It’s an age-old debate: Is ballet an art or a sport? Ballet dancers clearly have to have incredible athleticism, but they also possess a deep sense of musicality and artistry that you won’t find in even the all-star athletes. Because dance blurs the lines between sport and art, maybe what we should be asking is this: what makes ballet dancers elite athletes and artists?
The Argument for Athletes
To begin with, there’s no doubt that ballet is extremely physically demanding. In fact, a 1975 study ranked ballet as the number one most physically and mentally demanding activity. Like athletes, proficient dancers need to be extremely strong, but they also need to be very flexible and have the ability to quickly apply corrections and pick up on new choreography. All of these qualities are heightened when you introduce the pas de deux (partnering) work and pointe shoes found in ballet. For women to dance on their toes for hours every day, and for men to spend much of their time supporting and lifting the women into the air—sometimes with only one hand—it’s abundantly clear that ballet dancers have great athleticism. But there are also many aspects of ballet that make dancers phenomenal artists.
The Argument for Artists
Ballet is widely acknowledged as the most rigorous and demanding form of dance. Ballet dancers, more than anyone else, have a refined sense of what it means to make dancing look graceful and effortless. This is something that you won’t see in traditional sports because the need to make things look easy just doesn’t exist in that realm. After all, people don’t attend ballets to see the dancers struggle like they do in sporting events—they go to see something ethereal and elegant. The best dancers make even the most complex steps look effortless. This ability is instilled through years of training and building upon a strong technical foundation. Creating this illusion of ease is one of the most fundamental elements in the artistry of ballet.
Additionally, an advanced sense of musicality sets the best dancers apart from the crowd. Musicality encompasses several elements, the most basic being the ability to dance to the rhythm of the music, no matter how fast or slow it might be. From there, the dancer learns to fill up every second of the music, to truly “feel” it, and accordingly add personal expression to the choreography. Over time, this transforms the choreography from merely performing steps to expressively and passionately communicating a story (and, of course, performing everything with technical mastery).
For dancers to achieve all this—the blending of powerful athlete with expressive artist—there are many factors that come into play. Receiving instruction from experienced teachers will help dancers develop solid technique and sufficient strength and flexibility. Through years of training in ballet and other supplemental dance forms, as well as strength and flexibility training, ballet dancers can rise to the professional level and hold their ground against traditional athletes. This also bleeds into the realm of artistry: training and practice creates the ability to make dancing look effortless. Students who are privileged to have live piano accompaniment will also vastly improve their musicality. An experienced pianist will be able to select different songs and vary the tempos to accommodate or challenge the dancers, according to what the instructor chooses. The vibrations of the music are more easily felt through the piano as well.
It’s difficult to imagine another activity that combines athleticism and artistry as well as ballet does. Ballet dancers are truly incredible athletes—their strength and stamina alone put professionals at the level of Olympians. The passion and spirit they bring to their dancing creates a beautifully unique artistic experience. Well-rounded training from experienced instructors creates elite ballet dancers who are a captivating blend of athletes and artists.