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.