SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE: The Politics of Dancing

I’m not gonna lie–I’ve really enjoyed Fox’s summer reality hit So You Think You Can Dance over the past few years. Maybe it’s the summer heat melting my brain, or maybe it’s that the competitors on this show actually have to be enormously talented to succeed. It’s a lot of fun to watch people who are good at something do it well.

Unfortunately, I’m having to give a lot of thought to whether I’m going to watch this week’s performance episode tonight–even with the possibility of two dances per couple!–after an unpleasant trend that’s been growing for at least a couple of seasons bloomed into full-blown yuck last week. While dancers from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds have been cast and succeeded on the show, discussion of hip-hop and jazz styles is often…less than sensitive. Judges trying to describe desired effects in krump or hip-hop numbers by affecting what they think are urban or African-American speech patterns or gestures is not a good plan. Telling dancers performing a jazz number that they’re African warriors is weird enough (what, everyone in Africa is the same? What is an African warrior, anyway?), but seizing the word “animalistic” to describe how “African warriors” should move is even more problematic.

Upon seeing the hip-hop routine pictured above–a hip-hop routine choreographed to Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love”–guest judge Adam Shankman (Hairspray) rhapsodized that the show’s deep exploration of this new thing, lyrical hip-hop, finally legitimized hip-hop as an art form. Leaving aside the dubious contentions that “lyrical hip-hop” is a newborn creature (dude, you produced the Step Up movies. Did you ever watch them?) or that So You Think You Can Dance is exploring the genre deeply, the assertion that hip-hop hasn’t been a legitimate art form up until now is pretty appalling. Coupled with previous judging comments about preferring “softer” hip-hop and wondering if America will be put off by more “hard-hitting” routines, the show’s attitude about what urban art forms might be about–and what we as the audience might think they’re about–is kind of dismal.

Between this and producer/judge Nigel Lythgoe’s constant harping about male contestants not being masculine enough in their dancing, the show is creeping dangerously close to some ugly places. And I don’t want to feel that way watching cheesy reality TV–I just want to watch a bunch of talented kids put on a show. Can’t we all just dance along?

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4 thoughts on “SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE: The Politics of Dancing

  1. I am, should I say was, a huge fan of SYTYCDance. But it has come to my attention after this past week when Thayne was voted off and the dancer known as
    “Twitch” real name unknown, actually had a profound dancing role in the hit movie Hairspray. The one with John Travolta, Queen Latifa, etc……where he appears several times on camera as a professional dancer.
    I thought SYTYCDance was for “unknown” dancers, people who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to showcase their talent. Thayne should not have been voted off by the judges. This show is a disappointment now. I liked it because it was a launching pad for unseen talent, not talent that has appeared on the big screen. “Twitch” needs to go and be honest about his role in the movie Hairspray.

  2. im watchin hairspray right now and was saying the same thing. That looks like the guy from SYTYCD and i dont even watch that show just seen youtube clips. His face stood out many times in the film. But blake was a proff dancer as well so it ony fair to keep him there tho i dont think hell win.

  3. Aw, I miss Thayne, too. He has ties to my locale, so I used to drive home past “Vote for Thayne!” signs. Actually, I like most of the guys better than most of the girls this year anyway.

    Y’all bring up an interesting point, though–even though this show has its roots in Amercan Idol, the nature of dance expertise seems to require a lot more training or experience to succeed here than the contestants on Idol have to demonstrate. Even last year’s winner, the adorable Sabra, whose claim to fame was having much less experience than the other dancers, had several years of training. Annnnnnd…she was in High School Musical, although it sounds like her role was not as large as Twitch’s. Season 2’s Allison was in HSM, too. The nature of trying to be a professional dancer means that a lot of these kids have had really notable experience, from these kinds of film roles to dancing with companies notable and MAJOR (Thayne and Matt, for example; Danny from last season had been with the American Ballet Theater, for heaven’s sake) to major championships (Benji, Pasha, Anya, Lacey, etc.). (And in fairness, some of the Idol have had a lot of training, too.) I guess that part doesn’t bother me so much, because of the nature of dance.

    What does bother me, though, is the inconsistency with which they deal with this stuff. Some people’s professional experience is highlighted, while others’ is hidden (didn’t exactly fit Sabra’s rags to riches story to mention that film, did it?). This year, Joshua is sternly lecturered about what he has or hasn’t revealed about his training…by Debbie Allen, who runs the camps at which he trains every year, Ms. Allen can’t participate in the show because of her relationship to Will, but if Twitch was in Hairspray, he must have worked with Adam Shankman…who has been a judge this year. I know the incestuous nature of the dance world likely makes it impossible to prevent all of these connections, and I don’t doubt for a second that these kinds of shows try to manipulate results, but it would be nice if the manipulation was at least consistent.

  4. Pingback: Raging Against the Machine: SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE’s Casual Racism | TV BACON

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