Instinct says that dancing is not a sport – it’s dancing, innit? Swanning around to music and looking lovely, or gyrating and looking sexy, if you’re doing the Latin.
Actually, the question had never crossed my mind until this week, when I attended the finals of the Crystal Palace Cup. In ballroom, the Crystal Palace Cup is to Blackpool what Eastbourne is to Wimbledon in tennis – an international competition that takes place just before and in the shadow of the real biggie.
One of the first things you notice at the Cup is that although there are ballroom and Latin categories, it’s not called ballroom and Latin dancing– it’s called “dancesport“. Over the years a consortium of dance organisations has fought to get dance competitions officially classified as a sport. And with some degree of success: dancesport is now recognised by the International Olympic Committee, although it’s still some way from the elusive goal of becoming an official medal sport.
Can it really qualify as sport? Well, it’s certainly athletic. Those couples have been in serious physical training – they need to be, not just for the dancing, which tends to happen in brief sprints, but simply to survive the marathon length of the competitions. And there’s a lot of technique involved, with umpteen rules about toes and heels and lifts and suchlike. That’s certainly sporty – you need rules to have rankings. And rankings are the lifeblood of these gladiatorial arenas that trade in knockouts and sudden death.
And ballroom dancing is competitive. My God, it’s competitive. Take a look at those pile-ups that keep happening in the corners of the dancefloor, see how determinedly everyone maintains their smile – and now tell me that ballroom dancing is not about gearing every cell in your body towards winning.
Sportiness is, at most, half the story. What, for example, is the point of sporting a tan? And those costumes, those shoes – are they entirely functional? They seem entirely dysfunctional, yet are absolutely central to dancesport, because ballroom is as much about the theatrical – style, brio, playing the audience – as the physical performance.
Sport itself is not without its theatrical elements. Its style, cliques and fandoms, its costumes, drama and spectacle. But it would be a shame if dancesport ended up redefining performance solely as achievement. Already, the music often serves more to set the pace than to dance to, and the dancing itself can look perilously joyless. What happened to the pleasures of dancing?