Dancing Lessons: What Can We Learn from ‘So You Think You Can Dance’?

Taio Cruz’s rousing hit “Dynamite” played on loudspeakers as I joined the queue last week outside the cavernous Reliant Arena in Houston. Families, young professionals, and hordes of teenage girls swayed to the rhythm as lines grew longer and longer, far past the parking lot port-o-potties. Ushers hastily scanned so many electronic tickets that together their hand-held devices made one long, sustained electronic beep.

I rushed the souvenir stand with everyone else, and then hit the men’s room to change into my new $35 all-cotton T-shirt. Resisting the $25 color program booklet as well as the frozen tropical drinks at the Maui Wowie Tiki-stand, I settled for an $8 hot-dog-and-cola combo before making my way to a seat slightly above stage left. “Perfect viewing,” I thought as I enjoyed the promotional videos. This wasn’t a high-profile rock concert, however, it was a dance performance. I made calculations in my head: parking, food, souvenir, and the ticket totaled $119, an amount I hadn’t paid for a dance event since I saw The Royal Ballet years ago at London’s posh Covent Garden.

I’ve been watching dance for more than 30 years, but my night at the Reliant Arena was the first time I had witnessed it with an audience of approximately 10,000 people. How had this experience eluded me for so long? “Something very important is going on here,” I thought to myself.
How could more choreographers and artistic directors across America get a piece of this action? What are they doing, or not doing, in order to command such showering attention from an obviously eager public?
Since “So You Think You Can Dance” premiered in 2005, it has gathered millions of viewers through television and subsequent live tours. It is no longer a strictly American phenomenon, with versions in at least 16 other countries, including Malaysia, Turkey, and South Africa. There’s no question of SYTYCD’s relevance as a cultural phenomenon. It’s high time the non-profit dance field look at what’s right about these dance reality shows and what distinguishes them from the average dance presentation. While some stalwarts in the dance field might snub popular television dance, it’s not something the field can ignore any longer.

I’ll admit that most of my fellow dance critics consider my fascination with SYTYCD amusing. They see the program as a largely capitalist venture with low-brow choreography and no artistic merit, not something a serious critic would cover. They also seem to think that I shouldn’t be watching television in the first place. At the lectures I’ve presented at undergraduate dance programs in the past years, I was intrigued that so many students expressed a genuine interest in the show, but also acted as if it were a guilty pleasure. I think they are wrong. We need to look at the programit closely, acknowledge its success, and glean from it anything that might be useful in order to enhance the broader prosperity of dance. The observations that follow are simply ideas for engaging viewers already enamored of television and open to dance. There are no particular rules about how they might apply to any given company, school or dance program, but these areas suggest ways the field can borrow from this pop-culture phenomenon.

As a choreographer, teacher, or artistic director, how could you further involve your audience in the audition process? First and foremost, it’s important to remember that SYTYCD is a competition, and this is somehow satisfying to most people. On the program, the dancers compete in preliminary stages at filmed auditions in many American cities. As each season commences, millions of viewers are privy to highlights from these initial sessions. The finalists compete week after week with professional “all-stars” and as soloists as they are slowly weeded out to reveal America’s “top dancer.”

Competition appears to be an innate human trait. Just watch a pair of two-year-olds wrestle for a favorite stuffed bear and the competitive nature of even our youngest becomes clear. We know, as well, that competition is the basis for interactions in sports, politics, law, education, politics, and, of course, business. In other words, it seems that as humans we are inherently drawn to the situation of winning and losing, for better or for worse. Competition in the world of dance certainly has its down side. The dance marathons or “walkathons” of the 1920s and ‘30s, for example, eventually provoked ordinances to eliminate what had become nearly blood-sport, and even claimed lives. Many dance critics frown on ballet competitions, which they see as fraught with politics and a preference for technical prowess and nationalism rather than artistic achievement. But it is no secret that a number of highly successful contemporary vernacular forms, including hip hop, krumping, turfing, breakdancing, Memphis jookin’, tap, and other genres are expressed in arenas of friendly rivalry, a key to their strength and popular appeal.

Engaging Viewers

Audiences not only want to witness competition and the audition process, they want a part in determining the outcome of such proceedings. Each week, of course, SYTYCD fans vote by text message to recommend who should stay and who should leave. At the least, this creates the illusion that the viewers are somehow personally involved, even if the judges make the final decisions and the audience votes are non-binding. For most American dance companies, the audition process is kept hidden from audiences. Is there a way to de-mystify the situation, at the least, in order to attract more attention from the community?

Unraveling the Critical Process

Viewers are also interested in the specifics of the critical process. They want to see how dancers are coached, encouraged, and admonished. They are eager to compare their own impressions with those of the “professionals.” While the judges on such programs as SYTYCD and the less-sophisticated Dancing With The Stars are not always eloquent (“You need to give us more” is a common response each episode), at least viewers can witness their thought processes. This is partly why average people like to attend dress rehearsals, open studio events, and work-in-progress showings. They like hearing the feedback and having an experience that makes them feel as if they have learned something more about dance. When was the last time you invited the community into your studio?

How well are you promoting your dancers in terms of their individual personalities? Before moving to Houston, I lived in Boston for 24 years, which included an eight-year stint as dance critic for The Boston Herald. My coverage of Boston Ballet, in particular, revealed a conflict between the image the company often wished to project and the needs of my readership. The dancers were often sheltered from my prying pen. People want to know what makes a dancer tick, what challenges he or she faces, what life events have informed his or her stage persona. This is entirely explicit on SYTYCD, where each episode includes brief montages of the dancers in the studio, at home, or “confessing” in video diaries.

For example, viewers followed with extraordinary interest young Alex Wong’s contractual problems with Miami City Ballet and his subsequent injury during filming. with extraordinary interest. They learned about Adechike Torbert’s tough childhood in Brooklyn, Jose Ruiz’s boyish crushes, and winner Lauren Froderman’s student teaching in her hometown studio. When dancers share their moods and emotions, viewers form a stronger connection with them, and they are more likely to return to watch them perform. This is important to do in print, in film and video coverage, and, of course, in person during pre- and post-performance talks. Even New York City Ballet recently gave a few of its dancers microphones and showcased them in pre-performance chats.

Dancing That Truly Looks Like America

How culturally and artistically diverse is your dance company, and does this diversity reflect your community at large? Dancers on SYTYCD represent a wide variety of racial backgrounds, economic backgrounds, types of American communities, and dance styles. Viewers are eager to see how a dancer primarily trained in salsa, for example, might pair up with a jazz or contemporary dancer. How well can a ballet dancer master a Bollywood routine? What are the limitations of a tap artist, if any? The energy produced by an African-American male hip hop dancer and a Caucasian female contemporary dancer forms the opening scene on the current SYTYCD live tour, and in Houston it brought down the house in less than three minutes. It is a simple fact these days that a racially homogenous ensemble looks old-fashioned.

During my time in Boston, I noticed that over several years Boston Ballet had hired greater and greater numbers of Latin dancers, which seemed to mimic a strategy I had already noticed at American Ballet Theatre, and which seemed to be affecting a gradual but significant change in audience demographics. However, African-American dancers were almost non-existent in both companies, which is shameful in diverse cities like Boston and New York. Houston Ballet appears to have a significant Asian audience not only due to the recent success of the film Mao’s Last Dancer and the legacy of former Houston Ballet principal Li Cunxin, but also because rising star Jun Shuang Huang was hired this season as a principal dancer. A strategy of inclusiveness should be actively pursued if you want everyone in your community to take interest.

Unpacking Narrative

How readily understandable are your dances? Perhaps the greatest hurdle I had to overcome in my enjoyment of SYTYCD was the narrative quality of each and every dance. I found it limiting, even oppressive. Each week as the camera follows the choreographers in the studios, the segment includes an explanation of the story behind each dance. One of the most popular episodes featured a dance about a female soldier saying goodbye to her boyfriend as she headed to Iraq. Another centered on a successful businessman who runs into a childhood acquaintance , who has become a homeless man. Viewers, particularly those new to dance, want dances with plot, and this is understandably a difficult truth for many choreographers and artistic directors to accept.

Music Matters

How relevant is your music? Do you engage the musicians in your community to perform with you? The dances on SYTYCD are closely aligned with the top pop charts, certainly a key to their appeal. By way of example, both SYTYCD and Dancing With The Stars featured stunning singer and dancer Janelle Monae this year, and her paraphrase of Memphis jookin’, a form with a deep history in the African-American community, became instantly known to millions of viewers. At present, this dance form is proliferating on YouTube. Audiences want to hear a variety of music along with the dances they watch, and this mix needs to include current popular styles and forms or it will seem old-fashioned, particularly to younger viewers. A few years ago, I was stunned by Stanton Welch’s Play, set to a medley of songs by Moby,[ to date the most culturally relevant ballet he’s made in his eight seasons with the company (and still available in excerpts on YouTube)]. The young audience who flocked to this piece seems to have disappeared in the current season, not unlike the driven Prince fans who never returned to subsequent Joffrey programs after “Billboards,” its own 1993 foray into pop culture.

Making Television Dance

Finally, there is the matter of television itself. How are you promoting your work through this medium, if at all? As a forum for disseminating dance and its related information, television is hardly new. However, the sophisticated work I saw in my youth seems almost nowhere to be found on today’s broadcast schedules. Web-searchable dance is certainly important and increasing but it requires an active inquiry from the viewer. Recently I gave a lecture to a group of students who had never heard of Merce Cunningham. This seemed incredible to me; he was always on television when I was their age. But they didn’t know enough to know how to search for him, and this worried me.

I’d like to say that I became a dancer, and later a dance critic, because of some rousing live performance in my childhood, but that wouldn’t be true. Like many, as a child, I saw Ed Villella on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” As a teenager, I saw Martha Graham’s Clytemnestra and Paul Taylor’s Aureole on public television, experiences that truly changed my life. It was more these visions that led me to seven years in the ballet studio and classes in Humphrey/Limon technique and German modern dance than any live show. Of course, I finally found my way into the theater to witness “real” dancing, and I can’t imagine life without it.

We used to have regular programming of America’s most sophisticated dance artists. How did we let it slip away? I’m not suggesting a hierarchy that puts George Balanchine and Paul Taylor at the top and SYTYCD at entry level. As a critic and a dance-lover, I need to see both. But it’s time that we worked toward influencing networks to feature a broader spectrum of dance programming. In the case of SYTYCD, television has won millions of viewers for a certain kind of dance experience. Whether or not it could win as large an audience for concert dance remains to be seen. I don’t know about you, but I’m longing for another dance boom, and television is without doubt an important part of its provocation.

Theodore Bale
is a critic, journalist and musician in Houston. His writing has appeared in The Boston Herald, The Cambridge Chronicle, Dance Magazine, Dance International, Contact Quarterly, Dance Chronicle, Houston Press, Houston Chronicle, Art Lies, CultureMap, and other publications.


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