This week the International Olympic Committee dealt a severe blow to putting dancing into the Olympic Games. Whether or not ballroom dancing should be an Olympic sport has been an increasingly controversial issue since the 1980’s. It seems that, for now, this isn’t going to happen. But that isn’t stopping the fervor in the dance community on both sides of the issue. Here’s a look at why this is such an emotional thing for everyone who dances.

Back in the mid 1980’s, a study at Freiburg University in Germany compared championship-level ballroom dancers to other athletes by connecting them to a bunch of testing equipment while they danced full out and measuring things like lactic acid burn. They concluded that dancing at this level was equivalent to the energy output of 800-meter Olympic runners. Those who dance already know how much physical energy is involved to dance at the highest level, but because these competitors do it with a smile on their face, making it look easy, the average person doesn’t really understand just how demanding it is on the body.

A poll conducted in the UK shortly after the German research asked competitive dancers if they thought ballroom dancing should be an Olympic sport. The overwhelming majority said yes. Based on this, the WDSF (at the time called the IDSF) decided to make it their mission to have ballroom dancing admitted as an Olympic sport. This has been their mandate ever since, leading to significant changes to the format and style of ballroom dancing.

Motivating factors

Some years ago, I sat down with a member of the WDSF Presidium and asked for more insight into why the organization was so focused on Olympic recognition. The primary reason, it appeared, was financial. Olympic sports get a lot of financial support from the nations involved in the IOC, mandated by their IOC contract. As a result, the WDSF would enjoy annual funding that exploded from six figures to millions of dollars. They believe that with this additional money they can gain more recognition for ballroom dancing such as access to television broadcasts in countries like Canada and the USA where ballroom dancing generally gets no air time.

That’s a noble goal and seems quite reasonable. In fairness to the WDSF, they have done a great job of promoting ballroom dance competition with access to quality video and through well-run competitions around the world.

However, a closer look suggests that their objective is more wishful thinking than reality.

How much television airtime is granted to Equestrian events? What about Synchronized Swimming? When was the last time you saw Judo, athletic Wrestling (not WWF!) on TV? Hmm, okay, how about Diving? No? Gymnastics? Track and Field? Come to think of it, even such highly recognized performance sports like Ice Dancing might only be broadcast a couple of times each year, only during world or national championships. Looking at Olympic sports in detail, it doesn’t seem that having Olympic status contributes in any way to the increased likelihood that a sport gets more TV airtime. Poker gets more airtime than any of these long-time Olympic sports!

Looking at Olympic sports in detail, it doesn’t seem that having Olympic status really contributes to the increased likelihood that a sport gets more TV airtime. Poker gets more airtime than any of these long-time Olympic sports!

The WDSF became a full member of the General Association of International Sports Federations in 1992, then a member of the International World Games Association (IWGA) in 1995. In 1997, the WDSF was recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the representative body for DanceSport, and DanceSport became eligible to be included in the Olympic Program. That didn’t make it a medal sport. It just paved the way to be included as an exhibition sport.

Changes made in an effort to clear the hurdles

It became apparent to the WDSF that a few things were standing in the way of the WDSF’s Olympic goal. For example, the IOC informed the WDSF that it didn’t like granting official status to any sport with multiple governing bodies. Since the WDSF was an amateur organization and the WDC was an equally prominent professional organization, the WDSF saw this as a stumbling block and took steps to try and eliminate the WDC so that it could be the world’s only governing body for ballroom dance competition. Thus began the ongoing tensions between these two bodies which continue today.

The WDSF launched a Professional Division, first as an independent associated body and then unexpectedly wrapped that body within the encompassing arms of the WDSF. The NDCA, which governs professionals in the USA, saw this as a serious threat to its autonomy and took offense. After all, the WDSF is operated entirely by people who are not in the business of dance — none of the presidium members make their living from dance — so why should they be telling professionals how to run their business? This caused the NDCA to ban the WDSF and to separate themselves from the WDSF’s US body, USA Dance, leading to further tensions. The WDSF banned couples who competed in WDC-organized events. In response, the WDC created their own Amateur League.

So now, instead of having one amateur body and one professional body who had in the past worked well together, there were two competing bodies with both professional and amateur divisions, both fighting to stay alive. Barriers to the IOC’s desire that there be only one worldwide body had actually doubled rather than decreased! This further fueled the fire and caused the WDSF to issue even more wide-ranging bans, such as the 2014 decision that couples would be ineligible to compete in world championships or even Grand Slam events if they had danced in any non-WDSF event during the previous 12 months. See the WDSF 2014 ruling

This further fueled the fire and caused the WDSF to issue even more wide-ranging bans.

The challenges pile up

In addition to trying to represent ballroom dancing, the WDSF made it known that they wanted to represent all competitive dancing worldwide. They would look after competitive ballet, jazz, contemporary, highland dancing and any other forms of dance. In their view, this would make the process of Olympic acceptance much easier.

Unfortunately, it also led to increased tensions. As more dancers were banned for competing in the wrong events, a movement known as “Freedom to Dance” sprung to life, bringing a unified voice to those who felt uncomfortable with the speed and aggressiveness of these actions.

USA Dance even objected to its own parent organization with a letter to the WDSF that explained how the banning of competitors for taking part in the wrong events ran contrary to the US Olympic Committee’s own rules.

Other issues that were dealt with, and not without controversy, were creating mandatory drug tests and changing the scoring system to be more “Olympic friendly.”

The problem with drug testing

Drug testing added significantly to the cost of competitions with no appreciable benefit. The only athletes ever banned were the result of crazy situations that should never have been an issue, such as the world champion being targeted for innocently using an over-the-counter weight supplement for which a banned substance was not even listed in the ingredients!

The problem with the new judging system

Ballroom dancing has always been a comparative sport, where couples are compared to other couples. This allowed (indeed, required) couples to be on the floor at the same time as other couples. The result is a high level of excitement for the audience as couples compete against each other at the same time to show who is best, who can master floor craft, who has more musicality and so on. But this scoring system doesn’t work well in the Olympic program. The WDSF looked at a variety of systems, eventually bringing in a new scoring system in 2013 that marks couples on various criteria with numerical values. This requires that they dance one couple at a time. The result is a long, drawn-out final round that typically takes an hour to complete and is much less interesting for the audience. The new judging system plays havoc with one of the most beautiful aspects of ballroom dancing and allows little place for actual couple-to-couple comparison or for the demonstration of floor craft which has always been a key part of demonstrating the skill of great dancing.

The new judging system plays havoc with one of the most beautiful aspects of ballroom dancing and allows little place for actual couple-to-couple comparison or for the demonstration of floor craft which has always been a key part of demonstrating the skill of great dancing.

Professional concerns

Professionals in the dance world have good reason to be concerned about amateurs trying to run their business. The pros earn their living from ballroom dance activities. Studio owners have mortgages and overhead to pay from their dance business. They may have put their life savings into opening their studio and literally risk everything! They depend on things working properly to keep their business going. Big competitions, most of them organized by professionals in North America, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, an investment that can lead to financial disaster should something mess with support for the event. Naturally professionals became alarmed that amateurs who have no stake in these risks would try to tell them how to run their business.

The “dance business” is markedly different in North America than it is in the rest of the world. Dance schools in Europe and Asia do not operate in quite the same way as they do in the USA. Pro/Am, a mainstay of financial revenue for American and Canadian studios, is relatively unknown in other parts of the world, largely because more men are engaged in ballroom dancing outside North America. Here, it is exceptionally hard for women to find male partners, which has led to the growth of Pro/Am.

In much of the world, the WDSF receives great support because studios do not host big competitions the way they do in North America. Without the WDSF, there would only be small local competitions that have none of the drama or scale of those put together by the WDSF organizers. In North America, however, the pros are experts at building world-class competitions.

Until recently, the NDCA, which governs professionals in the USA, accepted amateurs from any organization as long as they were registered somewhere. With tensions heating up, that began to change. The NDCA now requires anyone competing in their events to hold an NDCA or equivalent WDC-affiliated membership. This led to the formation of the NDCC in Canada to oversee professional competitions in this country.

The decline of quality

But another aspect besides the business of dance also concerns professionals about this push for Olympic status. Professionals began to see a rapid decline of dance quality as there was an increasing effort to push athleticism to extremes.

Quickstep became a contest of who could run around the floor the most times within the time limit. Where is the emphasis on the “slow” steps that make Quickstep beautiful? Gone! Musicality has been lost in all dances as couples strive to achieve ever greater speed. Quality has been lost as couples extended their bodies to grotesque extremes in a bid to show that “they can” rather than demonstrating beauty and togetherness in their dancing.

Heads now bend back so far they almost touch the floor. Other gymnastic-type movements that have no relationship to the character of the dance simply leave professionals wondering what’s going on.

Many coaches are taking exception to this growing trend towards extremes of speed and out-of-control gymnastics, feeling rightly so that the push for Olympic status is a major reason for these changes. That has caused more and more pros to oppose this direction for ballroom dancing.

Many coaches are taking exception to this growing trend towards extremes of speed and out-of-control gymnastics, feeling rightly so that the push for Olympic status is a major reason for these changes. That has caused more and more pros to oppose this direction for ballroom dancing.

Hopes dashed

Several things have happened recently that increased the energy of support on both sides of the issue. First, when it became known that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was going to short list eight new sports for medal status, 26 sports applied. A viral movement asked dancers to support a bid to have ballroom dancing approved as one of the new medal sports for the 2020 Olympics. WDSF competitors around the world got on board and social media went wild with energy as they called for this approval. When the vote came this week, ballroom dancing was the first sport eliminated from contention. A serious blow indeed. See the announcement from the WDSF.

As one professional put it, “20 years of policy making and tinkering by the WDSF so they could get there, not only has drastically changed the format, the ethics and shaken the very soul of our beautiful art, but has deeply divided our world. For what? To get leapfrogged by bowling.”

In 2012, the US Olympic Committee had issued a sharply worded rebuke to the WDSF stating that athletes should not be used as pawns between competing sports organizations. This eventually became the impetus for another recent petition that calls for the WDSF to be removed from Olympic recognition. Some feel that this is necessary to force the WDSF to back down from its endless push for Olympic medal status and perhaps bring some sanity back to both sides of the issue.

Where do I stand?

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I don’t see ballroom dancing as a “sport.” I’ve written numerous posts about this issue and my position on it. Ballroom dancing is incredibly athletic, but sports should only be defined as activities where a winner can be measured by being first across the line, or having the most goals, or any other easily measurable, objective standards. Artistic activities such as dancing should never be considered as sports, regardless of how athletic they might be. This simply leads to a distortion of their purpose and beauty. I’m a teacher. I care about the quality of good dancing. I plan to judge in the future. What is there to judge if dancing degrades to nothing more than gymnastics?

I don’t like to see any dancers have to take sides on issues like these, as I think it simply divides this beautiful activity we call ballroom dancing.

I believe that the WDSF has some great qualities and has done much to bring awareness to ballroom dance competition. But I don’t agree with the Olympic push, nor do I agree that amateurs should tell professionals how to run their business. Their financial future isn’t affected by their decisions. I believe those who earn an income from dancing should be the ones who decide what direction it should take and how it should be governed.

Author’s Update: This post received a lot of attention on social media, and in the process, some misunderstandings became obvious. This post is not an attack on the local organizations that support ballroom dancing. Neither is it a call to strip WDSF of Olympic recognition or its role as an organization, something that I don’t think would solve the problem. Neither is it an attack on changes in dance style, as changes are always necessary in all areas of life. The article is simply an overview of how the Olympic focus has taken our eyes off the ball so to speak, leading to changes that, probably quite unintentionally, are moving us away from quality dancing because of the emphasis on a goal that isn’t directly related to the foundation of ballroom dancing. Local organizations like DanceSport BC and chapters of USA Dance are run by volunteers passionate about dancing and about supporting the local dance community. They are awesome people and we need them. We need to keep supporting them. Even national bodies are not to blame for the Olympic diversion. The issue is about a single-minded drive at the very top of the food change. If those leaders can step back and reexamine their Olympic focus, we might be able to come to a meeting of the minds and bring order and unity back to ballroom dancing on a worldwide stage. In the process we could re-establish the true “freedom to dance” that existed for decades before the Olympics became a dividing cause.

Author George Pytlik

Before turning pro, George achieved impressive results as an amateur competitor, holding the Senior (30+) Latin championship in BC, Canada for 7 consecutive years with his wife Wendy. The couple twice achieved a top-3 Canadian ranking in Senior Latin as well as a 3rd place Canadian ranking in 30+ Ten Dance. Today, George and Wendy are professional teachers with a vision of growing a strong dance community in Delta near Vancouver, BC.

More posts by George Pytlik

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • David Sander says:

    Thank you for providing an independent overview of this topic! The various organizers have to sit down and think through how to have sensible rules for possibly making this a sporting event or justifying it as such. Its possible that the differences between dance and traditional sporting events will need to be further examined. In dance there are dynamic combinations of opposing skills that need to be considered which are antithetical to each other and this is what in part constitutes the beauty of dance. Dance movements can be fast, well timed, slow, or precise as optimal movements and these qualities tend to be in contrast with the large, fast movements typical of what athleticism would commonly thought to be. As a result, good judging of a dance competition would include judging of useful slow movements, precise movements, good conservation of energy to avoid wobbling, movements that need to be small and compact to be successful, and even graceful smoothness as metrics in addition to the athletic and large movements. A proper dance consists of movements at various ends of the movement spectrum.
    In my social dancing, I find partners who are a joy to dance with by being really well timed and moving precisely in complex movements even though they are not considered athletic. In these qualities they are even better than some of the performance dancers I dance with, yet this skill set is currently unappreciated. It might well be better if these currently hidden qualities of dance were brought out into the open by specifically asking for them to be estimated in judging points.

  • After reading George Pytlik’s article,I do believe he has summed up in general the situation in dancing,,and especially regarding entry of dancing as a sport into the Olympic Games,,and the ,shall I say ,the devastatingly affect,it has brought to dancing world wide,,,a very informative and well spelt out article ,which leaves very little else to say,,except,,where to now?,,are we to continue with two impressions of what dancing really is about?,,an athletic sport,where all the true values of the dance are thrown aside,in the mad rush to convince the IOC that dancing is a sport,,or ,keep the artistic beauty of the dance,,with of course,,a certain modernisation which is common in most activities ,without going overboard ,of course ,some might say,,the sporting side ,is simply too far ahead of time,,,who knows what way dancing will develop in time,,but for present,,it’s not going to happen,,and just reading the article,,one can see the mayhem that exists between the different bodies ,,where competitors are caught in the middle,,not sure which way to go,of course the only possible way out of this,,is for them all to get together and come to some compromise, and then ,and only then,,can one hope to convince the IOC,,that dancing is united and progressing enough ,to be worthy of such recognition ,,and so important for the youth of today,,️NTT

  • Chuck says:

    I’m late to the party but still want to say my peace. I completely disagree with your comments that ballroom is NOT a sport because YOU define a sport as someons going across the finish line first or getting the most goals… excuse me but synchronized swimming, figure skating, ice dancing, gymnastics, ryhtmic gymnastics are all ARTISIC sports judged the same way WDSF dancers are judged. How can you admit the energy a ballroom dancer exerts is as powerful as an 800m track runner yet in the same breath say it’s not a sport. You lost me there.

    I will say this on another point, it’s sad that WDC and WDSF separated, in return we have a very weak amateur division in WDC and a very weak professional decision in WDSF. Back in the day both divisions were incredibly strong but now that we have four divisions essentially and it’s weakened the field for both federations. I do like the judging format of WDSF because it’s clear and supports the competitive athletic nature of ballroom Latin but i do feel WDSF lacks the artistry and classical style it once had before the Olympic push.

    • George Pytlik says:

      I did in fact mention in my post that these other Olympic activities you mention should not be considered as sports because of the subjective judging methods that are required. The IOC actually believes the same thing as numerous comments by IOC officials over the past few years have shown that they don’t want to approve additional sports which require subjective judging but only those that can be gauged by traditional (scientific) methods. Just because something is athletic does not necessarily define it as a sport.

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