SI Vault
Calling Arthur Murray
E.M. Swift
April 24, 1995
Ballroom dancing has as much right to be in the Olympics as, say, rhythmic gymnastics
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 24, 1995

Calling Arthur Murray

Ballroom dancing has as much right to be in the Olympics as, say, rhythmic gymnastics

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Left, right, left, right...forward, backward...hop, hop, hop.

Pardon me, but I'm in training for the 2000 Olympics. In case you missed the big news that has set the Olympic world atwitter, on April 3 the International Olympic Committee granted provisional recognition to ballroom dancing and surfing. The decision was a small but essential step in the two activities' long waltz toward their eventual goal of medal status, and since I do not surf....

You put your left foot in, you put your left foot out, you put your left foot in, and you shake it all about....

There are naysayers, of course, those who do not see ballroom dancing—officially known in the U.S. as dance sport since changing its name in 1989—as Olympian fare. One is John Krimsky, interim executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee. After the IOC announcement, Krimsky said, "I would hope some sanity will come back into the selection of Olympic sports."

Right. As if the traditional Olympic sports, like modern pentathlon, are examples of sanity. About 15 people worldwide—most of them out-of-work East German generals—participate in that arcane event, which is about as modern as a windup watch. The modern pentathlon, which combines fencing, horseback riding, pistol shooting, running and swimming, achieves an almost impossible trifecta: It's expensive, it's time-consuming, and it has no fan base. Yet Mr. Krimsky chooses to question the sanity of dance sport.

Granted, dance sport has an image problem. Like Ping-Pong and badminton, ballroom dancing as sport is a difficult concept to grasp. Yet badminton and table tennis are in the Olympics. Why not dance sport? Chris Dorst, vice chairman of the USOC's Athletes Advisory Council, dismissively suggests, "If you can smoke and drink while you're actually competing, that's not a sport."

Hasn't he ever heard of yachting? That's an Olympic sport, but it's easier to light up and sail sloshed aboard a Flying Dutchman than it is to puff and drink while doing the rumba. If Dorst insists on belittling disciplines he considers nonathletic, why not start with shooting, a so-called sport in which Olympians ideally have the heart rate of a cadaver? Or curling, Canada's answer to shuffleboard? "These guys are living in the dark ages," says Peter Pover, a former competitive ballroom dancer and past president of the U.S. Dance Sport Council. "At the moment the USOC is a long way behind the game. It's in a total state of denial."

American reaction to dance sport continues the country's long tradition of sporting isolationism. Abroad, the International Dance Sport Federation is robust and growing, with 62 member countries on six continents. The U.S. has about 2,000 competitive dancers; Germany has 100,000. Dance sport competitions till 10,000-seat arenas in Asia and Europe. It's shown on prime-time television, attracting deep-pocketed sponsors. "And don't tell me it isn't athletic," says Pover. "In Germany, doctors did tests in which they wired up the country's 800-meter running champion and its amateur dance champions. They found no significant athletic difference between running 800 meters and doing the quickstep for 1� minutes. And that's just one dance. In competitions couples have to do five 90-second dances in a row, with only 20 seconds between dances. Plus, the girls have to do it going backwards! All a runner has to do is jog around the track. And U.S. Olympic officials are patronizing about us?"

Yes, they are. Moreover, USOC officials tend to get testy at the idea of further divvying up the money they have to support nonrevenue Olympic sports. "If ice skating is a sport, we're a sport," says Lee Wakefield, who has run BYU's ballroom dance sport program since 1980. Brigham Young is a collegiate dance sport superpower, with nine competitors on full scholarships. "I know a lot of people are hitting their heads against the wall over this," says Wakefield, "but we're excited."

Detractors point to the bloated size of the modern Summer Games, which will have more than 10,000 competitors in 1996, and bemoan the prospect of adding ballroom dancing to the party. Let them make room by throwing out synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics, two ridiculous activities. People forget that ice dancing wasn't an Olympic sport until 1976, and within eight years it had produced Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean, two of the Winter Games' most memorable champions. Dance sport is ice dancing on the hardwood.

Continue Story
1 2