23 August 2016 at 5.25pm | 51 Comments
Art (noun): 'The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.'
Sport (noun): 'An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.'
There's no denying the exertion and skill involved in a ballet performance. And while you won't find dancers competing on a pitch, there are undoubtedly similarities between a thrilling gymnastics routine or a synchronized swimming performance and a polished dance - yet ballet professionals at the peak of physical fitness won't be competing at the Olympics any time soon. But can ballet ever be viewed as a sport? Or is it purely artistic pursuit? Dance critic Lyndsey Winship and fitness writer Lottie Murphy duel it out.
‘Sport is about staying within the lines, art is about transgressing them.’
Ballroom dancing may have long been pushing for inclusion in the Olympic Games, but whatever the IOC says, you'll have a hard time convincing me that dance is actually a sport. Dance may be full of competitions, it may be part of a school's PE curriculum, it may be lauded by government campaigns as a weapon against obesity, but all of this is missing the point. Yes, dancing is an incredible way to get fit. Yes, it demands the supreme command of precise physical feats. Yes, sometimes you can even give it a score. But while dance can be viewed from a sporting perspective, there's no question that it is truly an art.
Usain Bolt crosses the line first and his win is definitive. But line up six Giselles to dance in turn and you won't get a winner, you'll get six different worlds opening up to you. And the person sitting next to you will see something entirely different. Dance is an art precisely because you can't be definitive, specific or objective, as much as we might try. Margot Fonteyn didn't lift her legs very high, she would never have won a kicking comp with Sylvie Guillem, but she brought something else entirely – grace, line, ineffable presence and subtle interpretation.
Sport can trigger emotional responses: nailbiting tension, awe, surprise and euphoria. But it doesn't take you beyond the field, the court or the pool. It lives intensely in the moment and it's completely literal. And it's about the what, not the how. The execution is just a means to an end. Art can live intensely in the moment too, but it also transcends it. It expands outwards, into other times, places, thoughts and senses. And that's important, because if we couldn't move our imagination beyond the here and now, we'd never create anything new, couldn't empathise with people who aren't on our team, wouldn't explore the vast grey areas between right and wrong, win and lose.
Sport is about staying within the lines, art is about transgressing them. Sport is about sticking to the rules, art is about breaking them. Watching Olympians in action is all about celebrating the superhuman. Dance, by contrast, uses the amazing possibilities of the body to speak to us all about being human.
‘You find the same competitiveness in the ballet studio on a football pitch.’
Former dancer and fitness guru Lottie Murphy says that ballet is no different from any other sport.
When I was an aspiring ballet dancer at school, I would get so enraged with boys on the football team telling me they thought ballet was easy. I worked my body so hard, training every single night and all weekend in the dance studio. The physical exertion and skill that is required as ballet dancer is no different to any other sportsperson.
When I trained at Central School of Ballet, you find the same competitiveness in the ballet studio on a football pitch or a running track. I’d only be chosen for a role if I was the best dancer for it.
Ballet is a pretty killer workout and it’s becoming a popular choice on the fitness scene in London. Ballet barre studios are popping up everywhere due to the incredible benefits the workout has on the body. A barre class involves isometric training which is when a muscle contracts while staying the same length, for example, holding your leg out to the side or in front of the body, just like a ballet dancer would.
As most of the workout is done standing at the barre, the stability needed also means it’s a great workout for your core and balance. Ballet dancers are extremely fit – leaping and jumping for a two hour performance requires a lot of energy, but even the most simple-looking of poses can require huge muscular strength. Even for amateur dancers, the barre improves your cardiovascular fitness as there’s no time to rest – each exercise flows into the next and class lasts for an hour.
Ballet is very testing on the body: at the end of a day rehearsing and performing, you’re exhausted. But dancing doesn’t just challenge your physical endurance, it also tests your mental strength. Dancers need to focus on coordinating steps as well as maintain a high standard of technique.
So you think ballet isn’t a sport? Well show me the splits, leap 5ft in the air, perform triple pirouettes, hold your leg up by your ear, lift another person over your head and stand on your toes! All while looking graceful and at ease... then tell me ballet isn’t a sport.
Do you think ballet is an art form or a sport?
Let us know in the comments below.
Lyndsey Winship is the current dance critic for the Evening Standard and also a regular contributor to The Guardian. Her book Being a Dancer is a compilation of advice from some of the biggest names in dance. Follow her on Twitter.
Lottie Murphy is a Pilates instructor and blogger. Her website features healthy recipes as well as a series on YouTube videos on nutrition and exercise. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for fitness and health snaps.