Are Dancers Athletes?: A Cool Take On A Hot Topic

There’s never been any question that dancers are artists. But, time and again, the question is asked: are dancers athletes?


When I was in college the dance majors and minors were not allowed access to the school athletic trainer. Instead, the dance department referred us to a P.T. nearby who “took most insurances.” And while that P.T. was excellent, I couldn’t understand why the college didn’t recognize pre-professional dancers as athletes. After all, unlike the football team, soccer team, and even the hockey club, dancers were being graded on their physical abilities. Think about that; our graduation status relied on our ability to participate physically in our classes, yet we were not considered student athletes. 


As a result, I started a petition with a statement:

 “Are Dancers Athletes? Yes. And we deserve the same free access to care as the other student athletes.” 


I was successful, but it took a great deal of work. I not only had to convince the school but, in many cases, I had to convince the dancers themselves! That’s right, even the other dancers found it challenging to identify as athletes. 


“Are dancers athletes?”


So I did some research. 

According to Merriam-Webster the definition of an athlete is, “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.”


And, The American Heart Association defines as athlete as,

one who participates in an organized team or individual sport that requires systematic training and regular competition against others and places a high premium on athletic excellence and achievement.” 


Sound like anyone you know?  


One of the largest arguments against recognizing professional dance as a sport is the fact that it isn’t competitive in the way other sports are competitive. However, a quick google search of “Are Dancers Athletes” revealed even more affirming evidence. 


Ross Tucker, a sports science researcher for World Rugby believes the definition of athlete is too narrow, suggesting we broaden definition of ‘competition’ beyond competing against other athletes in that specific moment. For example:


“…is a person who climbs Mount Everest an athlete? I’d say so, because they’re pushing boundaries, which I think meets a definition of competition where ‘competitive’ means challenging oneself to perform better. (Ian McMahan, Washington Post) 


This implies that the difference between an “athlete” and an “exerciser” is focused performance aspirations.


To put it another way, if you are training instead of working out, you are an athlete. 


Do you prefer to use the traditional definition of athletic competition? 

Think back to your last audition.

Are you still willing to say that being a professional dancer is not competitive? Do you believe that there are not specific, defined, markers of excellence in dance technique?

I didn’t think so.  


Let’s take stock. Are Dancers Athletes?

Are dancers trained or skilled in exercises that require physical strength, agility, and stamina? Check. 

Do dancers push their physical boundaries and “compete” against themselves to improve? Check.

Do dancers have specific skillsets required with measurable levels of excellence in order to “win” jobs? Check.

Do dancers train and cross-train with specific physical performance goals in mind? Check.


So, are dancers athletes?


According to this check list, absolutely yes. And if you are a professional dancer, that means you are a professional athlete. And if calling yourself a professional athlete gives you pause, this study showed that dancers out performed Olympic swimmers in seven out of ten categories of athletic testing.


Okay, great, so dancers are athletes–why is this so important? 

The answer is simpler than you might think. The reason it’s important that we as dancers identify as athletes is because when you identify as an athlete, you act like like an athlete.  According to the American Psychological Association, identifying as an athlete leads to an increase in the frequency and intensity of training. 

This means that, if you believe you are an athlete, you will train harder and more often than dancers who don’t. That is an incredible asset when you’re walking into a room of 300+ talented dancers for an audition. 



personal training for dancers




How do you train like a professional athlete? 

I’m so glad you asked!


First, if you aren’t already, you need to cross-train. Stop believing the myths about the gym that dancers have believed for too long and start lifting weights. Weightlifting is one of the best ways a dancer can resolve their muscle imbalances, achieve higher extensions, and add rotations to their turns. Don’t believe me? This blog gives an extensive explanation about why.


Second, you need to focus your cross-training on exercises that will advance your dance technique. For example, this quick read breaks down strength training exercises that will improve your pirouettes. 


And Finally, you need to start seriously thinking about your recovery. The faster your body is able to recover, the more training you’ll be able to handle without risk of injury. This doesn’t mean you don’t need to rest! In fact, resting is one of the most important parts of speedy muscle recovery. There are a lot of ways to promote muscle recovery and, you guessed it, we’ve got a list ready for you right here.


Final Verdict. Are Dancers athletes?


I think so. But what do you think?

 Let us know in the comments. Or, tag us with your thoughts on Instagram or Tiktok @dancerswholift

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