Art vs. Sport: The Interview

By April 25, 2012General


As I mentioned in my last Art vs. Sport posting, Wendy and I were interviewed by a student, Renata, who was preparing a thesis on the complex issue of art vs. sport in ballroom dancing. You might be interested in reading the full interview, so it is provided here with Renata’s permission.

The Interview

Renata: In your opinion is competitive ballroom dancing an art or a sport?

George: To me, competitive ballroom dancing is an athletic art form, not a sport. The way I define a sport is an athletic activity where the winner is not a subjective decision, but objective so it’s very clear that a ball went into a net or a puck went into a net or somebody ran across a line first — it’s very easy to determine who the winner is. That is what I consider the definition of a sport.

Ballroom dancing is subjective. You have all the judges standing around the floor. They are judging everybody as fairly as they can, but they each have their own idea of what’s important. So how can that possibly be a sport? One judge is looking at posture, one feels very passionate about musicality, one is feeling very passionate about the connection between the couple — you got these subjective issues that come out in the results.

And they are only looking at each couple for 10 seconds or so because they have so many couples on the floor. So, you see in the results one couple marked 7th and the same one marked first by different judges. You can’t really have a sport based on that.

I know the argument for making it a sport. Germany officially made ballroom dancing a sport decades ago. As a result it gets government money just like all of the other sports. If you open a newspaper in Germany and go to the sport section, ballroom dance competitions are listed there just like we have hockey. If you go to the television sports channels in Germany, there are ballroom dancing competitions. This benefits the dance community in a lot of ways in Germany, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is right worldwide. But that is the argument being used: ‘it’s working in Germany, so let’s make it worldwide.’

This need for worldwide consistency starts to impact many things related to the artform, and take away from that. Costume regulations are just one example. They are already doing it with the kids, where they have to wear almost identical costumes; they can’t have any patterns and it has to be a certain type of fabric, it has to be cut a certain way.

Renata: Not only with kids but with adults to with pre-bronze, bronze too.

George: There was a competition where a young girl was wearing pretty much a regulation skirt but it had a slight wave at the bottom of the skirt, a very slight wave and the costume officials didn’t want to let her dance! They said “No, it is against the rules.” I was like, “come on!” You’re going to deny some girl who has worked hard to be here and travelled to be here the right to dance because of a wave in the bottom of her skirt? That’s just ridiculous!

Wendy: And 8 years old.

George: Yeah you know that is just unfair. And finally, the choreography suffers. Just look at skating: Everyone is trying to push the sport side: more speed, everyone is trying to be faster, everyone is trying to do more spins. Skaters can’t just go out there and be great artists. If they don’t do a quad they don’t stand a chance!

In ballroom dancing you’ll get the same thing. Whoever can do the most spins sets a standard that everyone else has to “beat.” In Quickstep many couples just want to show off that they can run around the floor more times than anyone else before the song ends. All of a sudden choreography loses its creativity because of these “sports” conditions forced on you that makes everything the more the more the same. Then where is the art? It is gone. That is my view.

Renata: How about for you Wendy?

Wendy: Well I agree calling it athletic instead of a sport. Art is beauty, and in a sport when you are playing hockey or football or running it doesn’t matter how you look. You throw on a uniform or some sweats and a t-shirt. With ballroom dancing not only do you have perform well but you have to look beautiful too: nice look on the dancer’s faces, the hair, the makeup, the dresses, the tail suits. That’s the artistic, that’s the art and beauty of it. I don’t really see a lot of beauty in sports.

Renata: I know there is that side, but when competing for yourselves, is it more of an art form or a sport, or do you still feel it is an athletic art form?

Wendy: There is a lot of athletic to it. You have to be in good shape to go out there and do 10 dances in a row or how many rounds you have to do. You must have a good cardio. We couldn’t even dream of dancing at this level without going to the gym. We do weight training to build up the shoulders for holding the frame, and other muscle groups.

Renata: Would you still say it is an art form?

George: Yes.

Wendy: It is a real mix of the two.

George: As Wendy said, it is very athletic. Freiburg University in Germany did a study in the 1980’s and they connected these athletes to all of this equipment to measure their VO2 Max, heart rate, the wattage the muscles are putting out and so on. They compared championship ballroom dancers to other sports and found that the champ ballroom dancers during the Quickstep and the Jive in a minute 40 seconds were equivalent in their athletic energy output to an 800-meter Olympic runner.

But let me point out that the Olympic runner probably does a warm up and then the actual run, and that’s probably it for the whole day. But that ballroom dancer has to do that minute and 40 seconds for each of five dances in the first round, and then the second round, and then they have to do a quarter final, semi final and then the final, and they have to do it with the same energy five times for each event for all of those different events all in one day. So the actual athletic output is probably many times higher then the Olympic athletes do in their sports. That study kind of started that whole discussion around is it a sport or is it an art. So I understand where they are coming from but I still don’t think it is a sport.

Standard vs. Latin

Renata: You both do Ten Dance, do you feel that Latin is different from Standard, with the artistic form and athletic sport aspect? Or would you say there are equal in their sport and art content?

Wendy: I think Standard is more athletic because you have to do everything up against each other and do it at the same time.

George: How does it make it more athletic?

Wendy: It makes it harder.

George: It makes it harder but not not necessarily more athletic. I believe they are the same and I actually put a heart rate monitor on myself while we did practice, Latin and Standard because I wanted to see the outcome. It was pretty similar for Standard and Latin.

Renata: Would you say one has more artistic form involved within the steps and expression?

George: It is the same. One of the things that we’ve seen as a negative in Standard because of all of this emphasis on sport is in Quickstep, all that running around the floor. Where is the art in that? Where is the character of the dance? It’s just boring.

Wendy: That’s sport!

George: That’s sport yeah, yeah. There is so much art in Standard! Even though you are connected, there is so much art and beauty in how the bodies flow and the rise and fall and rotation and that beautiful swing. So even though it is different from Latin, where Latin is more apart, more creative in that sense, both are very artistic.

Renata: And for yourself Wendy?

Wendy: Well it’s funny because what we have noticed is you can kind of tell a Standard couple that does Latin because they are used to being more expressive and being out there, working with the audience, working with each other so they tend to have a more artistic awareness. With strictly Standard dancers you don’t always see the same level of emotion and everything.

What makes dance artistic?

Renata: For you both, what would you say is the artistic part of competitive ballroom dancing? What makes it artistic?

Wendy: Showing how we are feeling, showing the character of the dances and enjoying each other.

George: Showing character, showing emotion. I have this gorgeous lady in my arms, dancing, moving to music and we are moving together. We are really trying to maximize all of the emotional power. That is what people want to see, they want to see a story of the character of this dance expressed through music with the couple moving as one person together, it’s like your hearts are exactly the same when you are dancing.

Wendy: And not just focusing on each other but trying to get the audience involved, like interacting with the audience as we dance and having them to be part of the whole experience. After all, they are paying money to see this.

Renata: You are dancing with the audience — you have to engage the audience, that is what makes it artistic?

Wendy: Yeah, yeah.

Renata: Would you consider any other aspects like perhaps the way you move or the choreography or anything else?

George: Absolutely, it is so important to have choreography that is artistic, that shows these qualities. Even though I don’t know what song is going to be played for each dance, it is a mystery, and even though sometimes I’m not happy with the song, but whatever music is being played I am trying to use that music because each song is different.

Like even in tango you think its boom, boom, boom-boom it has those staccato beats but some tangos have a beautiful underlying softness to them. When I get one like that, I try and soften my movements. Or when the song gets rid of the beats for a few seconds it’s a beautiful time to change how I actually dance my step and make it more musical so there is that, it is like constantly responding to the music, interpreting it and that is part of the art of competition dancing.

Wendy: I was just going to say we are describing art right now instead of sport. The way you were talking it was describing art.

George: Any particular choreography is just technical, here is the step with an emphasis on performing it perfectly. You wouldn’t want to watch that, it would be so boring. No emotional power. So we add the artistic component to make it emotionally meaningful.

Skill levels and time

Renata: Would you say that perhaps at different ages it can be more of a sport then art form?

Wendy: I think that art gets into more of the championship level.

George: You’re right.

Wendy: There is more freedom at the championship level to understand and explore the artistic side.

George: You’re right, absolutely. But the danger is if we don’t put that emphasis on art in the syllabus levels, how are they ever going to learn the art? It’s a process. If you think about it we weren’t focused on the art for the first four or five years of dancing. We were still focused on how we do these steps, how do I hold myself up straight, how do I move my body from one foot to the other without distorting, so I wasn’t really think about the art. The art came later but if nobody had ever talked about it I would have never gone there. It has to be part of understanding of the whole culture perhaps.

Renata: Would you say then at the beginning when you started in those four or five years, where you dancing a sport?

George: There were times when I though of it more of a sport. There was times when I bought into that philosophy until I knew more about it. My thinking has matured on this issue.

Wendy: I think we tend to look at it as a sport in the way our bodies have to be ready to dance. I don’t think of it as sport, but I have to be in good shape like a sports athlete to do what we have to do.

George: Yeah that’s a good point. We have to do all the same kind of training that an athlete would do in a sport.

Wendy: We just get to look prettier! (Laughing)

Picking a number

Renata: So trying to put a number to this in a way, for you both in championship level, say if you have a competition in a few weeks where do you see yourselves? On a scale one to ten, one being a sport and ten being an art form where would you place yourselves when competing?

George: I would never be all the way to number ten, I would be mainly a seven.

Wendy: Yeah, well it is a mix, you have to be ready to do it but you have to make sure that the art is just as strong. I think I would say I am about a six.

Renata: It is close to the half way point but not really.

Wendy: Yeah, more on the artistic side then the sport side.

The question of age

Renata: Would you say there is a difference with championship level for youth or under-21 age groups as compared to your age group? Would you say there is a different kind of mind set or way of dancing?

George: Maybe a little, but the qualities are still the same. Quickness is not a function of power in the body; it’s a function of dancing on a standing leg which is a technical detail. If you are on the standing leg, a 35 year old can be nearly as quick as a 20 year old because of that principle of where it comes from and how you press your body and muscles to create that pulse of movement. Being on balance and being able to spin quickly I don’t think it is an age thing either. But having said that, I do agree with you that older couples are more mature in their understanding of the art side and the musicality. Young people often don’t hear music in the same way, they just hear beats. They don’t hear the tones underneath that give the piece that extra quality.

Wendy: Everything seems to look a little flashier when seeing a under 21 couple because they can do more things. And you’ve got to be careful about being age appropriate. So you will see the flashier stuff, they can do more things that way to like the guys can do five spins on a spot in a second so its different comparing the ages.

George: When you watch the world champions dance, they are not focusing on speed. They are focusing on the beauty. Everybody including young people are thrilled with the result. They go “Wow, I’ve just never seen something like that before.” So it’s universal, there is a universal appeal when you make dancing artistic.

Renata: Would you say that it is a different group expressing their art at a different age level?

George: Yeah

Wendy: Yeah

Renata: How about kids, would you say it is the same thing? I am talking about kids in syllabus all the way up to championship level. Would you say that there is a different kind of mind set between art and sport or how they dance it during competitions? Is it more of an art for them or more of a sport? Because the way how you explained it for yourselves of how it is an art is really how you both express it together and with music, but do the kids have the same kind of art perspective or is it seen in a different way?

George: It depends on each kid and they way that they interpret it. The danger for me is if they lose that. We had Colin James here a couple weeks ago and he did a workshop that we were in with a whole a lot of little kids. I loved how he was teaching musicality because that is the beauty of the dance. He was teaching don’t use the beats just because the beat value is there. Some of them were really young and that’s great because they have to start understanding it at that age.

What about beginners?

Renata: How about for beginners then would you say that it is just a sport or is there art there?

Wendy: I have seen a lot of art in beginners, newcomer category, some of them are awesome, some of them are having a great time out there.

George: I think that they are all art at the beginner level, unless they have that perspective of sports when they go in. You’ll have some parents that say “I want my son or daughter in a sport because I think that they have the potential for them to be an Olympic champion.” They are going to have the Olympic sport kind of attitude.

Wendy: It is a mind set.

George: But most beginners come in here and they only want to learn to dance together, that is art.

Renata: And is that the same with competing, where there is just as much of an art form in Newcomers, pre-Bronze, Bronze all the way through till pre-Championship and Championship?

Wendy: I think so, dancing is everywhere first on the artistic aspect then the sport. The athleticism has to be there but it is still an art.

Preparation and training

Renata: Preparing for a competition would you say it is more of a sport?

Wendy: I would call my sport working at the gym getting ready to dance. To be artistic you have to prepare the sport side.

Renata: How about drilling technique to music, would that be an art or a sport?

George: For me it would be exactly the same as it would for the dancing itself, 7/10 art even when practicing because I am developing musicality or beauty.

Renata: The couples competing from beginners to Championship are considered 7/10 artistic, or in Wendy’s case 6/10 artistic. Would you say there is a huge difference between those categories versus Professionals?

Wendy: You mean with the artistic and sport aspect?

Renata: Yes.

George: What I appreciate about professionals is that when I watch them dance, I see them take everything that I have just said and demonstrate it at such a degree of excellence that I’m always fascinated by it. When you watch the professionals, you watch the national or world champions in amateur and then you watch the top professionals, there is such a difference. With the professionals, the music is exactly the same speed but it looks like they slowed down the music for them because they are using it so much better. They are taking the musicality and they are just living it out to such a high level that it looks like they have more time.

Wendy: So do you see it as more artistic or a sport?

George: Yes that is artistic because they understand those aspects so much better then the amateurs and they are demonstrating how artistic it really is.

Renata: How about you Wendy?

Wendy: I would say more artistic then sport as well from beginner all the way up to professional. I see it.

Renata: Do you see it going from beginners to professional as a gradual increase in the art form or is it just the same?

Wendy: I think that it is something that develops in a dancer and how much they are or how they are looking at it. If they see it more of a sport, then they work that way, the more artistic they move in that direction.

George: You are right on.

Renata: So, in your view, at the end of the day competitive ballroom dancing is an art or a sport really depending on how as a couple — because you can never say one person, but as a couple — how they see it.

Wendy: Yeah

George: There is a lot to do with that, I don’t think that changes the definition but it is still subjective.

Wendy: Because there are still some couples doing the running around during Quickstep for example. Where we are looking at it artistically, they are looking at it from the sport side.

Is art consistent across all levels?

Renata: To summarize all of this, what would you say is the artistic part of competitive ballroom for all levels, and from kids all the way up till senior? Unless you see a difference in the ages or levels — you can say that too.

George: It is all the same in all levels. It is about interpreting the music to present something beautiful where a man and a woman are dancing together in this expression of the story told through the dance, of the character of the dance. That is the art. If you are emotionally involved, you are seeing that and it is something that is touching your heart — that is the art. As Martha Graham famously said, “It takes an athlete to be a dancer, but it takes an artist to dance.”

Wendy: I would agree. That is how I would see it too. He just said it more artistic too (laughing)

Renata: In your blog articles you keep talking about dance being a sport, that for athletes this is what we do and you keep emphasizing the sport side. Now hearing you talk about it you keep emphasizing how much of an art it is. Can you explain that?

George: I’m glad that you pointed it out. A lot of the posts were written five or six years ago and my understanding of the art side has matured since then. So that is part of it.

Also, we do have to think like athletes when training, so my emphasis has been on helping the dancers to recognize they they must think like athletes they have to train like athletes. I don’t think of it is a sport but dancers have to think like athletes, they have to train like athletes. So they have to watch their diet, they have to make sure that they are hydrated, they have to make sure they do cross training, they have to make sure they work out in the gym, that they are as fit as athletes or else they wont be able to do it well.

Wendy: So the sport side is the preparation to do the artistic.

Renata: So would you say it’s becoming an athlete within this art form. But within the sports would you say that training is a sport and then dancing competitively is the art form?

Wendy: Yeah

Renata: Or would you say as well you are an athlete but that doesn’t mean it is a sport.

George: For me it is still seven out of ten so it is part sport. I do like the term DanceSport personally. I like that term because I think that it helps people understand that it is a sport component to it, but I also think that it hurts it in a sense that nobody knows what “dance sport” is, even after all these years. If I say ballroom dancing then they go “oh” and get it right away. Even after all of these decades they still don’t get it! Maybe it is time to drop it.

Is competition different from training?

Renata: For yourself what would you say with the training for the competition versus dancing in the competition, would that scale six, seven out of ten would change or stay the same?

Wendy: Yeah, this is making me think about it now. So dancing in the competition you mean?

Renata: Yeah, in the training before going into the competition and dancing in the competition.

Wendy: I think that the dancing competitively is the art. The sport is the background where you are preparing, getting ready, getting yourself in shape for it. So I guess the sport or athletic side is behind the scenes and the artistic of the dancing competing is what is out there what is the main thing.

Wendy: I think the whole thing is to do any kind of dancing you have to train hard in the gym or do a sport side to be able to do your dancing well. But it is still art and there is a difference.

Renata: Would you say it is equivalent to a painter where you learn the technique of how to paint, what kind of colors go with this, different types of paint, different techniques of brushstrokes and different kinds of brushes. But at the end of the day when you have that completed master piece that is the art form. Would you say that is equivalent to ballroom where the training process of learning the technique is a sport in a sense but it is all creating that art form?

George: It is like preparing you to interpret your view on a canvas; it is the same as our training in ballroom dancing is preparing us to interpret the music on the competition floor.

Multiple couples and floorcraft

Renata: In ballroom dancing you have multiple couples on the floor competing against each other. Do you think that is how it becomes or it can be portrayed as a sport, or is it more of an art form because of that aspect?

George: I think that is where more of the sport comes in as my view. But again I don’t think it changes the percentage. Here is a good example: floorcraft.

When you watch a football game and you see a receiver catching the ball after a big pass, he catches the ball and he is running down the field and nobody can tackle him. And everyone is going “YEAH, YEAH, YEAH! GO, GO!” because that one person is doing something incredible that puts him in the spotlight. That’s a lot like what floorcraft is on a ballroom dance floor. You got these couples and they are bunching up because they are thinking about their choreography. Then you have one couple that saw it coming, changed their routine and still are dancing to the music and interpreting the music but are off in the opposite corner all by themselves. That to me is equivalent. So you got that same feeling of “YEAH, GO, GO!”

I want to show off my lady, and I want to enjoy dancing with my lady without all those people in the way.

In a way it is like the sport side because it is part of competition — being able to move around, being able to think on your feet and for her immediate response and yet that is so artistic because that’s part of the art of dancing together. So it doesn’t change that percentage all of that much. It does apply to the art side and sport side.

Renata: Thinking on your feet and trying to get around all of these obstacles is the sport side?

George: Maybe but…

Renata: But how you end up is still an art because you have to make it look artistic.

George: The reason why you do it in the first place is because of the art part of it.

The audience

George: I would sum up the artistic experience by talking about the audience. When the audience is watching, they have their favorites. People will say things like, “Wow you were my favorite couple on the floor.” They are not thinking that because they thought we were the fastest to go around the floor, or because we did the fastest spins. It was because we were connecting with them…

Wendy: So the artistic side.

George: Yes. The way we were enjoying each other while we were on the floor. The way we integrate musical interpretation. That is what touched them emotionally. And they said “I don’t care what these other couples are doing, I love that couple because of how they make me feel.” So I don’t see any sport in that.

About George Pytlik

George Pytlik is a is a professionally certified ballroom dance instructor teaching group classes and private lessons with his wife Wendy in the Greater Vancouver area of BC, Canada.

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