There has been much debate whether or not dance should be considered a sport or an art in many different circles, from dancers, athletes, schools and higher education. Our need to categorize and label our world is challenged when we enter conversations about dance. Many dancers wonder if they should consider themselves artists or athletes, and Hope College itself attempts to deal with giving our dance program all it needs. The chair of Hope’s very own dance department, Matthew Farmer, deals with the effects of this debate and shares his goals for the department, as well as what he hopes to instill in his dance students.
Farmer has been teaching at Hope for 11 years and is also a former Hope student from the class of 2004. His many accomplishments include professional dancer and choreographer, professor, mentor, father and husband. He stays busy teaching 3 to 4 classes every semester, ranging between studio technique classes, theory, composition and improvisation. He choreographs alongside Jasmine Mejia for Hope’s Dance company H2 and is frequently asked to teach masterclasses and choreograph dance pieces at various colleges, institutions and dance festivals.
However, Farmer wasn’t always a dancer. In fact, he was ranked third in the state of Michigan for Hurdling in high school and has always been passionate about athletics. This gives him a unique perspective in the conversation of dance finding its place on the spectrum of sports and art. He said, “I’m one of those people that believes in the phrase ‘both and’ so I’m not a huge fan of dualistic thinking.” He thinks that both dancers and athletes use the term sports as a comparative when they find them beneficial, and try to abandon them when they don’t.
In one sense, he considers dance to be a sport because, by definition, there is a physical prowess that an individual must obtain in order to reach a professional level and perhaps make a living. This is the case with many other physical activities, from surfing to gymnastics to football, that we use the term sport.
However, Farmer makes a key distinction between dance and other sports activities because he equally considers dance to be a form of art. It is therefore treated very differently from a cultural and audience perspective. “Crowds will absolutely understand and forgive an athlete for their mistakes,” Farmer said. “They’ll get frustrated, of course, because maybe they miss the basket in the final shot and lose the game, but ultimately [people think,] ‘well, what they do is really hard, so I’m pissed off that my team lost, but I get it.’”
Since dance is also an art form, it will never get the same forgiveness from a crowd. Farmer said, “No audience will ever watch a dancer fall on stage and go, ‘Aw man that sucks, but I get it. What they do is really hard.’” Unlike traditional athletes, dancers are judged to an artistic level of perfection, and as Farmer puts it: “Dancers are only as good as their next perfect performance.”
After living in both worlds, one as a competitive athlete and another as a professional dancer, Farmer came to the conclusion that dance is harder from a cultural and audience perspective. However he understands that not only artists strive for perfection, athletes absolutely do as well. “People ultimately understand when Tom Brady has a bad game,” Farmer said. “But they don’t understand when a professional dancer has a bad day. And to me, that’s where I think, from a cultural and crowd perspective, dance is harder, being both an artistic and sports phenomenon.”
Yet another challenge dancers face is the pressure to have a certain “look.” “While athletes get to have different physiques based on the demands of their chosen sport,” Farmer said, “dancers are generally lumped into a singular category (i.e. dancer) and are therefore expected to look a very specific way.” That specific way is usually muscular and slender, with extreme flexibility, and whatever is considered “culturally attractive” at that time. It does vary with different styles of dance, but Farmer said that “… the general term ‘dancer’ conjures up an idea in people’s minds that all dancers are then expected to uphold.” This expectation is regardless of the dancer’s natural body type, and, with the combination of being constantly seen, can be detrimental to their mental health.
Farmer’s unique experience and insight with this debate influence what he hopes to teach his students about what it really means to be a dancer. “Part of our job as good educators, and one of the things at Hope that we try to do specifically, is to train and re-educate dancers that they are also athletes, and that means we have to approach our bodies through nutrition [and health],” said Farmer.
On the flip side, he said that although most young dancers see themselves as artists, dance has an artistic side that many young dancers don’t understand. He said, “Artistry to them is ironically attached to physical prowess instead of: ‘what do I have to contribute to the planet that no one else does?’ Or ‘what does it mean to be a dance artist with something to say?’”
At Hope, there is a dual education that the dance department strives for. Ultimately, being the best physical person in the room is not going to get a dancer a job. Dance companies are looking for artists first— they’re looking for the athlete who has something to say. That dual education is one of the biggest things that is missing in many dance programs in higher education and is only recently being considered.
So, the answer to whether or not dance is a sport or an art is inclusive rather than dualistic. Like many things in the rest of life, it doesn’t neatly fit into a box. Dance is equal parts a sport and an art. It demands physical abilities and intense dedication to technique, while also fulfilling the human need to create and tell our unique stories. Higher education has struggled with finding a place for this activity, and Farmer works to bring Hope college’s dance department to best serve every student.
Be sure to read next week’s follow-up article for a more in-depth analysis of the complex history of dance in higher education, and where Hope fits in.