Raging Against the Machine: SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE’s Casual Racism

So You Think You Can Dance is back for its summer run on Fox, and none of the changes made to the format recently (a returning, less screamy Mary Murphy; All-Star partners) has addressed the most pressing problem the show has. I have complained about it before, and I’m going to keep complaining until something gets better: The casual racism SYTYCD blithely tosses around turns what should be an effervescent celebration of the arts into a grotesque display of white privilege, and it has just. Got. To. Stop.

Feast your eyes on the judges’ treatment of krumper Brian Henry during Wednesday’s New York auditions:

Nigel Lythgoe is practically patting himself on the back for cheerily noting that krumping “doesn’t always have to be violent,” but that doesn’t stop him from insisting that the dance style comes from “frustration,” despite Henry’s objections that this is the exact opposite of what he intends. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, as this is little different from Lythgoe’s pride in believing his show has created a form of lyrical hip-hop, which is essentially watered-down nonsense designed to keep white suburbanites from clutching their pearls in fear. These ludicrous comments are rooted in some of the ugliest stereotypes about African American masculinity, and they’re nothing short of dangerous.

Murphy is no better, with her condescending lecture about how “it’s okay to be cocky”–within limits–demonstrating a fundamental lack of knowledge about the social interactions and general culture of the dance forms that fall under the (too broad) umbrella of “hip-hop.” Again, this isn’t anything new–the show’s insistence on referring to dancers formally trained in dance styles with roots in ballet principles as having “technique” while ignoring the specific nuances of hip-hop and African dance is a brush-off deeply rooted in dismissing art forms cultivated in minority communities. Particularly galling is the way judges tend to criticize hip-hop and other dancers for lacking “technique” while praising light-as-air conteporary/lyrical/jazz dancers who are either unable or unwilling to lower their chests during hip-hop numbers. “Technique” may be shorthand in the (also too broad) contemporary umbrella for specific quality of movement, but that type of dance owns neither the word nor the concept. Using language in this way is privileging white experiences and perspectives at the expense of dancers who excel at something else.

I’m not sure it would bother me if a judge noted that the show produces a winner through viewer voting: America is what it is, and maybe taking a different tone would persuade more voters to pick up the phone. This small change would accomplish two things: it could open up a dialogue about why a change in tone would make a dancer more endearing to “America,” and it would allow the dancer to make affirmative choices about personal presentation. As they stand, however, judges’ critiques impose assumptions onto dancers’ intents, training, and personalities instead.

I really want to like this show–the dancers are enormously talented, and it’s hard to find attention paid to dance anywhere but PBS. But the casual, nauseating, completely unchallenged racism woven into the show’s structure is making it nigh unwatchable.

We’ll leave discussion of Nigel’s blatant misogyny for another day. Yay.


The Newest Summer Hit: SO YOU THINK YOU CAN MIME

Look, I’m nobody’s excuse for a dancer (well, there was all that square dance I did in fifth grade PE, but it’s not like I went pro in it or anything). Anything I have to say about dance is going to be solidly within the framework of that old artistic chestnut of not knowing much but knowing what I like.

But even someone with two left feet like mine can see that choreography does not have to be limited to acting out the words of the song to which you are dancing. Maybe the choreographers we most often see on So You Think You Can Dance don’t want to use up their best work on a reality TV show, or maybe they’re overworked. Or maybe they just think we’re stupid and can’t understand art. But while there were a couple of standout performances tonight, too many of the choreographers seem to be painting with an overly literal palette that relies too much on boringly conventional “romantic” relationships. Even Wade Robeson–and God bless his Goldfrapping freakazoidness–was stuck in boy-meets-girl land. I’ll watch Phillip Chbeeb do just about anything, but making him a) dance a routine about a feuding couple who makes up so they can go to bed that is b) set to a Ne-Yo song called “Bed” that c) warbles “I don’t wanna go to bed mad at you” is trying my patience. We’re at a really exciting point in the competition, where the dancers and the partnerships are fresh, so we’d love to see some fresh ideas from the creative minds behind the dances, too.

Until then, we’ll let Cat Deeley console us. Since the Emmy nominaton ballots are out now, here’s hoping voters don’t forget Ms. Deeley’s charming, sympathetic turn as timing martinet and dancing cheerleader. Maybe there will be a routine next week that is as riveting as she is.

Handy Dandy Guide to Returning Fall Television 2008

Suffering from Olympics withdrawal? Burned out on election coverage? Not to fear, my friend, because the new fall television season is upon us. That’s right, all (well, some) of our beloved TV shows are coming back to us. Below is a list of premiere dates for all our favorite (and some not-so-favorite) returning series. And stayed tuned, because coming soon, look for our guide to all the new fall series.

Tuesday, Aug. 26
Greek (ABC Family) 9 p.m.

Monday, Sept. 1
Prison Break (Fox) 8 p.m.
Gossip Girl (CW) 8 p.m.
One Tree Hill (CW) 9 p.m.

Tuesday, Sept. 2
The Shield (FX) 10 p.m.

Wednesday, Sept. 3
Bones (Fox) 8 p.m
America’s Next Top Model (CW) 8 p.m.
Top Design (Bravo) 10 p.m.

Thursday, Sept. 4
Kitchen Nightmares (FOX) 9 p.m.

Friday, Sept. 5
Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader? (Fox) 8 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 7
Entourage (HBO) 10 p.m.

Monday, Sept. 8
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox) 8 p.m.

Wednesday, Sept. 10
‘Til Death (Fox) 9 p.m.

Friday, Sept. 12
Don’t Forget The Lyrics (Fox) 9 p.m.

Saturday, Sept. 13
MadTV (Fox) 11 p.m.
Saturday Night Live (NBC) 11:30 p.m.

Tuesday, Sept. 16
House (Fox) 8 p.m.
The Biggest Loser (NBC) 8 p.m.
Lincoln Heights (ABC Family) 8 p.m.

Thursday, Sept. 18
Survivor (CBS) 8 p.m.
Smallville (CW) 8 p.m.
Supernatural (CW) 9 p.m.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX) 10 p.m.

Monday, Sept. 22
Dancing With The Stars (ABC) 8 p.m.
The Big Bang Theory (CBS) 8 p.m.
How I Met Your Mother (CBS) 8:30 p.m.
Two and a Half Men (CBS) 9 p.m.
Heroes (NBC) 9 p.m.
Boston Legal (ABC) 10 p.m.
CSI: Miami (CBS) 10 p.m.

Tuesday, Sept. 23
NCIS (CBS) 8 p.m.
Law & Order: SVU (NBC) 10 p.m.
Without a Trace (CBS) 10 p.m.

Wednesday, Sept. 24
The New Adventures of Old Christine (CBS) 8 p.m.
Criminal Minds (CBS) 9 p.m.
CSI: NY (CBS) 10 p.m.
Lipstick Jungle (NBC) 10 p.m.

Thursday, Sept. 25
Ugly Betty (ABC) 8 p.m.
Survivor (CBS) 8 p.m.
My Name is Earl (NBC) 8 p.m.
The Office (NBC) 9 p.m.
Grey’s Anatomy (ABC) 9 p.m.
E.R. (NBC) 10 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 28
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (ABC) 7 p.m.
The Amazing Race (CBS) 8 p.m.
The Simpsons (Fox) 8 p.m.
King of the Hill (Fox) 8:30 p.m.
Desperate Housewives (ABC) 9 p.m.
Cold Case (CBS) 9 p.m.
Dexter (Showtime) 9 p.m.
Family Guy (Fox) 9 p.m.
American Dad (Fox) 9:30 p.m.
Brothers & Sisters (ABC) 10 p.m.
The Unit (CBS) 10 p.m.
Californication (Showtime), 10 p.m.

Monday, Sept. 29
Chuck (NBC) 8 p.m.

Wednesday, Oct. 1
Private Practice (ABC) 8 p.m.
Pushing Daisies (ABC) 9 p.m.
Dirty Sexy Money (ABC) 10 p.m.
Friday Night Lights (DirecTV 101) 9 p.m.

Thursday, Oct. 2
Tim Gunn’s Guide To Style (Bravo) 10 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 3
Wife Swap (ABC) 8 p.m.
Ghost Whisperer (CBS) 8 p.m.
Everybody Hates Chris (CW) 8 p.m.
The Game (The CW) 8:30 p.m.
Supernanny (ABC) 9 p.m.
Life (NBC) 10 p.m.
Numb3rs (CBS) 10 p.m.

Sunday, Oct. 5
America’s Funniest Home Videos (ABC) 7 p.m.

Monday, Oct. 6
Samantha Who?
(ABC) 9:30 p.m.

Thursday, Oct. 9
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS) 9 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 10
The Starter Wife (USA) 9 p.m.

Tuesday, Oct. 14
Eli Stone (ABC) 10 p.m.

Thursday, Oct. 30
30 Rock (NBC) 8:30 p.m.

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?