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Prime Time Dance Explosion: Why Are TV Dance Shows All the Rage?

by Tonya Plank
January 30, 2008
www.tonyaplank.com
The new TV show, "Dance War," which premiered at the beginning of January, is more, as the judges fully admit, about the competitors' abilities to sing rather than dance. On the first day of auditions, judge Carrie Ann Inaba explained, "It's easier to teach someone who can't dance to dance than someone who can't sing to sing." And so the ability to sing well became the focal point of the competition, the dancing relegated to the background. And yet the show is entitled "Dance War." Why? Perhaps because the judges come from the popular TV dance show, "Dancing With The Stars," perhaps because they only discovered the truth of Inaba's statement during auditions, or perhaps the show was so named for the simple fact that the TV dance scene has taken off as of late and the producers knew including the word "dance" in the title would lure audiences. Yes, reality TV shows in general have been the rage for some time now. But, while there are only one or two such shows devoted to other arts, such as singing, modeling, fashion designing, or home remodeling, there are currently three dance shows on network television, and two cable channels – Bravo and MTV – are slated to begin broadcasting a total of four more such shows in coming months. That makes a total of seven dance shows currently on television. How did this happen in the course of only a couple years and what does it mean?

The current crop of TV shows, which all significantly differ from one another, began with "Dancing With The Stars" (hereinafter "DWTS"), now in its third year and sixth season. This show, which stems from the BBC series "Strictly Come Dancing" replicates a genuine American student / teacher (or "pro / am") ballroom dancing competition, the only difference being the emphasis on individual showcase dances, where the student has the entire floor to himself and is able to choose his own music, rather than the group dance competitions, where all students dance on the floor at once to music chosen by the competition's organizers. Although the latter — the group dances — is far more common in regular competitions than the former, the DWTS producers rightly recognized that having all contestants on the floor at once dancing to generic, pre-selected music, with the emphasis on technique rather than showmanship, would be far too boring to a television audience. (Hence, the less-watched annual PBS special "America's Ballroom Challenge," which in recent years has nonetheless become more oriented toward the showdances too, actually reorganizing the professional championships at the Ohio Star Ball, where the competition is filmed, to include more individual dances.) It is really only a live audience who can appreciate the thrill of a group competition, with each couple whizzing by one's seat, striving to outdo the pair before. The camera can't capture the essence of the event: with several dancers on the floor at once, trying to focus on every couple means losing the full flavor of each routine.

On DWTS the students are celebrities, many of them current or former television stars. DWTS seems to have a slightly older demographic than those of the other shows, and the producers have wisely homed in on that, casting as celebrity contenders many TV stars of yore, including "Saved By the Bell's" Mario Lopez, Jennie Garth and Ian Ziering both of "Beverly Hills, 90210" fame, and even Marie Osmond. The major draw-back of DWTS is that many of the rules and criteria the judges use are lost on audience members who are not themselves ballroom competitors. Ballroom, thus far being mainly a competitive sport and not a performed art, tends to be obtusely rule-driven and technique-oriented; whereas performance is based on artistry, stylistics, showmanship and charisma. Still, divide though there may be between official ballroom rules and show-quality dancing, it's part of the fun for spectators, both in the studio and at home (and then online on message boards and blogs), to boo the judges as they try in vain to explain why they are giving a contestant low marks.

Then came "So You Think You Can Dance" ("SYTYCD"), a show which, in its recently-ended third season, seriously rivaled the popularity of DWTS. A Fox TV offshoot of the network's "American Idol," SYTYCD is open to anyone with the talent and drive to make it through the auditions. Rather than focusing on one style of dance, like DWTS, SYTYCD uses as its barometer the dancer's ability to be versatile, as contestants compete in several major dance forms including contemporary / modern, ballroom, hip hop, and jazz. The judges are specialists in these different dances. In contrast to DWTS, all of the contestants thus far have been unknowns to the public at large, though some in the last season are well-known in their respective dance communities. Finalist Danny Tidwell, for example, is very familiar to Ballet fans, having been an up-and-coming star at American Ballet Theater, then Complexions Contemporary Ballet. And top-ten finalist Pasha Kovalev and his partner Anya Garnis are popular among ballroom enthusiasts, having placed in the finals at major national and international competitions for the past several years.

The most curious thing to me upon first viewing this show is its very raison d'etre. It is extremely difficult for one person to excel in several diverse dance forms, and, while it is fun to, for example, see a ballet dancer trying her hand at break-dancing, in the end, one must ask why; why not just let the dancers show us their brilliance at what they do excel at and leave the rest to the others? Unlike "American Idol," where it seems to make more sense to see the contestants take on a different musical artist each week, adding their own vocal flavor to, for example, an Elton John song, or an Diana Ross classic, a dancer spends her young life devoted to fine tuning her body, making it amenable to the specifics of her dance form, with its peculiar vocabulary and bodily demands. Asking a ballet dancer, who has spent her pre-pubescent years stretching hip ligaments and tendons to acquire perfect hip turnout, suddenly to settle into that hip socket for the grounded look required for Latin, is near impossible. Requiring a Latin dancer, by contrast, to do a grand jete or other movement requiring great flexibility of muscles that she is not used to stretching, can lead to downright injury.

Additionally, for a show that seeks versatility in its dancers, not all dance styles are included, seemingly asserting a kind of primacy of those that are. Audiences miss out on the poetry of ballet, the sensual beauty of belly dance, the jazzy power of Tap, and the cultural gold mine that learning foreign forms of dance — African, Irish, Indian, Asian – can be. But never fear, as cable TV may well be filling that gap. Bravo TV's upcoming "Step It Up," scheduled to begin filming this month, while similar to SYTYCD, adds additional categories like Ballet and Burlesque.

Interestingly though, SYTYCD audiences don't seem to think so much about versatility, according to message boards. Rather than fixating on a certain ballet-trained dancer's not-so-good, Samba, for example, they focus on his "beautiful lines," "discipline," "intensity," "character" — all words that go beyond a specific dance form to essential qualities of the dancer.

Finally, "Dance War" ("DW"), is the newest of the network shows and, hence, the least formed. This show tests a person's ability to both sing and dance simultaneously, making it far different from a pure dance contest. Requiring one to sing while dancing necessarily means lowering the range of movement, as one can hardly do barrel turns around the stage while belting out Aretha Franklin lyrics. The contestants are divided into two teams, led by DWTS judges Carrie Ann Inaba and Bruno Tonioli, with each competitor taking over the singing part for a short time during each number, while the others provide the background dance. Many bloggers and their commenters argue that the lack of competitors with well-rounded talent is responsible for the somewhat lower popularity this show is thus-far enjoying. Maybe. But it could also be that this show isn't yet completely clear on what it wants to be: a contest of who can best sing and dance simultaneously, of who can both sing and dance but not at the same time, or a competition between groups, and if the last, what type of team competition? Unlike the recent "You're The One That I Want," a show where contestants jousted for the leads in a Broadway production of "Grease," the DW group numbers thus far have been not of the Musical theater variety, but a kind of rock or pop-concert-looking number, but one in which the rock-star / lead singer is constantly alternating, as is her bevy of backup dancers. This "can you find the lead singer in the group"-style performance does not seem to resonate in popular culture.

What these programs have in common is that, being reality shows, they are partly popularity contests, meaning the winner must be likable as well as talented. Alongside live performances of the dancing, we see clips of the dancers struggling to learn each new dance, each exhibiting idiosyncratic weaknesses and strengths, and footage of the dancers interacting with each other behind the scenes, telling us or others their life stories, how they came to dance, who they are in a nutshell. These shows create characters, dancer personas, dancer divas, dancer gods – people who are both real and have somewhat constructed identities. Charisma, life stories, challenges, hardships, accomplishments, how each dancer generally comes across, personalities as exuded both during the dance and behind-the-scenes segments, comes to the fore. Of course the dancer must dance well; if she can't, the audience will vote her off early on, before it even has a chance to get to know her. But while the judges are critiquing technique, audiences are interpreting the dance movement in a way that is largely informed by the dancer's personality, as revealed both onstage and off.

Some think this emphasis on personality over technique is demeaning to dance as a form of high art. Is it? I think it upholds the art of dance. While connecting to a dancer is different from appreciating the intricacies and nuances of variations in a Balanchine ballet or the musicality of a Mark Morris piece, or digging through the layers of meaning in a William Forsythe work, one may still grow to love a dance through its emissaries. Rudolf Nureyev was known as having far greater artistry and commanding stage presence than technical perfection, yet, he is widely regarded as one of the greatest, most potent and captivating of all danseurs in the history of ballet. During ballet's heyday in this country, Mikhail Baryshnikov was the frequent subject of interviews in mainstream magazines; his family background and relationships with famous American actresses written about as often if not more than his dancing. People are social beings who attach to other people for a variety of reasons. Dance is both a social form of entertainment to be participated in, and a high art to be watched and moved by, and audiences are drawn to it on both levels. People want to know the person behind the artist, and, as they watch their TV sets, they identify with the dancer, both through imagining the exhilaration of performing the same steps themselves, and through relating to the dancer's unique interpretation of the choreography. It is this dual ability of dance, to engage the spectator on two separate but interrelated levels, I believe, that makes these shows such a hit.
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