There has been a lot of debate about whether or not dancing should be considered a sport or an art in many different circles, from dancers and athletes, to schools and higher education. Our need to categorize and label our world is challenged when we start conversations about dance. Many dancers wonder if they should see themselves as artists or athletes, and Hope College itself tries to give our dance program everything it needs. Hope’s Dance Department Chairman Matthew Farmer discusses 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 Hope for 11 years and is also a Class of 2004 Hope alumnus. His many accomplishments include professional dancer and choreographer, teacher, mentor, father and husband. He remains busy teaching 3 to 4 classes per semester, ranging from studio technique, theory, composition and improvisation. He choreographs alongside Jasmine Mejia for the Hope’s Dance H2 company and is frequently invited to teach masterclasses and choreograph dance pieces at various colleges, institutions and dance festivals.
However, Farmer hasn’t always been a dancer. In fact, he was ranked third in the State of Michigan in high school hurdling and has always been passionate about track and field. This gives her a unique perspective in the conversation of dance that finds its place in the spectrum of sports and art. He said, “I’m one of those people who believe in the phrase ‘both and’, so I’m not a big fan of dualistic thinking. He thinks dancers and athletes use the term sports as a comparison when they find it beneficial, and try to give it up when they don’t.
In a sense, he sees dance as a sport because by definition there is a physical prowess that an individual must acquire 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, which we use under the term sport.
However, Farmer makes an essential distinction between dancing and other sporting activities as he also views dancing as an art form. It is therefore treated very differently from a cultural and audience point of view. “The crowds will absolutely understand and forgive an athlete for their mistakes,” Farmer said. “They will be frustrated, of course, because they might miss the basket on the last shot and lose the game, but in the end [people think,] “Well what they’re doing is really tough so I’m pissed my team lost but I get it. ”
Since dancing is also an art form, it will never get the same forgiveness from a crowd. Farmer said, “No audience will ever see a dancer walk on stage and be like, ‘Oh man, that sucks, but I get it. “What they’re doing is really difficult.” Unlike traditional athletes, dancers are judged at a level of artistic perfection, and as Farmer says, “Dancers are only as good as their next perfect performance.”
After living in both worlds, one as a competitive athlete and the other as a professional dancer, Farmer came to the conclusion that dancing is culturally and audience more difficult. . However, he understands that not only do artists strive for perfection, but so do athletes. “People finally understand when Tom Brady has a bad game,” Farmer said. “But they don’t understand when a professional dancer is having a bad day. And for me, this is where I think, from a cultural and crowd point of view, dancing is more difficult, being both an artistic and a sporting phenomenon.
Another challenge that dancers face is the pressure to have a certain “look”. “While athletes can have different physique depending on the demands of their chosen sport,” said Farmer, “dancers are generally grouped into a singular category (i.e. dancer) and therefore are expected to have a very specific appearance. ” This specific manner is usually muscular and slender, with extreme flexibility, and all that is considered “culturally attractive” at that time. It varies with different dance styles, but Farmer said that “… the general term ‘dancer’ conjures up an idea in the minds of people that all dancers are then supposed to champion. This expectation is independent of the dancer’s natural body type and, with the combination of being constantly seen, can be damaging to their sanity.
Farmer’s unique experience and insight with this debate influences 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 we try to do specifically in Hope, is to train and re-educate dancers that they are athletes too, and that means we have to address our body through nutrition. [and health]”said the farmer.
On the other hand, he said that although most young dancers see themselves as artists, there is an artistic side to dancing that many young dancers don’t understand. He said: “For them art is ironically attached to physical prowess instead of ‘what have I to bring to the planet that no one else is doing?’ Or “what does it mean to be a dance artist with something to say?” ”
In Hope, there is a dual education that the dance department strives to achieve. In the end, being the best natural person in the room isn’t going to get a dancer a job. Dance companies look for artists first, they look for the athlete who has something to say. This dual education is one of the biggest things missing from many higher education dance programs and has only recently been considered.
Thus, the answer to the question of whether or not dance is a sport or an art is inclusive rather than dualistic. Like a lot of things in the rest of life, it doesn’t fit perfectly in a box. Dance is both a sport and an art. It requires physical ability and an intense dedication to technique, while also meeting the human need to create and tell our unique stories. Higher education has struggled to find a place for this activity, and Farmer is working to get the dance department at Hope College to serve every student better.
Be sure to read next week’s follow-up article for a more in-depth analysis of the complex history of higher education dance and Hope’s place.