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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 fifth) 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.

A prime example is last night’s routine with contemporary dancer Ade Obayomi and ballerina Mellissa Sandvig. Neither dancer is the most talented of the remaining ten finalists nor was their dance the best of the season, much less of the entire show’s history. But they danced a contemporary routine about a woman dying of breast cancer that brought all three judges and many audience members (including my wife) to tears.

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(The video is 8 minutes but only the first 2.5 are of the routine. Also, seeing it on the computer screen doesn’t do it justice.)

The surprise hit has inspired the launch of a slew of second-rate imitators (e.g., MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew, ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” *). But there is no substitute for the original. If you’ve never seen the show before or if you’ve never acquired a taste for modern dance, tonight’s 100th episode special is a perfect entry point. Many of the Emmy-winning, not-to-be-missed dances ( The Bench , Hummingbird , Ramalama ) will be performed again by the original contestants. Catch it on FOX at 9PM EST / 8 PM CST.

*In the comments, Julie points out that “Dancing with the Stars” was adapted from the British show “Strictly Come Dancing,” and debuted the same summer as SYTYCD.

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