[Note: In honor of the eighth season of one of my favorite middlebrow reality TV shows, I thought I'd dust off this post from July 2009.}
No one thought it would succeed. Even the executive producer doubted that an “American Idol-style competition for dancers” would work on television. Dance may be, as German musicologist Curt Sachs claimed, the “mother of the arts” but it has always been considered a highbrow form with limited appeal to Americans. Dance may be something we do, but it was not something we want to watch.
Yet despite being aired during the doldrums of television (the summer season) on the most denigrated of formats (reality TV) on a channel known for its lowbrow standards (FOX) and having a cheesy, incorrectly punctuated title, So You Think You Can Dance has managed to do the near impossible: Not only has it exposed a mass audience to dance, but it cultivates appreciation for the beauty and complexity of this neglected artform.
The key was to pull a mulit-year bait-and-switch on the audience. Over the course of each episode, contestants are assigned different partners and dance styles—ranging from the formal (jazz) to the informal (krump)—to test their versatility. During its first few seasons (it’s now in its eighth) viewers tuned in primarily to watch the street-styles such as popping-and-locking and breakdancing. The waltzes and jazz and Broadway routines were something to be endured until the next hip-hop exhibition came on.
But the cadre of talented choreographers—especially Emmy-award winning Mia Michaels—showed that more formal styles were often more memorable and moving. As the audience taste matured, so did the show. Fewer street-skilled “B-boys/girls” and break dancers made it past the auditions, leaving the more formally trained (and generally more talented) semi-professional dancers to fill out the competition.
The result is a television show that consistently blurs the distinction between pop culture and high art. To get a feel for the show, here are five videos of five performances from SYTYCD that use the art form of dance to tell a short story:
Addiction – Kayla Radomski & Kupono Aweau (Song: ‘Gravity,’ Sarah Bareilles)
The Hummingbird and the Flower – Jaimie Goodwin & Hotuko ‘Hok’ Konishi (‘The Chairman’s Waltz,’ from Memoirs of a Geisha)
The Bench – Heidi Groskreutz & Travis Wall (‘Calling You,’ Celine Dion)
Wade Robison group routine (‘Ramalama Bang Bangby’ Roisin Murphy)
The Necklace – Jeanine Mason & Jason Glover (Song: ‘If It Kills Me,’ Jason Mraz)
Cancer – Melissa Sandvig & Ade Obayomi (‘This Woman’s Work,’ Maxwell)