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So You Think You Can (Watch) Dance? – a manifesto

Artists and art enthusiasts have successfully recorded dance for as long as we have enjoyed recording devices. Old stills can be found dating as far back as the late nineteenth century when the first ballerina wore pointe shoes. Once stills had transformed into moving pictures, dance found its way onto film in various ways. From choreographed battle scenes to the bodily comedic intelligence displayed by Charles Chaplin, dance has existed on twodimensional screens for consumption for over a whole century. The American musical itself, a beloved and indigenous art form that sprouted from the United States’ love of vaudeville, song, dance, and storytelling, has used dance as entertainment and as plot-advancing technique. Musicals themselves have landed on the big screen, and movie musicals such as The Sound of Music, Cabaret, Nine, Chicago, Sweet Charity, Grease, Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story, and many others are now considered classics in the great catalog of dance film. Choreographers and directors have enjoyed a great run of success and critical acclaim on film, and names like Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, and Rob Marshall are household material. It was 2005 when dance hit the television screen. Not as televised or pre-recorded live performance, but in the shape of a reality television competition series called So You Think You Can Dance. This article looks at what has happened in the ten years that ensued, and how this one single series has changed the field of dance – and even the art form itself – perhaps forever.

Although there are many shows on television that incorporate elements of dance, I will focus on SYTYCD because it is the largest and most influential example. Not only has SYTYCD created a movement of rival television programming wishing to emulate its success, it has also become a franchise under which over forty countries worldwide have since created their own version of the original. SYTYCD has altered the experience of watching dance in more ways than one.

Scholar Alexis A. Weisbrod in her essay “Defining Dance, Creating Commodity: the Rhetoric of So You Think You Can Dance” dissects what exactly is presented by the show to the viewer. Let us start by taking a look at the application and effect of the camera work on the viewer. Throughout the programming, the conventional full body shot is most commonly used. However, although close-up shots are not utilised, the full body shots are taken from various angles and sidelines that would not be visible to the audience in a traditional theater setting. Beyond camera work, the editing of these shots is such that a single movement (a jump, or a pirouette, etc.) can be cut twice to have the camera artificially move from one angle to the next. This creates a pseudo-dynamic that is intrinsic to modern television. When applied to dance, it adds a falsified dynamism that the dancer onstage could never replicate.

It is also important to mention that because television screen time is a commodity that can be sold for a high dollar amount to companies willing to invest on fixated eyes that will potentially consume their products, dances on SYTYCD are shortened to no more than ninety-second clips. Expensive commodities such as screen time are best spent when delivered without the uncertainty of interest to viewers’ short attention spans. That also partially explains, as Weisbrod points out, why the producers of the show override any decision made by the viewers (who technically vote to choose their favorite dancer) or the judges (who are used as a voice of knowledge serving to dissect what is happening onstage to the viewers at home). Because the producers’ decisions trump those of both the viewers and the judges, these decisions are likely based on rating-driving commodified characteristics such as race, gender, sexual orientation, physical appearance, and the level of attractiveness of the dancers. To be clear, the producers themselves have not released a statement on how they make these decisions, and one can only speculate about the origin of their reasoning. Nevertheless, the length of exposure, dynamic of editing, diversity of viewing angles, and particular levels of popularity amongst participants are decisions made entirely in accordance with the format of television, not the format of dance as we have known it.

Aside from these television-specific tools of production, it is the format of SYTYCD that has mostly changed the way dance is experienced. The show uses what John Fiske in “Reading Television” calls a set of codes: 1. “Sport as ritualized social conflict” and 2. “Dance as ritualized social coherence”. The code of sport itself instructs audience members to compare and evaluate performance in an objective way. This objective evaluation can only refer to the body and what it succeeds or fails to do. Subjectivity is lost in such format. Dance described as an art form could then intrigue an audience who have not been previously exposed to the art form in any other setting – be that a concert, theater, commercial, or even film. The producers themselves point out that it is unreasonable to expect that these viewers (who did not go out on their own initiative to watch dance, but had it instead delivered to them via satellite) should understand the technicalities and complexities of dance. Without previous exposure or any education on what dance is and how one can learn to appreciate it, the then commodified, televised art form becomes the perceived sum of its entertainment value in addition to its mainstream appeal parts, which eventually equals network profit. The bigger, more athletic, or perceived as difficult movements become more important than what dancers and choreographers have carefully developed over the last two centuries, namely, quality of movement, development of dynamics within a performance, character portrayal, artistry through the expression of the subtle as well as the harsh.

Change is a necessity as well as inevitable for any art form, culture, or institution looking to survive and thrive as new technologies are discovered or experienced. However, due to television’s two-dimensional nature, dance presented through it will never be what dance essentially is – a kinetic and visceral experience. As SYTYCD grew a larger audience, and in working closely with young students, (some of whom are young enough to have never known a world without SYTYCD); I began to notice just how much and how permanently the understanding of dance had changed. For example, the term “lyrical” made its way into the permanent dance lexicon. During the first season of the show, the term “lyrical” was used to describe a classical ballet/modern/jazz hybrid that would later be solely described as “contemporary”. The most popular style on the show in every one of its following seasons, “contemporary” as it is portrayed by the show has little to no resemblance to the contemporary dance developed by iconic choreographers such as Pina Bausch or William Forsythe. Though the show abandoned the term “lyrical”, the name remained in the dance studio and convention circuit in the United States, and now exists only in the amateur dance scene.
Furthermore, as a result of being exposed (sometimes solely) to what is shown on SYTYCD potential students, ever since the show’s premiere, have been going to dance studios looking for the fastest possible way to learn “fouettes”, or “a la seconde” turns. It takes years of consistent and proper
ballet training to begin exploring these multiple turn sequences. Tumbling and acrobatics have become commonplace nowadays in dance studios across the nation, an addition created by popular demand. Young students want to be able to replicate the perceived difficult moves they see on their screens. This demand on the part of young students and their parents, combined with a dearth of knowledge by the general public have greatly complicated the understanding of the discipline and time involved in dance training. In an effort to acquiesce paying parents, studios undergo didactic changes in order to create a varied and speedy curriculum that may satisfy their clients. This speedy process has opened doors to injuries for these same young dancers. Dance professionals, once people who had had proper technical training as well as performance experience, are now much more difficult to find and hire since the hot ticket into professional status became the participation in one of the many seasons of this one television show. A SYTYCD finalist currently holds higher perceived value in the dance education field – especially when the paying parents know his or her name – than a person who has studied the many forms of classical ballet, the diverse nature of hip-hop, and the intricacies of the anatomical dancing body. While a former participant may certainly also have had formal training, it is only natural to expect that he/she will pass on to students the values the television show presents.

In the decade that dance has been in some form presented on television, in one short span of ten years, SYTYCD has enlarged the dance audience, yes; but also presented a specific, made-for-TV variety of dance. It has also changed the way potential audiences will continue to perceive dance, and tainted their vision to a simplistic television format of dance. It has also changed the way students want to learn dance, and of course, it has transformed the way some educators teach it. In one short decade, SYTYCD has reassigned dance from an art form and reduced it to a competitive sport. It has also inevitably changed the way choreographers create dance, with more focus on the sharp, choppy, fast-tempo hit-song-accompanied movement. I would love to see potential audiences properly educated through exposure to historical masterpieces and new, creative, experimental work alike. I would love to see the future of dance taken back from the domineering grasp of television and placed where it can be fully developed and appreciated as the living, breathing and beautiful art form that it is.