager to learn about and share this approach with others in the field who guided young or pre-professional dancers.

To my surprise, some of the circles that were fighting against dancers as athletes existed in the dance community! Not everyone was as thrilled that the argument for dancers as athletes was growing or that science was creating new ways for dancers to train as them. "Dancers are not athletes, they are artists." I will never forget this statement, or the look of sheer distain on the face of the professional dance choreographer who barked it at me during a professional development workshop I was co-presenting in 2017. They, and many other working dance professionals in the room, were not pleased with ideas on how to merge dance aesthetics and dance science while teaching dance at a collegiate level. I was completely baffled. These guiders of dance would not accept DANCERS AS ATHLETES, even with the support of science.

In my mind, I wanted to believe that there were no others who would disagree with this scientific approach to teaching dance. I turned to numerous scholarly articles and professionals in both fields to discover the separation between dance and science was bigger and older than I had expected. I was sad to see that so much of the push back on the merger was supported by members of the dance field, unwilling to change or afraid of potentially tarnishing the art form. Please note, there are so many willing and working to adapt, but the safety of our dancers will always be a concern if we are not all on board with the inclusion of dance science in our teachings. In my desire to find a happy union between the art of dance and the need for dance science, I came to this perspective on the idea of athleticism in dance: In order for dancers to perform as artists, they must train as athletes. High expectations of choreography, expression, and overall performance requires more from dancers. We can not ignore that we need to improve how we as guiders of dance prepare young dancers for these performances. Dance science can help us!

My hope is that one day in the future their will be a general consensus for the merger of dance and science (cue ambitious and inspiring instrumental music). We need it and our art form is at risk without it! Athletes involved in sports have resources and support readily available to them to improve their abilities and prevent injuries. Science and sports can work together with the performance and care for their athletes at the front line of decision making. Why is this not consistently the case for dancers? How can we bring dance into a pleasant and flourishing partnership with science within our teaching? If we want amazing abilities to be the new normal for young and pre-professional dancers, we must merge the aesthetics of our beloved art form with the science and understanding of the body. Let's change the way we think of DANCE and how we teach it for the well-being of our dancers. The show can not go on without them.


Here are some references for readers to access about existing thoughts and practices on merging dance and science in teaching. The world of dance science is growing and now is the time to begin to understand what role it plays in your dance training or teaching, and success in the field of dance.

Read on Passionately!

If you find any other interesting articles (scholarly or otherwise), please share them here. I would be thrilled to read more and start new discussions with those interested or curious about this topic (as we all should be)!

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