In late July, the athletic wear company Under Armour unveiled a new ad campaign featuring gorgeous badass ballerina Misty Copeland of the American Ballet Theater. The campaign, titled “I Will What I Want,” immediately became the subject of much publicity and discussion all over the Internet. Countless outlets, including USA Today, announced it under the headline, “Under Armour Settles Whether Ballet Is A Sport.” So here is my question: why is this a question?
Why does ballet need to be a sport? Let me clarify that I am not now nor have I ever been interested in the question, “What is sport?” Nor for that matter am I particularly interested in the question, “What is art?” Do not talk to me about these things. I will not talk to you about these things. I mean, you can talk about them in the comments because I’m not the boss of you, but I’m not fundamentally interested in the answer. What I am interested in is why so many people seem to believe that calling ballet a sport is some kind of massive victory for feminism and girls. What about ballet not being a sport inherently devalues it? Why do we need ballet to be a sport so badly?
Let me also clarify that while some people who would argue that ballet does not need to be considered a sport may do so because they are under the impression that dancers are not athletes, I am not one of them. I grew up in the theater and some of my first paying jobs were as a lighting designer and electrician for dance companies. I have seen a lot of ballet. My younger brother is a dancer and trapeze artist whose idea of a fun workout is catching full grown adult humans who come flying at him at high speeds either on a dance floor or while dangling by his legs several stories off the ground. There is no question in my mind that dancers are athletes who deserve our admiration and respect for what they do, but again I ask: why does ballet need to be a sport in order to achieve that?
I’ve asked around and I have yet to receive a satisfactory explanation for why, in our eyes, in order to be respected as an athletic pursuit, ballet needs to be a sport. Do other forms of dance? Do circus arts? For that matter, do particularly athletic forms of improv? Why can’t we acknowledge that there are art forms that require athleticism? Naturally, the answer lies at least in part in the feminization of art and the masculinization of sports. People have brought up the fact that young girls need to be reassured that their pursuits, like ballet, are badass. But again, explain to me why we need to do this by involving the word “sport.” Is photography not badass? Is poetry? And why don’t little boys, or little kids whose gender does not fall neatly into one of those categories, need to be reassured that artistic pursuits are badass and valued? The social value of attributes other than athleticism is an important issue for disabled people as well.
I understand that there are considerations such as Title IX funding specifics that might, in certain school related contexts, require the classification of dance teams as sports. I am not criticizing anyone who needs to work around semantics to get their program funded. But if you are an adult woman who feels the need to defend her barre class with, “Well, ballet is basically a sport,” I want to know why you are doing that. Furthermore, I want us to examine as a society the cultural constraints that require us to, rather than advocate for more funding in schools for all arts, reclassify art forms as sports. If we required participation in arts culture the same way we de facto require participation in sports culture in schools, there would be no need for us to explain that Misty Copeland is an athlete worthy of advertising endorsements.
Instead, we find ourselves in pointless arguments with strangers on the internet — not that this is inherently a bad thing — over philosophical questions that people have been trying to answer since people could think. What is sport? What is art? Who cares?
So feel free to explain this to me. Why do we need ballet to be a sport?