Six years ago I got hooked on a television show. I am not that fond of TV; occasionally, PBS has something worth stopping what you’re doing to watch – mainly because you can come away having learned more than you knew, and that is what makes life interesting. Reality shows, on the other hand, tend to have an opposite effect: they make you stupider because, typically, they just appeal to the base emotions, never the mind or senses. Considering the popularity of such programs, people must crave the kind of stimulation where you don’t have to meet it halfway, way more than they do the intellectual kind. I have no problem with a balance of both types – although being smarter never hurt anyone – but there is a definite bias or imbalance on broadcast television for the easier passive “entertainment” which is spoon-fed and predigested, as from a parental bird. The best situation is when you get a combination of insight and emotional involvement. Arslocii.
Having said that, I am not going to opine about the meaninglessness of all TV programing. My point is to show a distinction between two shows that people often confuse, and to explain the large gap: the difference between the throw-away drivel of Dancing with the Stars (the stars to me, by the way, being the professional dancers on the show, not the has-beens or wannabes they are partnered with) versus a real dance competition, So You Think You Can Dance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help that some of the contestants on the latter end up as pros on the former – an interesting distinction between the two (if you think about it). Apparently, since DWTS is the more popular show, the audience generally would prefer to watch dancing bears paired with scantily-clothed professionals turning themselves inside-out to accommodate their inept partners than they would to watch young people who actually can dance, growing and changing into professionals before our eyes. Yes, the two have a similar format. However, SYTYCD has a visibly lighter budget to work with, but – surprise! – it makes up for it in spades by having real, heartfelt talent to share with us, and often great dancing.
I would say, gratefully, that I am happy for all shows that promote dance. But, sadly, if SYTYCD is the minor leagues to DWTS’ majors … well, then, the world is more topsy-turvy than originally thought. If the hugely talented dancers moving into the professional world are rewarded with having to make a living by dancing with the stiff in Weekend at Bernie’s, then what is all the training and effort for? Seemingly anything that draws crowds and advertising dollars is a career in TV-land. Every time I have seen parts of DWTS, what I have seen is a group of pole-dancers, because the useless celebrity partners are, basically, poles on which the real dancers cavort in their semi-nudity. Perhaps that is the appeal. Yes, these pros are athletes, but there is no there there. What do you root for? That one “personality” is not as bad as another “personality”? That the contestants can make it through a routine without embarrassing him/herself? Is the point that they can take these skills to the next wedding or bar mitzvah? In the real dance competition – that is, in SYTYCD – you actually root for the best of the best rather than the best of the worst. Maybe I am old fashioned but that’s what I thought competition meant.
Okay, I am willing to imagine that maybe the accessibility of DWTS will get people – many more people – interested in dance just because, apparently, any dolt can do it. But viewers are watching contestants who can’t straighten a limb or a back, who have frozen faces that are counting steps and presenting a thrust-out hip as “dancing,” as if they were in a grade-school recital performing with their teacher (which, by the way, they are).
If you want to see real dance, magic even, try the Pas de Deux performed on SYTYCD by Katee and Will – a ballet/modern dance, thoughtful yet emotional, choreographed by Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden. Exuberant and beautiful don’t even begin to describe the complete control and rag doll-like movements of the piece.
Or, Katee again, this time with Twitch, in a bizarre dance with a door – intense, real and scary – set to Duffy’s “Mercy.” The choreography is by Emmy-winning Mia Michaels, who has done the most edgy pieces on the show, not to mention Michaels’ “Hometown Glory” piece, danced by Katee (okay, I am a fan) and Joshua, a kind of new take on Appalachian Spring, and full of yearning and searching. And prior to that was Michaels’ The Bench (“Calling You”) done by Heidi and Travis, which included a flower and a park bench as props for a contemporary reminder of love and loss, as well as flawless lyrical movements. The Table Dance (“Sweet Dreams”), choreographed by Mandy Moore and performed by Sabra and Neil as competitors using an office table as their arena, was extremely fluid, antagonistic, clever and athletic. Then there was Allison and Alex dancing a Sonja Tayeh piece, set to Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which had elegance combined with Tayeh’s signature jerky moves and so much emotion and communication that the judges ended up teary and speechless. As Nigel Lythgoe (SYTYCD producer and judge) said after that dance, ”Sometimes we concentrate on the architecture of dance … the structure of dance, and we forget about the poetry of dance …. And tonight you have shown that you can have that structure and that beautiful artistry melded together and put into a performance that was utterly fantastic.” There it is: arslocii.
Aside from the “competition,” I know that these shows are about entertainment. Am I unusual in thinking that real talent – not just trial and error – equals entertainment? Understanding that people need to learn how to dance, my problem is not about them trying but rather that they are attempting to learn it on-air. It used to be that to get on-air you had to have accomplished a skill already before displaying it. That is the expectation I have – not the desire to make fun of or identify in some way with the ineptitude of the limelight-seekers learning new tricks on our time; rather, what I want is to be swept away by the magic in the confluence of a dancer’s ability, agility, emoting, and as the vessel for expression utilizing their finely tuned instrument in a meaningful moment or series of moments. In other words, art. Art, not practice or pretense. Placeness. Art is what SYTYCD delivers. Not every second of every broadcast – no human can do that. But it happens – it can happen. As in life, it is what you hope for: those moments. In the case of the dancing bears, since they don’t have the necessary equipment, these moments do not, cannot occur; the performers are merely lumbering objects in something resembling motion, flailing before our eyes.
For some arslocii nourishment instead of empty calories, try So You Think You Can Dance. It starts auditions for season 8 tomorrow night. There’s a difference right there – auditions. Like real dancers.