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.

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?

The 10 Best Musical Moments in Television of 2007

I am apparently extra-susceptible to being emotionally bludgeoned by well-placed music in my TV. Seeing me get a little teary-eyed over a musical montage, Susannah’s munchkin recently asked her mother in disbelief, “You’re not crying over this, are you?” as if to confirm only a crazy person would get misty over music. Maybe she’s right, but this tendency means that focusing on musical moments was the perfect approach to my year-end Top 10 list. Since ten is a small number, and since I kind of like being emotionally bludgeoned by my TV, I’d love to hear your nominees as well.

2007’s Top Musical Moments in Television:

10. “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” in “Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale” (aired December 16 on HBO)

I’ve heard some criticism of this choice, generally centered on the “obviousness” of choosing a Smiths tune associated with screen angst. I’d argue that this is missing the point (which seemed to happen a lot with people wanting Extras to be The Office). While the song is playing, we see Maggie retreating from Andy’s cruelty by locking herself in her own car and Andy awakening to his situation…but rather than going to Maggie, getting the fired extra rehired, or making a sweeping statement declaring his freedom from celebrity, he bulls his way into the Ivy and literally begs his agent to give him what he wants (fame, money, and artistic integrity, all at once) this time. It’s ugly and embarrassing and painful and all of the things that elevate Gervais and Merchant above the typical comedy.

9. “Frodo (Don’t Wear the Ring)” in The Flight of the Conchords‘ “The Actor” (aired August 26 on HBO)

It’s awfully hard to choose from the Conchords’ panoply of musical genius—you could just as easily go with “Business Time” (“Tuesday night is the night we go and visit your mother, but Wednesday night is the night that we make love”), “Humans Are Dead” (“Binary solo!”), or “Hip-Hopoptamus vs. The Rhymnoceros” (“Ain’t no party like my nana’s tea party”). But the brilliance of having poor Murray’s low-budget video shoot feature Conchord Bret McKenzie, who actually appeared in The Lord of the Rings, as a hapless Frodo while uber-fan Mel proves she can speak Elvish is simply too much to contend with. Hurray—you made it!

8. “The Chairman’s Waltz” on So You Think You Can Dance’s final 16 episode (aired June 27 on Fox)

Even reality shows that require some talent or skill—Project Runway, American Idol, or, in this case, So You Think You Can Dance—are often cheesefests that get by on a lot of glue and glitter. Wade Robson taking a lovely John Williams waltz from Memoirs of a Geisha and creating a love story between a hummingbird and a flower, however, shows that every once in a while the cheese can be blown aside like the parting of the Red Sea while something that’s actually mesmerizing rises from below.

7. “Shambala” in Lost‘s “Tricia Tanaka is Dead” and “The Man Behind the Curtain” (aired February 28 and May 9, respectively, on ABC)

I admit to being increasingly frustrated with Lost, to the point where I enjoy hearing Lindelof and Cuse explain what’s wrong with the show more than I like the show itself. (Shut it, Jack.) The use of “Shambala,” however, highlights the ways their twisted labyrinth can work beautifully: the song represents one of the few moments of victorious joy our castaways have been allowed, as Hurley finally triumphs over his “curse” by getting a decrepit VW van (with requisite Three Dog Night 8-track, of course) running. Everyone is so lucky! Everyone is so kind! It also represents one of the creepier moments of the season a few months later as the song’s reappearance during young Ben’s flashback van ride with his father clues us in to imminent fate of said father. Everyone is not so kind on the road to Shambala, Ben.

6. “Pictures of Matchstick Men” in Life‘s “A Civil War” (aired November 7 on NBC)

Solving the murder of two Persian kids in a convenience store becomes even more urgent when it becomes apparent a third kid has disappeared and may still be at risk. What seems initially to be a typical procedural about racism becomes a complicated and sad story about a mother losing her grip on her son and taking love from all the wrong places. Life isn’t a typical procedural, and using the Camper Van Beethoven cover of “Pictures of Matchstick Men” underscores that, as the fiddles start sawing right when we swivel from the son permanently slipping away from the mother straight to the realization that Reese’s father is probably a very, very bad guy. “Your face just won’t leave me alone,” indeed.

5. “Dayman/Nightman” in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s “Sweet Dee’s Dating a Retarded Person” (aired October 11 on FX)

Having convinced golddigging Dee that her white rapper boyfriend is developmentally disabled, the rest of the Philadelphia crew decide they should be able to achieve musical stardom as well. Mac, Frank, and Charlie create their own band, but are unable to choose a name from among Electric Dream Machine, Pecan Sandies, and Chemical Toilet—you have to admit, they all have their strengths. Mac and Frank are alarmed when Charlie’s ode to the mysterious world of the night takes a turn to, er, darker places (Mac: “But it sounds like a song where a man breaks into your house and rapes you.”) Banned from Pecan Toilet—or something—Charlie huffs paint for several hours before a fellow refugee from Chemical Sandies—or something—finds him and they create an anthem celebrating the master of karate—and friendship!—for everyone. You…kind of have to see it, but it’s possibly the the hardest I laughed at television this year.

4. “Devil Town” in Friday Night Lights‘ “State” (aired April 11 on NBC)

A reprise back to the second episode of the series, where Austin legend Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town” (good luck finding the Tony Lucca cover they use on the show) perfectly underscored the empty, mundane, football-related activities these shallow kids and their shallow parents put such an incredible amount of weight on. Fast-forward to the season finale, where the same song is playing during the parade celebrating the Dillon Panthers’ state championship. As the camera catches each of the characters we’ve suffered with and cheered for throughout the year, highlighting the ways the empty, mundane, football-related activities make these people a town, “turns out I was a vampire myself in the devil town” takes on quite a different meaning. If Lisa tries to tell you that when she showed me this scene on her laptop in a motel room I had to go cry in the bathroom, don’t believe her (although it may be perfectly true).

3. “Renegade” in Supernatural‘s “Nightshifter” (aired January 25 on the CW)

The Supernatural gang tends to favor rawk songs that match the sibling demon hunters’ kickass Chevy Impala (HA!), and this is no exception. The brothers track down a shapeshifter who steals the bodies of bank tellers or jewelry store workers, the better to gain access to safes and vaults and the like, only to be stuck in what appears from the outside to be a hostage situation. Making matters worse, a federal agent who has the wrong idea about the Winchesters’ exploits shows up with the intent of bringing the boys in, dead or alive. A tidy twist provides an escape, leading us to a closing scene in the Impala. Dean: “We are so screwed.” Styx: “Oh, Mama, I’m in fear for my life from the loooong arm of the laaaaaaw.” I laughed for five full minutes. Ben Edlund is not to be messed with.

2. “Abide with Me” in Doctor Who’s “Gridlock” (aired April 14 on BBC One and July 20 on Sci Fi)

Since I start muttering unkind asides about fellow drivers’ ancestry after being stuck in heavy traffic for 15 minutes, it’s hard for me to imagine a 20-year-old traffic jam, like the one in New Earth’s undercity, not descending into cannibalism, graffiti, and dogs and cats living together (humans and cats, on the other hand, is an entirely different story). Perhaps it’s the Daily Contemplation, with every car singing hymns together, that keeps the peace. This hymning explains why the city, newly freed by the Doctor and friends, is singing a gorgeous version of “Abide with Me” as Martha demands to know why the Doctor is alone. I admit the song is meaningful to me anyway, but the fact that Agyeman and Tennant absolutely knock it out of the park as the Doctor describes the home he’ll never see again will break even people who have never heard the hymn before. I defy you to watch the Doctor’s 900-year stare as he describes the Gallifreyan sky that no longer exists and then keep making fun of me for being a television weeper.

1. “Morning Has Broken” in Pushing Daisies‘ “Smell of Success” (aired November 20 on ABC)

So I’ve got a thing for the hymns. So sue me. But Aunt Vivian (the fantastic Ellen Greene) persuading her sister that it’s brave to choose to be happy, embracing the cleansing rain and praising its new fall, is perhaps the gentlest, loveliest moment on television this year. We’ve written here before about how Pushing Daisies is all about how even a world that is drenched in death is one that can provide hope and family and love, and that message is never more apparent than in the moment Lily and Vivian choose hope–and each other–and get back in the water. It encapsulates that first moment after great grief when we first feel something joyful again, when we can first express praise for elation. Leave it to a show so much about pie to point out that those moments are all the sweeter after we’ve swallowed the bitter down.