Olympians of Dance: What Does Ballet in Common With the Olympics, and Should It?
Rainesford Alexandra
By Rainesford Alexandra on September 01st, 2016

While the Olympics only happen once every four years, they arm us with enough excitement and patriotism to last awhile: From Simone Biles staking her claim as the world’s foremost gymnast, Michael Phelps going out with a golden bang, and various records shattered by the world’s most exceptional athletes, the Summer 2016 Olympics were nothing if not memorable.

Of course, being the bunheads that we are, it is impossible not to draw parallels between the elite athletes in the Olympics and the elite artists that make their home in ballet. After all, both devote years to training, maintain strict discipline, and are passionate about reaching the highest possible level in their area of expertise. So, questions remain: Could ballet benefit from the spotlight and media buzz that follows the Olympics? Where is the overlap between arts and athletics, and how does the “dance” requirement for female gymnasts in their floor routines change our perception of artistry?

First, there are some similarities between ballet’s greatest competitions and the structure of the Olympics. Varna International Ballet Competition, held once every two years and known for its prestige, has produced dancers that are the equivalent to household names like Michael Phelps, including Daniil Simkin and Sylvie Guillem. Jackson International Ballet Competition is also held every four years, and bills itself as an “olympic-style” competition where premiere young dancers from around the world compete for gold, silver, and bronze medals as well as cash prizes and company contracts. Competing in ballet has become a “normal” part of dance culture, but remains heavily disputed. Viewers, enthusiasts, dancers, and teachers worry that ballet has, in fact, ventured too far into the sports arena, with gymnastics-esque extensions, quadruple pirouettes, and insane flexibility popping up more and more often in classical variations. While competitions are undoubtedly bridges to opportunities for young dancers–and exciting for audiences, especially those used to the intensity and obviousness of competing in sports–there remains the unsettling feeling that the thirst for gold and having “prix winner” by your name somehow diminishes ballet as an art form.

Dancers are unique: They require the physicality of athletes, the fierce spirit of Olympic competitors, but also artistry of the highest order. In a way, ballet transcends both elements of athletes and artists.

This becomes particularly thought-provoking when you consider it through the Olympic lens. Female gymnasts are still required to include dance in their floor routines and perform to the music, while male gymnasts perform passes that don’t pretend to be artistic, just purely athletic. It is a bizarre parallel to draw, and highlights the fundamental differences between ballet and Olympic-style competitions: Female gymnasts should be judged on their athleticism and execution, not their ability to shove some dance moves into already jaw-dropping routines. They are athletes. Should we expect them to be overtly artistic, too? Meanwhile, we judge dancers, especially young ones, harshly when their performances cross more of the arts/athletics line than we would like: I’ve seen one too many comments on variations videos condemning the dancer for being too “gymnastics-y.” Being a gymnast isn’t an insult. They are exceptional athletes. The catch is, to be a truly great dancer, you have to be an artist. Can we judge artistry? I believe to a degree, we can, but somehow that goes overlooked a bit too often in most competitions, just as having an Olympic gymnast add a shoulder shimmy into their passes seems out of place.

To determine whether ballet would benefit from Olympic-levels of attention, we have to think about what we want ballet to be, a conversation that has seemed conflicted especially within the last decade. In virtually every medium, from athleticwear brands to the pages of Vogue, in commercials, on television shows, ballet is popping up as part of our pop culture. Dancers themselves have taken to social media, which adds a layer of insight ballet’s make-it-look-effortless mentality didn’t necessarily lend itself to. Before, we, as the general public, saw the end result: A performance. Now, we see dancers sleeping in airports on tour, outlining the diets that fuel their bodies in magazines, in rehearsal, and bleeding through their pointe shoes. This isn’t altogether different from the bevy of Olympian-focused press in which athletes showed the media a glimpse inside their schedules or eating habits. And just like those of us who consumed Olympic news like it was going out of style, audiences want to go inside the art, so to speak, with dancers. We want them to perform perfectly, but at the same time, we secretly love knowing that they are human, too.

People looking to be wowed by athleticism may not value the artistic prowess of a Dying Swan or flirty Kitri.

We’ve already cemented ballet as a competition, which is the first streak of Olympic similarity. It has retrained us not to just enjoy a beautiful dancer, but to want to watch the best dancers. Another gap between ballet and Olympic sports: Those sports can be graded, much like math, on how precisely they add up and the times they are completed in. While in ballet, there’s certainly an element of this too–a sloppy fifth position is always a no-go–can you judge a dancer in a competition if you’re purely grading them as artists, or do competitions by default turn dance into a sport?

What would change about ballet if dance was in the Olympics? Well, increased public visibility is a significant change, but when your audience changes, so do the expectations. People looking to be wowed by athleticism may not value the artistic prowess of a Dying Swan or flirty Kitri. Would we expect Michael Phelps to smile while he breaks thousand-year-old records? No, because Michael Phelps is an athlete. So, what are dancers, and how does that relate to dance’s future, the Olympics, and the great arts vs. athletics debate?

Ballet would always benefit from more visibility, because that visibility could lead to more funding, which, in turn, could create job opportunities, thus allowing more dancers to pursue ballet as a career. Dancers are unique: They require the physicality of athletes, the fierce spirit of Olympic competitors, but also artistry of the highest order. In a way, ballet transcends both elements of athletes and artists.

So, dancers shouldn’t be Olympians. Dancers should be the elite, intense competitors in the area they have devoted their lives to, much like Olympic athletes. They should be dancers. Athletes go for gold, they work to break records, they score, slam dunk, and cross finish lines. Dancers create. Dancers go for art.

About the Author: Rainesford Alexandra

Rainesford Alexandra
Rainesford Stauffer is a former dancer, and current writer, yogi, and student. She has been published by The Huffington Post and Forbes among others, and has given two TEDx Talks on learning. In addition to writing, Rainesford currently works in media for a dance-related organization, and looks for ways to bring the arts and academic learning together.