Are Dancers Athletes?

Are Dancers Athletes?

I didn’t grow up in dance. Not starting until I was almost 16, I grew up instead immersed in the common language of sports, athleticism and competition. That language that ultimately promotes the idea that we should strive to do our best and be winners, not losers. 

The definition of an ‘athlete’ as provided at is:

‘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.’

By this definition I suppose dancing might, as exercise, loosely qualify as an athletic pursuit. Yet dig a little deeper and it’s becomes more problematic. The root of the word ‘athlete’ comes from the Latin, ‘athleta’ (Greek, athletes a variant of athlein) which is to, ‘contend for a prize, derivative of athlos a contest’. So the whole concept of athletics or to be an athlete, is to train the body for the purpose of competition.

Is that dance?

While professional, amateur and student dancers certainly now compete in many competitions – arguably too many – is that the primary purpose of dance as it clearly is for athletes?

This is open to debate of course, but to my mind the purpose of dance and to be a dancer, is not to hone the body to a state of skilful excellence in a given movement pattern (shot-put, running, high jump etc.) to compete for glory and gold, but instead to communicate ideas, feelings and stories. To dance, is to undertake the practice of a craft and a journey of personal discovery, learning through the medium of dance who you are, who you are in the world and what the world is to you. 

And dance takes those engaging as audience members on their journey; imaginative, spiritual or social as they explore the thoughts, feelings and stories inspired by the experience of watching. And so while both the dancers body and the athletic body are honed to a high degree of skill, their end goal is not at all the same. 

A violinist’s body too must be honed to a high degree to achieve the necessary dexterity to play, but do we and should we think of them as athletes? What about a painter of houses who must use their body to achieve their ends? Are they too athletes? If the criteria by which we define someone as an ‘athlete’ is simply that their body is adapted to a high degree to meet the functions of their activity then suddenly all sorts of activities and professions will fall under the term ‘athletic’ to the point that the word ceases to have relevance and meaning.

So why do some companies and organisations like to throw the word ‘athlete’ around associating it with dance?

The answer isn’t too hard to find once the question is asked. The answer of course is, because it’s easy. 

People more easily understand the purpose of an athlete. They understand the concept of simple competition, where you place individuals or teams into a contest with relatively straight forward rules pitting them against one another to see who triumphs on any given day. It’s a simple and easy concept to grasp which is partly why sports and athletics are so popular. Most of us can appreciate a good contest in one form or another. I myself love cricket, tennis, soccer (football) and yes, most athletics. 

But just because it’s easy doesn’t mean we should dumb down how we communicate about dance to fit in with what can more easily be understood. Though it might seem counter-intuitive, this does not serve us in the long run.

Dance is far more nuanced, subtle, and helps us present and understand a more complex world of gradation, rather than a world of more black and white outcomes. Dance engages the body at the highest level of movement pattern complexity to tell inspirational and highly emotive stories of love, hate, power, revenge, joy, despair and renewal; stories that can run the full gamut of the human condition.

Dance explores moods, ideas and emotions in the abstract inspiring the imaginative processes of the dancer and the audience to be unleashed, sometimes taking them into new and rare worlds where they can kinetically experience and become themselves the architects of new feelings and ideas.

Dance is rarely about competition, and even when it is that is the least interesting aspect about the experience. More often the experience of performing on stage, of moving an audience, of exploring new territory and of renewing or discovering new bonds with fellow artists; these are the things most interesting even within the competitive sphere.


So while it is easy and might appear at first glance like a persuasive kind of short-hand for what we really mean, I suggest we’d be better to stop associating dance with sports or athletics, stop appropriating that language, and take the time to understand, appreciate, value, articulate and promote dance for what it is rather than taking the easy road. Because our shared dance art-form, the dance industry and the individual dancers that we adore and cherish are not being served in the long run when we do.

Article written by Josef Brown,

MDM Business Development Manager


Shoot Location; The George Ballroom, Melbourne @thegeorgeballroom

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