Varsity Artistic Athletes: Dancers Seek Athletic Recognition

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With a fresh start, the new dance director at Williston and her hard-working students are aiming toward their goal of having dance recognized as both an art as well as a sport.

The dance afternoon program at Williston is classified under “arts.” However, those in the dance program have for years been identifying as athletes as well. Dancers even  created the team chant, “VAA”: Varsity Artistic Athletes.

Dancers train for one to three hours on average per day, depending on the amount of pieces they are in. There are 10 to 15 student, director, and guest artist choreography pieces in a typical dance concert.

Dancers believe that they deserve the same level of recognition athletes receive. The definition of whether the dance team is an art or a sport is important. In a boarding school like Williston, there is often a distinct split between student artists and athletes, despite a cooperative campus environment. This is formed by both policies of the school and the students.

This year, there is a new dance director, Noel St. Jean. With the new year back from Covid, St. Jean “takes the dancers’ words to heart,” and is working to develop the program with choreography suggestions directly from the dancers.

Alexis Caines, a five-year junior from Shutesbury, Mass., who has been on the dance team since seventh grade, believes dance should be both an art and a sport at Williston.  Alexis said her perception of dance started to shift when she entered high school, because of the different amount of recognition dancers and athletes receive.

“In middle school, people were not really committed to sports,” Alexis said. “But when we got to high school, and [when] we were more surrounded by people who are recruited to certain sports, it just becomes all the more clear that how [athletes] are talked about, how they are recognized at assemblies, and how they are recognized just through the day to day life in a way that dance went unrecognized.”

She thinks that although the big performances are rewarding, dance is not often discussed when there isn’t a show.

“It feels really good during tech week or when we have a show,” Alexis said, “because most of the time we are sold out. But during the rest of the year, people just almost forget that we are there.”

Alexis points out that another reason she notices the lack of recognition is the funding  the dance program receives.

“There’s certain privileges that we are not really given the same way that athletes are given during the normal year,” she said.

This problem especially demonstrates itself in costumes and other necessary facilities.

“I know they don’t always get it, but a lot of the athletic teams get new uniforms and jerseys every year or every two years,” Alexis said, “but we’ve been reusing the same dance costumes since 2000.”

“There is just a lot of reusing of stuff for us,” she added.

Alexis also spoke to the idea that dancers and other athletes are perceived differently, including many stereotypical views.

“I think there are a lot of stereotypes around both groups,” she said. “Everyone has their connotations for athletes, as everyone has their connotations for artists.”

Alexis thinks that the issue, again, stems from the lack of discussion of dance on campus.

“A lot of people don’t really take the time to understand what kind of dancing it is we are doing,” she said, “I have a lot of people when I say ‘oh I dance,’ they say ‘oh, you are a ballerina,’ and I’m like ‘we actually do close to no ballet during the year.'”

Although she appreciates people’s response to the dance shows, Alexis thinks that people often do not recognize the intense physical effort dance requires.

“A lot of people think, ‘oh it must be so nice, you are just dancing,’ but dance is pretty hard, and practices are pretty hard, and I’m breaking into sweat everyday, and I think that people just don’t understand the rigor it takes to be a dancer.”

Head Athletic Trainer Ansel Garvey has a similar idea to Alexis when it comes to the difference in the treatments of athletes and artists on campus.

Asked by The Willistonian for his opinion, he answered with “is [dance] not a sport?”

Garvey has always believed that on top of being artists, dancers are also athletes. “I didn’t realize it wasn’t a sport,” he said. “Dancers see me all the time.”

Garvey believes that the lack of recognition dancers receive is because of the infrequency of dance performances.

“There are not many dance events as athletic competitions,” he said. “There are [also] a lot more opportunities for people to talk about athletics, like games and athletic events. There is only one dance performance per trimester.”

Edward Bergham, a senior from North Salem, New York, does both sports and theater. He feels similarly to the dancers.

“I really wish that in the weekly updates they send out to the whole school, they also included a section about artists,” he said. “Like, which artists did good in arts intensive, and someone made such and such progress in theater. I don’t know, just some kind of recognition.”

St. Jean, the dance director, was first brought to attention by this issue when students first started to talk about VAA during team bonding.

“It was really the creation of the VAA poster,” St. Jean said. “I saw the students’ desire to consider themselves as both an artist and an athlete, so I started to think about what we can do to provide opportunities.”

St. Jean agrees with the dancers’ points.

“The dance concert itself is rigorous,” she said. “Also, just because of the nature of art today, dance is really complex. There are many athletically powerful movements, and the dancers would definitely benefit from the cross training to achieve their goals.”

St. Jean said some misconceptions about the physical intensity of dance could stem from the absence of a traditional score, or a winner and loser.

“There are no quantitative measurements in dance,” she said. “There’s no wins and loses, no score. It’s all about how you use your body to make people feel and think, but dancers have to utilize their athletic performance to bring these ideas toward.”

At the end of her first term teaching dance at Williston, St. Jean made a plan for the following trimester, adding weight lifting into the program to meet the dancers’ athletic needs.

“I have asked Coach Lapan, and we tried to fit in the weight training into the schedule although the lifting room is jam-packed,” she said. Blayne Lapan is the Strength and Conditioning Coach.

St. Jean believes in not only offering dancers the athletic opportunities they wish to have, but also other constructive training.

“There are lots of ways to offer the program in a better way,” she said. “There could be more guidance in the choreography process for students, or more guidance in athletic performances. We will find different focuses in different trimesters.”

As for her view on the division between athletes and artists on campus, St. Jean believes that sports and arts are “both really worthy goals,” and sees dance as the connection between the two separate realms.

“Sports and arts are not two sides of a fence, but two parts of one world,” she said, “and dance smashes right in the middle.”