Listen, just because I’m more of a Dodgers-era Piazza guy than a Mets-era Piazza guy doesn’t mean I don’t love Mike or the New York Metropolitans with all my heart — it’s just, there’s something about growing up playing catcher for the Southern California South Sunrise Little League triple-A Dodgers in the early ’90s that has a lasting effect on a man.
Growing up fanning for Los Angeles and Orange County teams as a kid is a semi-weird way to fall in love with sports. It’s warm all the time, the Rams moved to St. Louis in ‘95, and Disney basically created our hockey team — but it’s what I did. And, growing up as a dude who ultimately found himself through the art form of musical theatre, the combination of playing hot weather winter sports and singing in a dance belt in front of your high school peers creates a guy who has a wide variety of interests.
So, as a result — you know what I also like? Dance. Like a lot. I like to do it, I like to watch it, and I really like to write about it. You know why? Because it’s awesome.
Dance = Sport
You know what dance also is? A sport. Yes, it’s art, too. But, it’s also sport. And, it’s time the sports world gives credit where credit is due.
Now, not that you would — after all, this is The Turf for heaven’s sake — but don’t “at” me for sounding condescending toward artsy-sports folks. There’s clearly a small, albeit strong, faction of us, and we’re already on the same team. I’m probably just making a point that you’ve felt once or twice or eighty-seven-thousand times in your life. My point is directed at that specific someone who bullied you because dancing was different. Because dancers wore tights and make-up. Because dancers were girly or “gay”.
Let’s get one thing straight, dancers are athletes. Professional dancers, especially the ones that end up in companies like New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, or Paul Taylor Dance Company are among our most elite contenders in the world of sports. And that, you can tell to your former high school bully, has absolutely nothing to do gender-identity, sex, nationality, race, heritage, religion, who their favorite MLS team is, or for that matter, sexual orientation.
Sport is defined by physical exertion, skill, and competition. Thereby, dance is sport, and its participants are athletes.
Simple, right? I know.
For some though, it isn’t. So, while we’re here, let’s do a little comparison. Let’s quickly look at what a hypothetical professional ballet dancer’s career might look like alongside that of a professional baseball player.
Dare to compare
Everyone in dance — much like how everyone starts playing ball in their local little league — begins with a pair of lace-up floppy jazz sneakers or poorly stitched ballet shoes, or Capezio taps, dancing at the neighborhood Dolly Dinkle dance academy.
Now, if someone gets passed the first few years of basics, fundamentals, and playing alongside the kid picking daisies in right-field, then comes a serious question of commitment.
As with baseball, dancers quickly find that a potential future in the form coincides with a rare but necessary drive, passion, and determination. Once a good old fashioned “Come-to-Jesus” conversation answering the inevitable questions of “am I good enough, talented enough, and driven enough” happens, what often comes next is a life-changing choice.
For many future company dancers, though, that means making that decision about the future pretty early. While many potential pro-athletes thrive and grow in their local high school programs, the next generation of primas and danseurs are making that choice pre-high school.
(Also, the term used to describe a male-identifying ballet dancer is “danseur.” It is not, hilariously enough, “ballerino”… I’ll tell you that story sometime.)
Auditioning for and getting into an elite training program like New York City Ballet’s “School of American Ballet” or Pennsylvania Ballet’s “The Rock” becomes almost essential for a guaranteed future. And, these intense after-school programs (that, many times, require a student to move to a big city far away) coalesced around a stringent and outside academic program, all but becomes a student’s sole focus.
The rigorous training these young dancers receive, not unlike a young high school athlete, involves painful strength training, conditioning, and long hours. Staying healthy, uninjured, and sane under the fierce competition and pressure can be more than unbearable for some.
“You’ve made it, kid, now what?”
So now, let’s say a dancer makes it through five to seven years of demanding tutelage and you get hired into a professional dance company. While there’s no MLB draft bonus, it does come with the tough double-A years in the corps de ballet and the even more competitive triple-A years as a soloist, before you can make it — if you can make it — to the bigs as a principal dancer. From there, though, it only begins.
Once someone’s made it to the bigs — either as a dancer or a ballplayer — it goes without saying, there are a lot of perks. Finally, you get to play the best houses, to the biggest audiences, and your work is lauded by fans. But, you’re also competing with the hungriest at the highest level, not just to stay in your manager’s starting lineup or get cast in as many notable roles as possible, but to build a lasting career. To determine your status in the hierarchy of a team or a company. To, above all, win in every capacity possible. And, that’s to say nothing of the need to build your own brand outside your organization and grab at something, anything, that leads to a future after you retire.
And speaking of that future, what’s to be made of it?
Unfortunately, the biggest separation between a big-league level MLB player and a top company ballet dancer is a grand canyon size chasm in salary potential. Unless one attains the level and notoriety of say, Misty Copeland or Mikhail Baryshnikov, the car dealerships or small steakhouse chains aren’t really in the cards. Perhaps an administrative position in another company, a dance studio somewhere, or maybe even a second career as something else completely is a little more likely.
The biggest bout
Moreover though, on top of the competition for performance opportunities or post-career prospects, the biggest bout for any athlete (and, by now, we’re agreeing that includes dancers) is, frankly, with their own body.
Years and years and years of training, performance, rehearsal, injuries, physical therapy, and rehab plague dancers — like any athlete — at every turn. Passion drives the work, but for those lucky enough to find passion as a career path, it becomes the work — and, that work becomes, in every sense of the word, a battle. And, that battle, no matter how amazing, inspiring, awful, incredible, rude, crude, and/or any combination thereof, is still, in the end, a battle. A battle to survive an insanely rewarding, devilishly demeaning, high pressure, in-the-spotlight, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners world.
There’s no question to me that dance is a sport and its participants are athletes. Ballroom competitions, teen convention comps, or backroom tap circles: all competition, all sport. Hell, break dancing is provisionally set to be a part of the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
Dance deserves its rightful place in the sports world, and I’m gonna do my best to bring that to you whenever it’s appropriate. Because dance and dancers occupy a weird purgatorial void between art and sport, I’m gonna be here to celebrate and report on dancers as the competitors, athletes, and artists they are. They’re a rare breed and they deserve the coverage.
So, go out and root for your home team dance company, know your favorite dancer’s stats, fuck, get a team leotard, I don’t know, get weird.
Just support them and know they’re working as hard as anyone else in the professional sports world.
And, that’s cool as shit.
For the record though, I love the Dodgers and the Mets, but I do not like Chase Utley, the 2015 Dodgers, or the Philadelphia Phillies for that matter. But I digress…
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