Artist or Athlete? The Reality of Dance at Andover

A pretty, perfect ballerina with a pink tutu, twirling with her arms above her head; ladylike hair with a Barbie-like face—these are the stereotypical images of dancers that come to most people’s minds, according to Olivia Berkey ’15.

“The real image is a sweaty dancer with ripped shoes, broken toes, blood coming out of her tights, and that’s really what dance is. People don’t see this, because dancers are so highly trained to mask this intensity, to make everything appear absolutely effortless,” said Berkey. “In order to get respect for dance and dancers, people have to know what we go through.”

Berkey is one of 17 students in Andover Dance Group, the Varsity level of dance. An average of 70 students take part in the dance program each term where they participate in daily dance training to improve their skills and prepare for performances.

The Blue Book rules that participation in Ballet or Modern Dance fulfills a student’s athletic requirement, yet many student dancers believe that they are perceived and treated differently than other athletes on campus. Such treatment is frequently attributed to ambiguity regarding whether dance should be considered a sport or an art.

Among students, faculty members and administrators, there is an uncertainty regarding dance’s indentity as both an athletic pursuit and an art form.

“I don’t think necessarily that dance is a sport, but the technique of it requires a high level of athleticism,” said Erin Strong, Chair Member of the Theatre and Dance Department. “When you start creating dances, you get the artistry of it, of communicating meaning or emotion or design in an actual dance.”

“I certainly think of dancers as athletes. My football players nor myself could definitely not do what they do,” said Head Coach of Varsity Football and incoming Athletic Director Leon Modeste, who will begin his duties this fall.

Michael Kuta, Athletic Director, said, “I have no doubt in my mind that our dancers should be recognized for their dedication, hard work and the heights that they achieve. In fact, some of our best athletes on campus are dancers. Among the immediate Athletic and Physical Department, dance is very well-respected and we applaud them for their achievements.”

Kuta is currently researching how dance is viewed in the Athletic Programs of Phillips Academy Exeter, Deerfield, Choate, Hotchkiss, St. Paul’s, Northfield Mount Hermon (NMH) and Lawrenceville, in comparison to Andover.

“My sense is that some of the schools are just starting to consider dance to be a sport. Some [schools] have been for ten or 15 years, others very recently, but at Andover we have been for over 30 years. All of the schools agree that dance is a sport, but I believe that the issue extends beyond that, in regards to if dancers should receive varsity letters and if they should be organized into different skill levels,” said Kuta.

Currently, many dancers do not feel as though they are respected or viewed as athletes among their peers.

“I have always thought of myself as an artist,” said Elizabeth McGonagle ’16. “Dance is absolutely an art — dancers create movement and shows and are performers. It is very much a large part of the art community. However, I have also always viewed myself as an athlete. I am working just as hard, if not harder, than football players and baseball players to perfect my technique.”

“I don’t think that people view dance as a sport, so I don’t really think it fits into the athletic culture at Andover. I don’t feel respected by fellow athletes, not in the same way that that hockey or baseball players respect each other,” McGonagle continued.

“People think of dance as a joke sport,” added dancer Adam Brody ’14, who is making his first debut as a member of Andover Dance Group in the upcoming performance tour in South Africa.

Marion Kudla ’15, who attended a pre-professional dance academy before coming to Andover, said, “Most people don’t really consider dance to be a grueling activity or a sport in general, they don’t perceive me as an athlete and don’t take me seriously when I comment on how hard and demanding dance is.”

Other athletes agree that dancers are not regarded adequately among the student body.

“I believe that dancers deserve better recognition for what they do. I can understand their frustration because they put in just as much work as the people who are labeled Varsity athletes,” said Girls Varsity Basketball Co-Captain Katie Kreider ’14.

“I don’t think that people look down on dancing, but it definitely feels like it’s own kind of thing among the sports on campus,” said Boys Varsity Soccer Co-Captain Taylor Chin ’14.

Graham Johns ’14, a member of Andover Dance Group, finds that senior athletes respect him more as they have come to understand rigorous nature of dance as more than just portrayed in popular culture during their time at Andover.

“Once students have been here for a period of time, they begin to see that dance is strenuous, it is athletic and dancers are athletes, and that comes with knowledge and with time,” he said.

Despite its artistic component, dance requires training and physical conditioning, with an emphasis on flexibility and stretching.

“If I don’t stretch for two days, I lose my flexibility, which is such an important aspect of dancing,” said McGonagle.

These challenges force dancers like McGonagle to train almost every day in order to build their strength, flexibility and skill while maintaining healthy eating habits and remaining in good cardiovascular shape.

“Dancers are usually in the studio for six to seven hours a day, first taking a technique/warm up class, then moving on to pointe/partnering class, and then on to rehearsal. On weekends dancers often go to pilates, conditioning or yoga classes. In the summer, most will dance at summer dance programs where they dance from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for six weeks,” said Kudla.

“During performances, everything’s rehearsed, everything’s pretty and everything looks effortless, but when you come to dance class, you see the sweat and tears—you see dancers contorting their bodies, forcing themselves beyond their farthest limits. You can see the physical pain and progression, and if more students saw that, they would have much more respect for us, our sport and what we do,” said Berkey.

One of the few sports offerings, dance was part of the Abbot Academy athletic program as early as the 1930s and was represented on the Athletic Council. On the current Athletic Advisory Board, they are not.

“When dance came up the hill and became part of the athletic program at Phillips Academy, membership to the Athletic Council was lost, and I would like to know why,” said Strong.

The Blue Book defines the Board as “a committee that advises the Athletics Director on the Varsity awards system and other aspects of the interscholastic program. The group seeks opportunities to stimulate interest in Andover athletes and in athletically oriented community service projects.”

The board consists of 52 student members, whom, according to the Blue Book, are “the elected captains of all varsity teams.” This statement pertains to interscholastic sports and therefore does not include Dance, LIFE sports or Outdoor Pursuits.

“It’s deplorable that dancers aren’t represented already on the Athletic Council — not only that dancers aren’t currently on it, but that we’re not technically allowed to be on it, because our captains aren’t technically varsity captains. Dance is highly intertwined with the Athletic Department, and seeing as what we do should be considered a varsity sport, we should have representation in the athletic department,” said Johns.

Current board members agree that the presence of dancers on the Athletic Advisory Board would enhance the dance program’s reputation on campus.

“Having dancers on the Athletic Advisory Board would help to get more people at their performances and increase the respect that they receive from fellow athletes. They would be a good addition to the board, and it would help their cause greatly,” said Kreider, a board member.

“Representing dance on the Athletic Council would not change much immediately for the dancers, but it would bring about change for the other people,” said Johns. “Showing that the administration values dance as a sport would give dancers a voice in athletics and in making decisions that affect the athletic program.”

In addition to the absence of dancers on the Athletic Council, dancers are not currently eligible to receive varsity letters, according to Kuta.

The Blue Book states that “members of varsity teams who meet standards prescribed for each sport may be awarded the Varsity ‘A’ by the coach and captain at a postseason Athletic Awards Evening.”

These standards are restricted to interscholastic competition and therefore exclude dancers.

“Historically, varsity letters have gone out to competitive athletes. The key difference between dancers and competitive athletes is that in competitive sports, someone is trying to stop you. Dancers are tremendous, and I know that they work very hard, but in their performances, no one is trying to stop them,” said Modeste. “In basketball, someone is trying to stop you from scoring. In track, someone is trying to run faster than you. In dance, everyone is trying to help you. All of the people onstage are praising you, no one is getting in your way or booing you. That does not mean that dancers are not working as hard. They do excel athletically, just in a different way than competitive athletes.”

22 of the 32 sports offerings on campus result in the lettering of varsity level athletes at the end of the season.

“Receiving a varsity letter at the end of the season is a great feeling because it affirms all of the time and hard work that I put in during the season,” said Kreider.

Many dancers feel that their inability to letter disregards their athletic achievements.

“Dancers should definitely receive varsity letters. By not receiving them, it delivers the message that we are not varsity level athletes. I disagree with this because we work just as hard as any other athlete and should be recognized for that,” said Emily Ewing ’14, Captain of Andover Dance Group.

Not all members of the dance program are in agreement with the idea of lettering.

“I do not support the dancers in attempting to receive letters,” said Judith Wombwell, Chair of the Theatre and Dance Department. “The dancers think that’s what they need to be recognized as varsity athletes, and I support them in that, but I don’t that lettering is a necessary step.”

Dancers, who train and perform with the same athletic intensity as other varsity sports, feel that they deserve to letter in the same way as other varsity athletes may, despite not being a competitive sport.

Johns said he takes personal insult to the fact that he has received a varsity letter in diving, but not in dance. Johns has danced for six years, nearly every day and has dived for two seasons at Andover. “If I’m given recognition for diving, which is less athletic and less strenuous than dance, why have I not been given recognition for something that I’ve dedicated my life to?”

Despite their inability to receive varsity letters, dancers may get varsity jackets.

Many dancers, however, do not wear their jackets out of fear that their peers will judge or undermine them for their achievements as varsity level dancers.

“I have been told by people that I don’t deserve a jacket because I don’t do a sport. A varsity jacket is supposed to be a symbol that you are a varsity athlete, and to deny that dancers aren’t varsity athletes is very insulting. We are in the studio rehearsing, taking class and working seven days a week,” said McGonagle.

Some dancers ignore the judgment of their peers and wear their jackets without any worry.

“I wear my varsity dance jacket around with disregard for what other people think. I’m sure that many people think that dancers don’t deserve jackets or consider it a joke, but I don’t care,” said Kudla.

Unlike dancers, other varsity athletes wear their jackets freely around campus without ridicule or judgment.

“When I first got my jacket, I was very proud because it gave me a sense of accomplishment as something tangible that I can wear around,” said Chin.

One of the greatest disparities between other sports that the program faces is the lack of appropriate facilities. Ballet dancers have a studio located above the athletic office. During the Fall and Spring Terms, modern dance classes take place in the wrestling room. During the wrestling season in the winter, dancers must relocate to Tang Theatre.

“The theatre is inadequate for the purposes of teaching dance—I have to teach among lighting equipment. In the Winter Term, we have our largest numbers and, sadly, we have very limited space to serve our dancers,” said Strong.

Dancers do not have adequate space to train, which limits the program’s ability to expand and negatively impacts the dancers’ training. Dance is the one of fastest growing programs on campus, and has outgrown its two existing studios.

Many other varsity sports on campus have sufficient space devoted to their sport. Access to dedicated space boosts the team’s camaraderie and gives them the proper means to practice.

“Our field is a place to call our own and is a home for us. It’s a place where we are all comfortable and can go to. The fact that it’s for us gives us a sense of responsibility,” said Chin of his team’s soccer field.

“Since I took over the role of Athletic Director, I have made it very clear to the Athletic Facilities Feasibility Group that the dance program needs to be well-facilitated. I am on board with our dancers having the facilities to accommodate them,” said Kuta.

As an activity that fulfills the athletic requirement on campus and provides students an outlet for artistic expression, dancers feel that dance deserves to be acknowledged and the dancers hope that their program becomes a more significant and bigger contributor to Andover’s athletic community.

“I think changing the attitude about dance begins with recognizing dance as a sport on an institutional level, because if our administration and our leaders show that what dancers do has merit, then it will force the students and faculty to think about what dance means for our culture and how hard dancers work,” said Johns.

“We, [the dance program,] need to achieve great athleticism and demonstrate it artistically and relevantly in our performances. If our performances are irrelevant, boring, bad, we’re not going to gain a lot of respect. Getting the student body in the theatre to see our good quality shows will get us the respect that we deserve,” said Wombwell.