When early prima ballerinas Maria Tallchief and Anna Pavlova took the stage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I’m guessing they never dreamed of dancers in short skirts and sparkly makeup using their technical training to pirouette on the sidelines of college football and basketball games. When Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire waltzed across the silver screen in the ’30s and ’40s, they probably didn’t intend on paving the way for groups like the Laker Girls and the Redskinettes to strut their stuff for NBA and NFL fans.
Now, classically trained dancers can be seen on ESPN, pom-poms in hand, cheering their teams to victory while executing high kicks and leaps across the field or court. This shift in purpose here sets this kind of dance apart from any other art or sport. And yet, it can be considered both. What began as an art appreciated by the aristocratic upper class has morphed into a physically demanding athletic activity geared toward entertaining sports enthusiasts.
As a classically trained ballet dancer and dance team member here at the University, I’ve seen the whole spectrum of styles encompassed in dance and how each is used to create something that qualifies as art. What I’ve learned from my experience is that dance will always be an art form — even the most commercial or “dance team” movement evokes certain emotions from its audience.
The part that gets confusing is when dance is incorporated into a collegiate or professional athletic program. Although sports and art both involve finesse and skill, the team that scores the most points is the objective winner. There are art competitions out there, to be sure, but they’re much more subjective. One person may like a particular routine while another person doesn’t, so you can’t definitively determine a clear “winner” with a simple score tally. You need to call in the judges, which you’d never see on a traditional sports field. Football, basketball, soccer and all the rest of the conventional sports are athletic competitions, but most would never be called art. So is dance, which is often just as athletically demanding, excluded from the “sport” moniker because it’s also an art form?
The honest answer is that people aren’t really in agreement yet. Whenever I’m out in my uniform at a game or other sporting event, I am called a cheerleader by most fans, and who can blame them? I carry pom-poms and cheer “Go Blue!” at the top of my lungs. Collegiate dance teams have become recognized as part of athletic programs across the country only very recently. Even in the NFL and NBA, the dancers are referred to as cheerleaders (the Dallas Cowboy “Cheerleaders” are all trained dancers). Yet, when average people think of dance, they think of a stage, costumes and ballet shoes — or more recently, hip-hop music videos and movies like “Step Up” — because dance is still recognized, first and foremost, as an art. I’m guessing it will be a long time before dance loses its ambiguity and is officially considered sport in addition to art.
Fueling the movement, national college dance team competitions televised on ESPN show the growing interest in dance as a college sport. Watch some of the videos on YouTube from last year’s Universal Dance Association college nationals and then tell me dance isn’t athletic. I attended for the first time last year and saw groups of girls furiously turn, jump, crawl, leap and thrash for a solid two minutes. (It may not sound long, but trust me, it is.) Of course, this intense athleticism is showcased in costumes decorated with rhinestones, lace and velvet, specially designed to show off muscular legs and toned abs. Being a girly-girl, that is one of the things I love most about being a dancer: There’s no other time I’d get to sweat and work out in full makeup and a beautiful costume.
So, as a member of the Michigan Dance Team, am I an artist, an athlete or both? I wish the answer were clear-cut, but at the moment, it’s not resolved and I’m not even necessarily sure myself. For now, I’m just happy to bridge the gap between art and sport and do what I love in front of hundreds of thousands of Michigan fans.