Editor’s Pick
MAY 27, 2010 12:23PM

The emotional heart of So You Think You Can Dance

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The seventh season of So You Think You Can Dance premieres tonight, and man, that show makes me wish I could. 

I was a gymnast when I was younger, though you’d never know from the fact that now I can barely touch my toes until after an hour of yoga. I spent only a few months in ballet class when I was four years old, until I discovered that cartwheels were way more fun than trying to crank my feet into fifth position.

Since then I’ve watched nearly every championship meet, every Olympic competition. I loved Shannon Miller and the Dominiques (Dawes and Moceanu) up through Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin. My first job was as a gymnastics teacher. In college, I wrote a script about an elite gymnast. But dance? In my limited exposure, I found much of it prissy or self-seriously “about” something that I didn’t get. Thanks, but no thanks.

Then one day my new roommate turned on So You Think You Can Dance.

My rule is that I only watch reality shows where the stars actually have talent—cooking or fashion designing, yes; famewhores yelling at each other or making out in a hot tub, no. (I fell off the wagon recently with a binge of The Millionaire Matchmaker… but matchmaking is a talent, right? And I’m not the only one who has succumbed to Patti’s charms.) The dancers on SYTYCD blew me away with their skill, strength, beauty, unabashed love of and dedication to the art form, and willingness to attempt the foxtrot, paso doble or lyrical jazz despite being a krumper (see: last season’s winner, Russell). Dancing in pairs, the contestants must find chemistry with their partners, but they also must connect to the audience--after all, the fans call in to vote for “America’s favorite dancer."

The biggest difference between the show and my previous experience was being welcomed into the world of dance. For the uninformed, dance can be alienating. Ballet is ruled by complicated, often rigid conventions and specific, French-named moves, and draws from a canon of works about which I know nothing. (Uh, Balanchine?) Modern dance can be plain weird, and use a vocabulary of movement so unfamiliar that viewers don’t know how to respond. One great advantage of SYTYCD is the behind-the-scenes footage. Seeing the choreographers talk about the inspiration for a dance—anything from addiction to a hummingbird pollinating a flower—and following the rehearsal process demystifies the art, helping a general audience feel engaged. Even Christopher Wheeldon, considered the most important contemporary ballet choreographer, presented short rehearsal films during the inaugural season of his company Morphoses (from which he resigned in February). As Joan Acocella wrote in The New Yorker in 2007:

“The films… were very good: sexy, sweaty. But their purpose, I believe, was to give the audience a toehold on the ballet before the curtain went up, and also to give them the pleasure, as they watched the piece, of recognizing steps. (“Oh, that’s the passage they were working on in the film.”) No art, not even opera, is more clad in snobbery than ballet. These little movies were an attack on that, and God bless them.”

So then SYTYCD, a reality show—that crass, dumb genre—is a full-on assault on the rarified realm of dance. But the vibe isn’t violence—it’s openness. Nigel Lythgoe, the show’s executive producer, likes to pat himself on the back for bringing dance to the masses. Annoying self-congratulatory-ness aside, it’s true. Most people at home on the couch had probably never seen Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, let alone a strange contemporary piece about two crash test dummies falling in love, and now they’re being shown that dance can be for them, too. Last year I went to several dance performances, a direct result of enjoying the series.

Then a funny thing happened. In the fall, I watched the United States’ Bridget Sloan and Rebecca Bross take first and second place in the Gymnastics World Championships, and I felt nothing. Admittedly, we’re still in the post-Olympic slump, and there’s not a truly exciting talent on the scene, but where was the charisma? The emotion? Those young girls, inwardly focused, dutifully jumped and flipped, toes pointed, ticking off each routine’s required elements for the judges. But you’ll never see a gymnastics judge moved to tears by a performance, as happens surprisingly often on SYTYCD. The dancers are as passionate as they are technically accomplished, as Salon’s Heather Havrilesky summed up in this thoughtful examination of SYTYCD’s appeal:

"When you watch these kids learn a different style of dance each week, you'll recognize how some of them struggle and fail to sell it, or they're good little robots who lack a certain flair, while others creep and shimmy and leap and flail and sneer with the raw electricity of the possessed. These are the ones who'll grab your eye, who'll demand your attention and respect, these rabid little weirdoes, these odd little physical magicians, who can take a hip-hop or jazz routine and turn it into a transformative, emotional roller coaster."

Watch season 5 winner Jeanine and Jason explore the tenderness and pain of longtime friends venturing into love, or the sinuous intensity of Jakob and Ellenore dancing a creepy, sensual Sonya Tayeh routine to Oona’s "Tore My Heart." The karaoke schlock of American Idol doesn't stand a chance.

My relationship with gymnastics had been physical: Look at the insane things that the body can do. Marvel at how someone can bend, flip, twist, contort, spin and somehow stick an upright landing, back arched, arms thrown skyward in triumph. But through, yes, reality television, I discovered the deeper pleasures of movement that is both physical and emotional. In the language of leaps and lifts, touches and glances, the dancers tell heartfelt stories, and I’m happy that I can watch and listen.

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reality tv, gymnastics, sytycd

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Hey Anne, that's actually what I think too. Although I have a somewhat love/hate relationship with the show. As you'll see from my preview.
Ah, Dance!!

I raised both a gymnast and a dancer. Watching them both compete in their given sport was always hectic, stressful, and thrilling, and I admire my kids very much for being able to get up on that stage and perform. But, you're right, it is a very different experience watching a gymnastics meet v. a dance competition.

While I am in awe of what competitive gymnasts can do with their bodies - WOW! - it always Moves me to watch dancing. I Love, Love, Love how dancers can express so much emotion with their bodies!! I actually get goose-bumps just by hearing the opening of the show because I know that I am going to see something inspirational.

It is awesome what SYTYCD has brought to the world...And, I think it is genius to show us the dancers rehearsing; the hard work and dedication that it takes to move us to tears (yes, I've cried).

Great Article
Every season I've been able to watch, I get very wrapped up in that show. I always feel like the stakes are higher for these kids, who may be great talents but may not live anywhere that they will ever be "discovered". I want them all to win, and get a crazy little thrill after the show when I see them on Payless commercials, or performing for the crowd in the Broadway showcase on the Thanksgiving Day Parade. One of the best of the reality shows, I think.
Anne, my experience is very similar to yours. I didn't used to get dance at all, now I do. And SYTYD is the reason. I'm addicted.

But I do have one major beef with the show: the camera work is horrible. The legs, hands, feet, and heads of the dancers are frequently cut off, preventing the viewer from seeing the full movement. The director jumps too often, making it hard to follow the routines. Ad nausesam: you can fill in your own complaints. Its as if the director and the choreographers are at war. That the beauty of the dance makes itself known despite this abuse is a tribute to the art form.
kdan, check out Juliet Waters' post from last summer about how much she, too, hates the camera work: http://open.salon.com/blog/juliet_waters/2009/05/25/why_i_hate_so_you_think_you_can_dance
Anne, I just got finished reading Juliet's post. I first saw it last year when she posted it. Her post is, in fact, what sharpened my thinking about the camera work. I just was not able to remember where I had read it. Too bad the videos she posted don't work anymore.
Uh oh! Did I set the DVR?
Wonderful wonderful article. Everyone can dance. Period. There was a time when most homes in America had a piano people played instruments they sang and danced.

Dance is not just for professionals... I say the human body moving when spirit hits is perfection. No matter what size or shape you are.

I was an actor who moved well. When I first came to New York City I had an audition for The Lion King. I had never gone to a dance class or a professional audition before.

I was in my 20's and did not give a damn. I went out there and danced! I could follow the choreography up to the second to the last cuts when they threw in Ballet and I was cut.

I remember seeing the looks on the faces of the seasoned professionals as they got cut... even though they were used to it you could still see the sting of rejection.

Dance is a beautiful form... spectacular. I dance every day... Dance has saved my life, set me free, held me when no one else was there. I dance my grief, joy spirit sadness... whether I have two cents to rub together or not... I dance. Dance heals me.

So... when I watch so you think you can dance... I do not watch the judgement or the commentary. I don't look to see who lost or won. Who had perfect lines or jumped the highest

I just watch the dance. I love seeing the excitment of the young dancers when they are waiting on line at the audition... just dancing.

And there is a free style dance movement taking over this country. Regular folks are coming together after work to dance.

Whether it's at a Zumba, West African, or Ballet class or freestyle classes like JourneyDance, Soul Motion or 5 Rhythms... every day people are claiming their right to dance.

This past weekend in NYC we had the Dance Parade. Hundreds of folks in the street dancing. Bliss...

I wish the world could just all dance....

I love this show. I love Nigel. I'm watching the show right this minute. I've already cried. Greatest show!!!
Nigel Lythgoe is the emotional heart of this show. Authentic. Generous when praise is deserved. Kind. Rarely if ever mean spirited. As Executive Producer, he sets the tone. Could Mia's disappearance from the show last year have been his doing? By the end of Season Five she had become a hard-hearted bitch, even though she apologized to the winner --can't remember his name. She's back without the bitterness. And I love how Adam is laughing at himself this year. I won't miss Ms Murphy. My vote is out on Sonya and the other guy.
Anne - I found your article through a mutual friend - Jan Harris. She was looking for my cover article (I forced my friends to read it) and found yours instead. I'm glad Jan is surrounding herself with amazing people. I've never seen SYTYCD but it will be part of my way-too-much-TV-viewing. Great article.