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Balllroom Dancing--Fine Art or Sport
by John Kozy, Jr.
A thing is what it is and not another thing, and it doesn't become something else when its name is changed or it is described differently. This principle is absolute; it applies universally, even to ballroom dancing.
Yet there is a persistent confusion about just what ballroom dancing is. Is it a fine art? Is it a sport? It cannot be both, but it can be neither. The answer to this question is not to be found by searching dictionaries for definitions. It can only be found by closely examining the activity along with all of its ancillary doings and then comparing what is found to the doings of both fine arts and sports.
My own impression is that some have begun calling ballroom dancing a sport in the mistaken belief that it may then become as popular as sports. And I suppose the analogy they see is the common physical activity of both. One can slide easily from exercise to aerobic exercise to dance, but that is a trap even though some people may dance for exercise.
Physical activity is not the defining characteristic of anything, for almost everything we do involves it.
What then characterizes sport? For most sports, it is the scoring of points in a definitive way. One crosses the goal line in football, crosses the plate is baseball, sinks the ball in basketball, nets the puck in hockey, gets the ball on the ground in your opponent's part of the court in tennis, crosses the goal line first in a race. Of course there are a few exceptions, the most important of which are gymnastics, figure skating, and diving, although many people are as unsure about the status of these as some are about ballroom dancing. These three 'sports' are different than the other sports mentioned and are similar in many ways to ballroom dancing. But to those who want to call ballroom dancing a sport in the hope that its popularity will be thereby increased, it must be pointed out that gymnastics, figure skating, and diving are not all that popular.
So what then characterizes fine art? Great art, of course, is characterized by genius and originality. It requires the mastery of techniques which great artists then manipulate to express their own personalities. Fine art is associated with the profession of criticismmusic critics, art critics, drama critics, literary critics, and yes, dance critics. And although expert critics are not always the best judges of what is great art (they can be and often have been wrong), criticism is an integral part of the fine arts.
But have you ever heard of a sports critic? The idea is absurd. No one cares how a player crosses or reaches the finish line, no one cares how a player gets the ball through the hoop, but go to any dance competition where the adjudicators comment on performances and no matter how good you and your partner may look on the dance floor, you will be marked down for foot faults, insufficient shaping, carriage, inadequate upper body motion, and a host of other technicalities. Dancing is not a mere sport.
Another essential characteristic of a fine art is how the artist incorporates his or her personality in the performance. Art without personality is merely mechanical, a machine, and machines are not artists no matter how accurately they perform their techniques. Of course, it is important to dance with technical accuracy, but to dance well, accuracy must be embellished by personality.
None of this is important in sports. There are no school figures in baseball, basketball, football, tennis, track, the shot put or even bowling, archery, or volleyball. There are none in aerobic dance either.
So is ballroom dancing a fine art or a sport? How you dance will determine the answer for you. To me it can be nothing but a fine art. The school figures and how they are performed are important to me. So is upper body motion in contrabody positions and shaping in an oversway or a corte'. So is dancing to suit my personality; I avoid specific figures because I believe they make a person with my personality look foolish; I perhaps overuse others because they fit well, and I suspect all great dancers do the same; they just do it better.
Teodoro Morca, the great flamenco dancer, has said all of this far better than I, and I would like to close this piece with a few quotations from his "Becoming the dance".
"Technique for technique's sake is just that. If a technique does not say something of you and does not help you become the dance, then forget it. I have seen many dancers do a set routine of steps that are using music as Muzak. They have steps that fit, they are moving around in dance but they do not 'say' anything, because they are dancing steps and not being sensitive to the nuance and expression of the song." (How many showcase dancers have you seen dance this way?) "Footwork should say something, it should say something about yourself; it should be musically, visually, and dramatically a reflection of your feelings. Flamenco seems to require that the choreography be immediately adapted to the individual dancer. The dancer's interpretation and technique, feelings and emotions, should be considered from the outset. This can be said of any dance. Excitement does not come from copying what others have done choreographically. If the individual or personality is left out, it is then just mimicking steps."
To Mr. Morca, too, dancing is clearly a fine art.
Has the ordinary ballroom dancer anything to learn from this? I have, and I am no champion. I have learned that it is important to master the fundamentals, the school figures, the footwork, gestures, and bodywork that make dancing into more than just steps. But I have also learned that it is just as important to be myself and not some hurdy gurdy grinder's trained monkey.