For centuries, dance has been considered a performing art, a type of entertainment, and a form of expression. But, for many decades, competitive dancers have proven to be athletes and called the definition of “sport” into question.
Being a dancer for the past 18 years of my life, I have participated in only a small part of the evolution of dance but have experienced first-hand the physical and emotional resilience needed to not only dance but dance competitively.
Evolution of Dance
Although dance has been around since ancient times, it has evolved most since the rise of jazz in the 1920s. The past 100 years have accounted for the creation of hundreds, if not thousands, of dance styles performed in places all around the world.
In the very last few years of the 1890s, Vaudeville shows peaked in popularity in the U.S. as a form of entertainment. Vaudeville shows encompassed a variety of acts but were the first to feature dancers as solo acts.
As Vaudeville shows became heavily centered on the dancing aspect up to the early 1930s, dance progressed along with it and was viewed as a professional form of entertainment.
With the introduction of jazz music in the 1920s, jazz styles of dance began to popularize along with it. After dance began to use music with faster tempos and quick-step feet, dance styles and dancers themselves quickly began to evolve and grow in numbers.
- The “Shimmy”
1930s & 1940s
- The “Boogie”
- The “Twist”
- Bollywood dance
- Cha Cha
- Competitive Dance
- The “Hustle”
- Soul Train lines
- Break dancing
- Hip Hop
- Line dancing
- The “Running Man”
- Musical Theater
- Modern dance
- Jazz Funk
This list only includes a mere fraction of the many dance styles still studied around the globe, and the number of styles only continues to grow throughout the decades. As dance became popular, accessible, and more intricate, the need for a competitive industry focused on dance was clear.
Because of decades of dance being seen as a form of entertainment and only a performing art, it has been difficult to persuade society that dance is a sport and dancers are its athletes. Television, social media, Millennials, and Gen-Zers alike have sparked discussion on how physically and mentally demanding dance truly is.
Dancers’ long hours of practice, sacrifice, and physical ache are no different than that of a baseball player or swimmer. But, “sport” is not only about the physical aspect, correct?
In the late 1970s, Showstopper, one of the first competitive dance organizing companies in the U.S., began hosting competitions out of the trunk of their station wagon. This has since evolved to a yearly competition where over 55,000 dancers participate.
Dance competitions, including national competitions like Showstopper, have boomed since the 1980s and have only become more competitive and, therefore, more popular.
The Competitive Aspect
The competition-dance format is relatively simple. On weekends, for-profit traveling companies host competitions for children in sports centers, convention centers, and hotels. Dance studios or academic institutions with dance teams bring their teams to compete at district, regional, state, and national competitions.
There are usually three to five judges depending on the size of the competition. These judges tend to be choreographers, dance teachers, professional dancers, and even celebrities.
Their job is to score on several aspects of each routine, usually including:
- Performance Quality
A competition can last anywhere from one to three days, depending on how many dancers have entered to compete. These days tend to begin with 5 am wake-up calls and do not end until all winners have received their titles, which (in my experience) can be anywhere from 9 pm to 1 am.
“What does competitive dance entail?” Let’s Ask the Author.
On a personal note, being a competitive dancer was one of the most difficult but rewarding journeys of my entire life. I began dancing at the age of two, and although I did not begin dancing competitively until my middle school years, I was heavily involved in the dance world regardless.
Growing up watching Lifetime’s “Dance Moms,” I was very hesitant to enter the competitive dance world in fear of being in a toxic environment. Once I decided to take the plunge and join my middle school’s competitive team, it did not turn out to be what I had expected.
It was not until I joined my high school dance team where I was truly immersed into the world of competitive dance with a national title-winning team and pressure to deliver for my team that I truly realized what competitive dance entailed.
What many people do not realize when watching a two-minute dance video on YouTube are the months of work behind each synchronized movement. The best way to drill movement in dance is through muscle memory and being as precise with choreography as possible.
It takes leadership, teamwork, patience, creativity, skill, and hours of practice. For reference, one “count of eight” could take 30 minutes to properly teach and execute as a team of 20.
Every year of high school, my team competed in one state competition and two national competitions. The high level of time commitment as a competitive dancer is widely expected. A normal amount of practice hours could fall anywhere between 10 to 20 hours, along with schoolwork and other extra-curriculars.
To best prepare during competition season, my team would also host nine-hour practices on weekends. It was, at times, physically and mentally taxing, but I have never experienced more raw moments than sharing the stage with my teammates and winning together.
Because of dance, I suffered three diagnosed concussions (one being at a competition), two sprained ankles, one sprained wrist, and several other minute injuries. Ultimately, what could I have expected from a sport that required me to learn to flip on my head, turn 16 times on one leg, or do a “Kip-Up”?
Regardless of the sweat, tears, and actual bloodshed, there is not one aspect of my competitive dance career that I regret as it has most definitely taught me all things expected from an athlete.
Dance is a sport, too!