The Fox network is known for its thought-provoking television programming, so it was no surprise, last month, to flip the channel there and find a group of six bare-chested men wearing skirts, writhing and leaping in a frankly eroticized war dance, as they performed choreographer Robert Battle’s The Hunt.
Or, wait. Perhaps you were surprised? These members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater appeared on Fox’s hit reality program So You Think You Can Dance, which wraps up its ninth season tonight. Viewers enjoyed the Ailey performance while waiting to find out which dancers would be, in reality-speak, “eliminated.” As if to make up for the daring of the professional troupe’s performance, the results were blandly predictable: two white girls (who are nearly indistinguishable from two other white girls currently on the show) got to stay; one lithe black ballerina named Amber was voted off. Thanks for nothing, America.
And therein lies the rub of So You Think You Can Dance, a very strange concoction that burbles and fizzes as high art and populism dissolve into one another. Disappointment in “America” as non-threatening boys are crowned again and again as our “Idols” is nothing new. But dance’s typically unremunerative nature makes So You Think You Can Dance stand out from the nickel-plated surface of wannabe pop sensations: dance contestants might make a few dollars riding the arena circuit for a few years after, might even land a prime spot steering the Step Up steamroller, but they really can’t be in it for the money. As my sensible older brothers used to tease me about my dance career fantasies, “Well, you can always eat cat food.”
So why, other than millennial notions of fame, do they do it? Strangely enough: the art. It’s just that this “art” looks a lot like mass culture in its emphasis on consensus and marketability. After all, So You Think You Can Dance does not crown America’s “best” dancer, or “most technically skilled” dancer, but “America’s Favorite Dancer.” The show asks contestants to master multiple dance genres. Jazz, hip-hop, foxtrot, krump, b-boy, Bollywood, contemporary, Broadway, swing, paso doble: it all gets thrown together in a democratic potpourri, and the dancers’ success at navigating the challenge is judged according to the reality fulcrum of “star power,” that evanescent mix of charisma, physical beauty, and adhesiveness that draws an audience in.
So far, after nine seasons, America’s “favorite” dancers have mostly been young, white women drawn from the well-lit competitive dance studios of the suburbs such as Melanie Moore, Lauren Froderman, and Jeanine Mason, all self-described “contemporary” dancers. These dancers in particular do not find the liminal space between high art and entertainment troubling. For them, art is expression, selfhood is the content, and they are there to express themselves all over that damn stage. So You Think You Can Dance could perhaps be renamed So You Think You Have Feelings. It is Instagram in motion, a technically virtuosic rendering of pose as inner life. Contestants on the show repeatedly emphasize that they are there to “show America” who they are, that they are on a “journey,” with hopes to experience personal “growth.” Theodor Adorno would have heard these banal platitudes of late-capitalist reality television and called them “pseudo-individualization.” But the way that capitalism produces in individuals an anodyne belief in their own precious individuality is not news.
Though the show is structured according to such reality television triteness, my devotion to it is energized by how unexpectedly it can turn narratives about personal growth and artistic expression on their heads. The coincidence of these two aesthetic genres — dance and reality television — forces viewers really to see the capaciousness of reality television, its character as a genre governed by a set of rules, steps, artistic cues, and, increasingly, an elaborate, self-referential history, just like dance itself. So You Think You Can Dance often orients itself against the classical tradition in dance, claiming democratic, expressive freedom (no training necessary!) against high art’s aristocratic constraint. But what the show actually does is propose, fascinatingly, that self-expression, personality, and “star power” are just another set of bodily vocabularies to master.
Like the high art dance tradition (ballet in particular), reality television is a disciplinary genre: it bends its subjects to its will. The question then emerges: what happens when this will claims to generate, unexpectedly, “unique personal and artistic expression”? The dancers of So You Think You Can Dance, on their way to being crowned Favorite and presumably most individual or unique, submit to the rules of reality television, “growing” and shedding tears at all the right moments. But what we also see is how the body precedes and actually shapes the expression that the show itself assumes is primary. Chip through the layers of sedimentary narrative that structure the twenty-first century culture industry — personal growth, a soft-focus on “social” issues, a consumerized vision of success — and you find the bedrock underlying them all: the body, inarticulate, at work, and joyful in its inarticulate work.
In the late nineteenth century, William James developed a theory that proposed emotion as secondary to, or resulting from, the physiological. That is, we don’t fear a bear and then run away from it; we run away from the bear and then, because we are running, experience fear. In “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” an essay about corporeal genius, David Foster Wallace wondered whether “those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it […] not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.” Both theories critique the impoverished nature of the sort of knowledge work that values insight and explanation over manifestation. So You Think You Can Dance helps frame the problem another way: what if we revamp our assumptions about where genius resides? And how should we understand the bodily genius that the show advocates in the context of the show’s relentlessly popularizing approach?
The “personal growth” narratives that shape SYTYCD have an unabashedly populist orientation aimed at making the dancers palatable to a national audience. Can the “untrained” street dancer hold his own among these polished suburban perfectionists? Can the ballet dancer learn how to loosen up, lose the turnout, and explore the truly democratic potential of dance? Can the white girl-next-door type learn how to krump? Can the gay boy straighten out enough for the tween girls to keep voting for him?
Regarding this last narrative: So You Think You Can Dance creator and judge Nigel Lythgoe is the most egregious perpetrator of gender normativity on this otherwise queer-friendly show. In 2009, Lythgoe critiqued two male dancers’ audition, saying, “I think you probably alienate a lot of our audience”:
I mean, we’ve always had the guys dance together on this show, but they’ve never really done it in each other’s arms before. I’m certainly one of those people that really like to see guys be guys and girls be girls on the stage.
Even here, the show’s populism rings clear: Lythgoe genuinely wants to spread the gospel of dance to the masses. He just believes that the best way to do this is to pretend — via a never-ending stream of adages about desire, power, partnering, and hairstyles, and defanged-yet-creepy insinuations about girlfriends back home — that everyone on the show is straight.
The growth narratives that the show favors often play on the audience’s presumed cultural values. While So You Think You Can Dance allows young black men and women a centrality that is almost wholly missing in other contemporary television programs, it only does so within the relatively constrained “came up hard street dancer” identity. Season 6 winner Russell Ferguson was presented as an untrained street dancer (America’s Favorite Krumper!), though he attended an arts academy high school and majored in dance in college. Likewise, Sasha Mallory, who took second place in Season 8, was repeatedly asked in post-routine interviews how she has drawn upon the hardships in her life in order to express the pain she was being required to express. I always thought Mallory looked somewhat nonplussed at the question, but game to go along with it. Whether or not Sasha was really one of the walking wounded, she rightly sensed that playing one on TV was good business.
The constant demand for Expression! Narrative! Emotional Journeys! can do a number on these physical savants. Contestants on the show are asked to perform a choreographed set of expressive moves that are not necessarily dance steps: this is part of the fundamental discipline of reality television, which shapes the personality no less rigorously than dance does the body. Audition episodes for Season 9 followed Alexa Anderson around like a remora as she was harangued by the judges for not expressing enough emotion when she dances. It was harrowing to watch the girl try to arrange her face in different ways that might read as “emotion” to the judges. It never took, and I never quite got why “trying desperately to please you” didn’t count for them as a state of intense inner turmoil. She was eliminated in Episode 2 of this season and I felt relief that I no longer had to watch her search for an inner self.
This emphasis on a dancer’s personal growth feeds seamlessly into the show’s soft-focus social issue choreography. This is the analgesic influence of television as democratic genre: the multi-cultural, hold-hands-and-sing, everyone-agrees, yoga-prayer-hands effect. So You Think You Can Dance conveniently offers the audience the sentimental opportunity to engage with social issues through feelings, right from the comfort of their couch. Whether addressing homelessness or domestic abuse or the plight of child warriors in Northern Uganda, many of the pieces the dancers perform offer a sentimental experience for viewers. Would you like to cry for two minutes and 18 seconds while thinking about breast cancer and the medical industrial complex? Great, here’s your chance. The politics here are deliberately vacuous: something like “breast cancer” becomes a way for audiences to project themselves into the emotional experience that the dancers are expressing for them on the stage. The textbook sentimentalism of these pieces — tear-producing and personally experiential — smooths the absurdity of the aesthetic and political pairings.
Other than this social issue choreography, the bulk of the routines performed on the show are structured not by through-line narrative but rather by premises. “You are insects, performing a mating dance.” “Baseball players in an old-timey setting.” “A woman with a large behind that a man worships” (a concept that resulted in choreographer Mia Michaels’ famed “Butt Dance”). The choreographers who craft these pieces are less ill-informed or soft-headed than they are a responsive part of an artistic community that rewards what dance critic Joan Acocella (describing the Alvin Ailey repertory, no less) called “hazy humanitarianism.” They have jobs, in an industry that has very few. And before you can revel too gleefully in your own tongue-in-cheek ribbing of the child warrior routines, an eliminated dancer gives a heart-wrenching interview in which she completely breaks down sobbing about how she has been auditioning for three years, but just cannot book a job, and does not know what she’s doing wrong. Your heart skips a beat as you are reminded: this is a real person trying to do a real job.
Whether or not such glimpses of pathos are authentic or are just a “reality effect” spun by story editors, my affective response to these dancers’ artistic struggle is the same. How, or more specifically why, I wonder, does one undertake a career in an art that has lasting, potentially negative effects on one’s body, and provides very little opportunity for financial stability while requiring considerable financial commitment to hone? Whether or not you find the banal “for the love of it” answers convincing, So You Think You Can Dance shows us artists at work, as a part of a system that is sometimes exploitative, oftentimes dull, but rarely soulless. The presence of this hard-to-pin-down soulfulness adds to the appeal of a show that fulfills reality television’s formulaic promises while also, at its best, violating those promises.
These are the high-low wilds in which we find So You Think You Can Dance: not an Idol, not yet a Nijinsky.
In Apollo’s Angels, former dancer and historian Jennifer Homans predicts the end of ballet as the art form becomes more insular, speaking to fewer and fewer people. She critiques the unthinkingness of contemporary choreography, charging that it
veers aimlessly from unimaginative imitation to strident innovations usually in the form of gymnastic or melodramatic excess, accentuated by overzealous lighting and special effects. This taste for unthinking athleticism and dense thickets of steps, for spectacle and sentiment, is not the final cry of a dying artistic era; it represents a collapse of confidence and a generation ill at ease with itself and uncertain of its relationship to the past.
It is worth noting, on So You Think You Can Dance, that while dancers are regularly challenged to pick up the physical vocabulary of an unfamiliar dance genre, they are almost never asked to adopt the vocabulary of ballet. This is because ballet is emphatically not a pick-up game; it is a matter of precision and deep history (institutional, as well as personal), an art form that rewards patience and repetition and knowledge in both its dancers and audiences.
So You Think You Can Dance is not particularly concerned about the fate of ballet, and, other than the judges’ admiring remarks about ballet dancers’ refined feet and legs, the show most often invokes ballet as the unyielding, personality-squashing master against which these young artists must rise above. Of course the show’s disavowal of ballet and its rigid adherence to form and tradition is a relatively unsurprising form of projection in which genre and discipline happen elsewhere — when, really, they lie at the very heart of reality television’s mass cultural appeal.
Which is not to say that Homan’s insight into the “unthinking athleticism” and lack of tradition in much contemporary dance is not on point, but only that, in its melodrama and athleticism, the spectacle and sentiment on display in So You Think You Can Dance represents a generation that seems completely at ease with its non-relation to the past. Rather than serving up a history of dance, the show gives us bodies at work writing a history of the present. That these bodies belong to relatively inarticulate young people is all the better. They are asked to express and grow as individuals and artists; to advocate for the continuance of an art form that has an increasingly marginal presence in our culture. They do this work, but only by making all the right moves. This is more difficult than it sounds. When was the last time your body truly shaped you?