It’s weird: sometimes dance and sport seem a hair’s breadth from each other, and sometimes they seem to be entirely separate planets. I’m a creature from Planet Dance, and almost never think about or participate in sports. But with the Olympics on the horizon (and living in the East End of London, I mean this very literally), sport is impossible to ignore. Images of bodies in motion, the focus on fitness, the training for performance – all of this reminds me of dance. It’s like – well, you know that film Planet of the Apes, where Charlton Heston voyages to an alien world only to discover, finally, that it is actually the same place that he left? It’s like that. Like finding out that dance and sport are the same planet after all, even though I’m native in one and alien in the other.
But perhaps that’s just me. What about people who live in both worlds? Would they feel differently? I voyaged to RAD headquarters in south-west London to meet young people aged 16 to 18 from the Step into Dance youth company. Step into Dance is an initiative by the RAD and the Jack Petchey Foundation which brings dance into secondary schools, with currently 187 participating schools across London and Essex. The youth company is the project’s flagship group, made up of the most promising and committed dancers.
As I walked towards the studio, I could sense the pulse and throb of music in my bones. Opening the door lets out a rush of energy, the students’ breathing now clearly audible through the full-on soundtrack. The dancers are all fired up, having been rehearsing for an hour, and the air is permeated by the familiar scent of people hard at work: sweat. According to Sue Goodman, the permanently fired-up artistic director of Step into Dance, the students often carry on dancing and practising right through their lunch break. Dance, I reckon, has already scored the first point.
The dancers are rehearsing a street-dance number, with razor-sharp moves that have to be tautly co-ordinated to the beat and to each other. I note that dance practice clothing – trackies, tops, trainers – is basically sportswear. When the students take a break I ask about the question of sport. Do any of them dislike sport? No: the overwhelming majority like it a lot. It turns out that the group includes a couple of footballers, a karate kid and several basketball players. ‘You can really relate sport to dance,’ says Nathaniel Samp, one of the basketballers, and gets up to demonstrate. He does a hip-hop toprock step sequence, and sneaks in some basketball-style dodges, bounces and dribbles. It’s pretty nifty. Katie Howard, slender but steely, says that the strength and control she gets from karate has really benefited her dancing. It works the other way too: ‘dance helps my precision in karate, makes it easier to memorise moves and understand technique.’ Other students nod in recognition. I think Planet Sport just equalised.
So if dance and sport can happily play off each other, what are the main differences? ‘Dance allows you to free up your emotions in a way that maybe sport can’t,’ says Fern Jansz, another lean teen and basketball player. ‘Dance lets you be yourself more.’ Santeena Reid, who describes herself, with some pride, as ‘quite an angry person’, picks up this idea and runs with it. ‘I think sport is also emotional,’ she counters. ‘In football, all my emotions would come through in the game. But they’d be channelled into a kind of anger. With dance, you don’t have to convert your emotions, they just come out. And you can show a softer side that you don’t really show in sport, which is more about getting the job done and winning the game.’ Ciara Murphy agrees: ‘Both sport and dance use a lot of emotional energy, but in sport you’re kind of forced to use that energy in certain ways.’
‘In dance you need more trust in the team’ I put another idea into play: teamwork. ‘In a dance group you need more trust in the team,’ says Daisy Chapman. ‘Say you’re doing lifts. If they drop you, you could really injure yourself. It’s not that you don’t need trust in a football game, but you can get away with not having as much. The risk is less.’ Fern elaborates: ‘In both, you always have to be aware of the rest of the group, but in dance the way you relate to each other can be more complicated, physically and mentally. Whereas in basketball it’s all throw-catch, throw-catch.’
For the students, teamwork also transcends the idea of competition. Katie uses the example of a hip-hop battle, a stand-off between two dancers trying to outdo each other. ‘Even when you’re battling, you’re still cheering each other on,’ she says. ‘It’s like you’re on the same side even when you’re against each other. But in karate, you don’t cheer on your opponent. You’re not going to say: yeah, come on and punch me more!’ Dance can certainly be competitive, they agree, but being better than someone isn’t achieved by beating them. The goals are different. ‘In a battle,’ explains Lucas Wetzel, yet another basketball player, ‘both of you want to entertain the audience, and entertain yourselves and each other too. It makes less difference who wins and who loses.’
this game – in which I lob an idea at the group and watch them bounce it around – is hotting up nicely
I decide to ditch the whole dance vs sports battle. It wasn’t that interesting anyway. Whereas this game – in which I lob an idea at the group and watch them bounce it around – is hotting up nicely. After ‘teamwork’, I try them out on ‘brainwork’. Santeena, ever practical, sees this as a question of training: ‘the more you practice, the less brainwork it takes.’ It’s like learning French, she says: the more you do it, the less you have to think about it. Fluency, in sport as in dance, comes through training.
Others have a different take. Calvin Etten-Forbes – who earlier had been clearly been rehearsing in his head as much as in the studio – thinks that dance needs more mental focus, because the moves are more complex, and it’s not enough to get them done – you have to get them right. But Lucas counters that in basketball you need more spatial alertness, because you never know who’s going to be coming from where, and you have to respond quickly. In dance, even if it’s improvised, you don’t have that degree of unpredictability
But there’s one kind of brainwork that all of them say dance offers in a way that sport can’t: creativity. ‘It’s connected to you emotionally as well as mentally,’ says Fern. ‘Your teacher might give you a concept, and then it’s up to you how to interpret it. You can make up a movement through your emotions, but you also think about where it’s coming from. You don’t do that in basketball.’ ‘Also,’ chips in Calvin, ‘our ideas are actually heard by the teacher. If they work, then they’ll take them on board and try and work with them.’
‘Sport doesn’t offer that!’ says Santeena. ‘Unless you’re the captain, I guess. But if you’re lower down the hierarchy, no one wants to hear you. Don’t laugh, it’s true!’
But everyone is laughing – and I figure this is a good time for them to get some lunch. Travelling back to my home ground, I reflect on the conversation. They don’t see dance and sport as competitors, but as partners. For them, it’s win-win: sports can support their dancing, and vice versa. Still, certain themes kept cropping up about the extra rewards that dance offers: emotional expression, co-operation, individual recognition, creativity. These less tangible qualities were what they connected with most, what made them commit to regular treks across town for hard-working Sunday rehearsals. Lucas’s words come back to my mind: ‘I used to play a lot of basketball, but since I came here dance has sort of overwhelmed it. Because dance is like… I think it’s…’ He hesitates, struggling to find the right words. ‘It’s just… better.’ I get a little kick inside. I think dance just beat sport. Result!