Dance, Life & Numbers

Dance, Life & the Numbers that Move Us

“Not personal, just business”.

Otto Berman – Mob Accountant (1930’s)

This quote, riffed on later and made infamous during the Godfather film series, succinctly sums up a form of culture conflict, which is also a source of personal inner conflict for many of us.

This thought came to me, after spending many years reflecting on dance asking; why is dance not as popular as sport?

Like many, I began this journey assuming the difference in popularity had something to do with the media; that it was somehow the media’s fault, because for arcane reasons they choose to promote some activities more than others. And/or it was due to our culture being dominated by a particular expression of masculinity that couldn’t take dance seriously. An expression that perceived dance as nothing more than a vapid hobby, good as physical exercise at best, and at worst, as a rare activity to be momentarily enjoyed, or tolerated with the assistance of alcohol, at social gatherings like Weddings and parties.

Yet slowly I came to see that the media coverage and the cultural dominance of masculinity are symptoms, not causes.

Taking a deeper dive, it soon became obvious that “sport” isn’t more popular than dance.

Only some sports, indeed a very small handful, are popular. And due to that popularity, are willingly promoted by the media who are hungry for eyeballs. If you’re in doubt about that statement, consider how often you see darts, badminton, ping pong, bob sledding, diving, cycling, or archery – to name just a few sports – on mainstream TV programming.

With the growth of streaming services, YouTube, and the internet more generally, there’s now a great deal more access and coverage of niche sports, but still only a small handful remain “the chosen ones” worthy of mass market cultural appeal.

Looking at those that are popular I noticed that there are elements they do very well and hold in common.

First, traditionally, they have indeed been clear expressions of the cliché associated with a combative, warrior, heroic masculinity. This is most clearly expressed through the team contact sports of football (Rugby, NFL, Soccer, NRL, AFL etc.) but is also evident in cricket, baseball, and basketball etc.

Diving deeper, and though it’s more refined in these sports, the cliché is also expressed through non-contact sports such as, tennis and golf, which together with the others, dominate most of the mainstream sports programming and thus attract the greatest proportion of potential sponsorship dollars.

Beyond the obvious high skill levels of the players, and equally obvious attractive tribalism of barracking for a specific flag, player, or club colours which people love to adopt as part of their self-identity, and which bind them to family, community, region, and Country; what these sports do very well is construct a broad meta-narrative serving as the connective fascia of their sport. That is, they tell a wonderful multi-generational story, with the recent former champions of the sport becoming the commentators of the sport, telling tales of those who inspired them, stories from their era, which connects with the current on field champions, which they then use to connect us to the “up and coming” players whose rise we’re told we need to watch.

This engaging multi-generational storytelling leads to multi-generational audiences and connects the viewers into a well-worn narrative arc whose subtext is really about birth, growth, flowering, decay, and death i.e., the core fundamental story of our journey through time.

Within that larger arc, they then tease out personal stories of triumph, reward, failure, loss, sin, redemption, and renewal. Within these morality tales they express and examine what it means to be a good sport, how to overcome perceived failure, how to understand failure, how to rise from the ashes of defeat, how to endure struggle, how to bounce back from injury, to survive disappointment, how to have grace in success, and how to share success etc. etc. An intricate, multi-generational weave of a million different stories that again, we can each personally connect to in our own lives and use to better understand our own experiences.

And so, I used to think that what dance needed to learn to do better was to tell these stories, first developing a forum for the largest meta-narrative, then drilling down to tell all the smaller, more personal ones.

Because there’s nothing stopping dance in this regard. Dance could do – and we sometimes do – this storytelling at least equally well as any sport, if not better, as dance is also an artform and so is inherently about collective and personal expression. We have millions of great stories, spanning generations. If only we weren’t quite so obsessed with youth and primarily focused on-the-moment as we tend to be, all of which makes dance, as an art form, often come across as superficial and immature. It’s not of course, yet that’s how it can all too easily be perceived.

And so, I thought I’d realised what dance needed to do to spike the popular imagination and become a more significant fixture within mainstream media.

Yet I was missing something; something important.

Shouts … 5, 6, 7, 8!

Numbers. Returning to the original quote, “it’s not personal, just business”, I now see that this is what dance lacks and I’m not sure it can be changed, or if it could – and I’ve considered some ways – whether it should be changed.

Beyond the beauty of sports, the athleticism, the skill, or the simplicity of the win/loss model, or the many and varied stories that connect and bind, what the most popular sports do very well, is make the connection between the play, the players, and the outcome of each event, and those numbers that are foundational to the sport i.e., the stats!

At the end of the day, a particular sportsperson may have the most beautiful tennis backhand down the line, or great running style, or the most engaging backstory etc. yet if they don’t win/perform consistently then the public and the media attention will soon move on and focus on those that do. At the end of the day there’s a small window of attention which is only open for the elite, and therefore, so long as they’re playing within the established rules – and sometimes there’s a grey line – how a sportsperson wins, isn’t as important as the winning. Whether it’s beautiful or not, whether you personally like or resonate with them or not, their success is what’s most important, and simply put, success almost always comes down to the stats.

Numbers don’t lie!

And this is true whether it’s an individual within a team sport, or someone in an individual sports environment. The stats tell the story, and their story of success or failure can be reduced to the numbers. Team members or spectators may personally love and respect another player, yet if the coach assesses that the player is a weak leak in the chain, a vulnerability the opposition may profit from, then they’ll be replaced. How many goals, how fast they run, how many forehand winners, how many tackles, how many 50’s or Centuries, etc. etc. etc. is what counts. It comes down to the numbers, because as is true in business, is true in sports; it’s a numbers game.

That is, it’s ultimately quantitative.

There are two consequences of this focus, and indeed enjoyment of numbers.

Understanding the numbers is fundamental to operating any successful business. And this is why the sports that focus on numbers, combined with the storytelling, resonate so well with the popular media, and enjoy so much traction, which then attracts sponsors i.e., money, which then leads to better storytelling and a better analysis of the numbers, which are part of the story, which all leads to greater popularity. And the cycle perpetuates.

The other benefit of having a focus on numbers, is the opportunity to make predictions based on those numbers i.e., betting/gambling. All business is based on risk assessment, and the numbers associated with risk assessment, and thus all business is a form of betting, which is why the Stock Markets are so popular, as they are simply a form of higher-end gambling. Absorbing information, assessing risk based on that information, and making assumptions about the future based on that assessment to either invest, or take on debt, with the aim of profiting based on the predictions.

Betting on the Battement

And thus, here is a fundamental problem for dance. Because while dance could potentially do the multi-generational storytelling very well – we currently don’t even do that well – dance is ultimately qualitative. It’s subjective. It’s art.

That isn’t a negative, but simply to say that it’s worth recognising and perhaps accepting that as an activity, dance doesn’t lend itself to being pulled apart and analysed purely based on the numbers, and the consequence of this is that it doesn’t connect to business so readily. While there are certainly elements of creativity and inspiring stories for business to connect with, the numbers are missing. For while numbers don’t go completely unnoticed in dance, ultimately, we don’t typically assess the Prima Ballerina, or the show, based on how many pirouettes she did, how high her jump was, or how much ground she covered etc. We don’t make predications of how her performance will go, potentially opening the show/performance to gambling. We assess a performance first and foremost subjectively, based on whether we were emotionally and/or intellectually engaged, moved, and inspired at a personal level.

Dance by the Numbers

I can imagine however, and have had conversations with friends, about ways we could conceivably change this, offering a version of dance on TV that was based on the numbers that measured height, distance, turns, speed, flexibility etc. especially with the camera technology we now have. Yet doing so would fundamentally change the way we connect with dance. Now, in some ways we’re already moving toward this. The rise of competition dance is a movement in this direction, and with some tweaks, you could add in more numbers – and thus potentially add in gambling on the outcome – but it must be asked; at what cost?

There’s more to life than the bottom line.

I would argue that while the bottom line is an important foundation for survival of both the individual and the collective, everything that makes life worthwhile is more to do with kindness and the qualitative.

Imagine a world where we only cared about the bottom line (it’s not hard!)? Would we care for our sick, injured, our elderly, the physically or mentally challenged, for those that have fallen through the cracks, minorities, the domestically abused, those seeking political asylum, for those trying to redeem themselves through the legal system, for other animals we share the planet with, or even the planet itself? What about children in general? Do we only care about them based on the bottom line? Of course not. Such a world is unthinkable, yet not unimaginable, and yet a world where only numbers matter, only the stats, would lead to such a world.

And now imagine if we could measure a smile, a tear, or an act of kindness? Imagine if you could quantitively examine how many times you’d smiled in your life, how many times you’d laughed, how many times you cried for a loved one, or how many times you made someone else cry, or someone else smile, how many times you felt awe at the majesty of the Universe, or love filled your heart, guilt lumped in your throat, or despair ate away at your guts? Perhaps if we were able to put numbers to such things, we would value them differently and maybe then we’d truly value dance, and the arts more broadly. Many already do of course, for exactly these reasons. I’m simply wanting to articulate it.

And so, as important as it is, we need to resist the temptation toward to an over-valuation of the quantitative and focus on equally valuing the qualitative; that which we care about based on subjectivity, and/or a communal subjectivity: an agreement of value.

I guess the point I’m wanting to make is that, we need to stop comparing or trying to compare dance with sports. We do need to understand why one is more popular in the mainstream media, and the other isn’t, and then ask ourselves; what kind of world we really want to live in? Because we could potentially make dance as popular as a sport; but there would be a cost. And I suspect, when presented with the likely outcome, it’s a cost that no-one, and particularly anyone that loves dance, would really want to pay.

by Jo.

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