Less than 10 minutes into the first episode of the 11th season of Fox's So You Think You Can Dance, a contestant's dad was onstage dancing to "Blurred Lines." To begin, he set a water bottle on the floor before him, and then, as though initiating an ancient mating ritual, he approached and hovered above that artifact with gesturing arms, gyrating crotch, wriggling ass. "It's a party-starter," explained his daughter, the talented and astoundingly unmortified 18-year-old Shelby Rase from Covington, La., who'd just performed a contemporary routine to a languid piano version of Avicii's "Wake Me Up."
If every last word in that paragraph seems deliberately chosen to prevent you from reading any further, I understand. I was a reluctant convert to SYTYCD myself. My initial exposure, seven years ago, was involuntary—my girlfriend was a regular viewer, and I watched along dutifully. But I soon found myself, like Shelby witnessing her dad's "bottle dance," strangely un-repulsed by what I saw: sexy young people enthusiastically performing emotionally charged and physically demanding feats of skill. Kind of like sports, but with a little more leg and a lot more Sara Bareilles.
My life as a fan of this show hasn't always been easy. Like a mom who always says the exact most embarrassing thing in front of her daughters' friends, it seems compelled to showcase whatever current bit of pop flotsam will annoy me most. But I've accepted this eagerness to please as inextricable from its effectiveness. As anybody in the snack-food or reality-show biz knows, the key ingredients of American culture are corn and cheese—both processed. So You Think You Can Dance is the Doritos of prime-time talent competitions.
The bottle dance wasn't the last we saw of Shelby's dad. (As on playgrounds, parents don't have names of their own here .) Soon he was back to compete in a brief dance-off with another contestant's father, and in these two short segments, the show accomplished everything that Jimmy Fallon's bit with New Jersey governor Chris Christie a few weeks later about "The Evolution of Dad Dancing" would set out to, but with more gently teasing affection and less viral-thirsting savvy.
For all its corn and all its cheese, this Wednesday-night summer staple has, for 200 episodes now, consistently expressed an excited and infectious curiosity about the many ways people dance to popular music. But that's not all this show is up to. Because while it may encourage its young viewers to identify with the contestants, it also recognizes how preoccupied that audience is with the adults in their lives. Even as the show choreographs elaborate dreams for the kids who watch, it soothes their often unacknowledged fears about the corniest, cheesiest ideal of all: the American family itself.
On So You Think You Can Dance, 20 adorably young, impossibly telegenic, physically ideal amateurs, each trained in a specific style (such as ballroom, contemporary, or hip-hop), perform choreographed routines with partners, often in styles outside their areas of expertise, typically to current pop songs. Fans vote, and, in a system as skeptical of democracy as the U.S. Constitution itself, the judges choose which of the least popular dancers must go home.
This is not Dancing With the Stars, this program's wicked (and more popular) stepsister, which struck me as a reactionary corrective designed to appeal to the sort of Americans who complain about "undeserved" reality-show fame. On DWTS, celebrities must display some actual talent, dammit, or suffer humiliation. (I said dance, famewhore, dance!) It makes me long for the simpler days of Battle of the Network Stars, when wet t-shirts and tugs-of-war were sufficient punishment for TV success.
By contrast, larger-than-life celebrities only disturb SYTYCD's self-contained equilibrium. In this universe, Christina Applegate or Jenna Dewan are plenty famous enough for the guest-judge's chair, and Ellen DeGeneres far too much so. This season's audition episodes, which began in late May, clumsily tacked on a side contest where viewers could vote for which amateur hip-hop crew they'd like to see perform on the show; Justin Bieber introduced the crews, disastrously. The segments were pre-recorded, and the Biebs summoned as much enthusiasm as he might if fulfilling court-ordered community service (and maybe he was), but his presence was still a distraction, like if Elvis had shown up on Gilligan's Island.
This ain't American Idol either, though the genetic makeup overlaps: SYTYCD creator Nigel Lythgoe was the impresario who brought Popstars to Britain, from whence (with Lythgoe's assistance) sprang Simon Fuller's Pop Idol, and later, of course, AI itself. But while that now-fading Fox juggernaut, particularly in its early years, encouraged a rampant vocal emotionalism that could ruin even songs I enjoyed, SYTYCD, though no less sentimental, somehow redeems even songs I can't stand. In fact, at its best, the show does something incredible: It allows me to hear how a song I hate might sound to someone who loves it.
When I first started watching So You Think You Can Dance, I knew nothing about dance, nor did I think much about its particulars. Today I know only what the show has taught me, and I could very well be living a lie. (Is "lyrical hip-hop" really a style that professionals refer to outside this program's bubble, or is it just a branding gimmick to put a "street" spin on styles that more conventionally trained dancers are comfortable performing? I may never know.) If at any point I start to jabber about leg extensions or pointe work, please take my commentary as seriously as the simulated expertise of your buddy who last watched soccer in 2010 but knows exactly what Mexico needed to do to beat the Netherlands.
The judges do mention technique when critiquing the routines, especially when the styles picked are technically demanding: Bollywood and its cartilage-shredding knee-bends, or quickstep and its exacting manic elegance. And one of the show's genuine pleasures is watching dancers prove their versatility by mastering unfamiliar styles—to watch a pair of tappers, say, nail a cha-cha routine set to Ke$ha and Pitbull's "Timber," or ostensibly streetwise hip-hop dancers mastering something ostensibly more formal. But more often, what's evaluated here is "performance," a term which suggests an enthusiastic commitment to a display of technique, ideally accompanied by an emotional "connection" with one's partner, and a pleasing vivacity that's nonetheless "natural"—for all its showbiz glitz, SYTYCD discourages mugging and hamminess.
The show has desperately varied its format over the years as its ratings have slipped. It now partners contestants with "all-stars" from previous seasons instead of just with one another, and more drastically, it has cut back from two weekly programs to one. But the structure of the behind-the-scenes rehearsal clips that introduce each routine is unchanging: The choreographer muses on the story and emotion he or she hopes to get across, and maybe on the difficulty of the steps. The dancers goof around some and maybe endure a non-injurious mishap (a kick in the face, a dropped girl). We're left with a sense that's there's still so much work to do, and maybe the slightest (unwarranted) concern that there's too little time.
As for the routines themselves, some of the most effective are economical in concept and execution, centered around a single prop, rooted in a simple conflict. In season four (broadcast in 2008), choreographer Mia Michels cast freestyle hip-hop dancer Stephen "tWitch" Boss and contemporary dancer Katee Shean as sparring lovers and placed them on opposite sides of a door. Katee had two not-entirely-conflicting objectives: to make out with tWitch and to kick his ass. Whereas tWitch's one goal was simpler: to keep the frenzied Katee on the other side of that door. This was sex and violence at its most excitingly cartoonish, with the dancers even suggesting the unlimited flexibility and physical impossibility of animation. (At one point, tWitch opens the door, and there's Katee clinging to its other side.) For sure, Duffy's chintzy retro-soul tune "Mercy" never sounded so good.
More often, the show sublimates desire and aggression into swoops and swoons—exaggerated embraces evoking the orgasmic without the pornographic, limbs out-flung in vigorous spasms of rage. These climaxes are what you tend to remember later, minus much of the preceding foreplay or postcoital poses. The details of the routine Mandy Moore (not that one) choreographed to Bonnie Tyler's masterpiece of pop melodrama, "Total Eclipse of the Heart," in 2011's season eight are obliterated by a single cross-stage leap by Melanie Moore into the arms of Neil Haskell. You know the song, and you can guess the exact moment the leap will occur without watching the video. Like a roller coaster, this is a machine carefully engineered to elicit from us the simplest elemental thrill, and like a roller coaster, the excitement's only accentuated because you know that thrill is coming, and when.
But it's another performance from season four, with Mark Kanemura as a briefcase-toting workaholic and Chelsie Hightower as his ignored lover, that epitomizes what So You Think You Can Dance can accomplish for me. Choreographers Tabitha and Napoleon D'umo, standard-bearers of the aforementioned "lyrical hip-hop" style, burrow into the seemingly commonplace rhythm of Leona Lewis' hyperventilating mega-pop hit "Bleeding Love." The beat itself builds programmatically and predictably, but the dancers construct a clear dramatic arc, in sync with it or in counterpoint, their movements suggesting nuances the track doesn't in fact possess. When the music drops out, their bodies throb in simulated heartbeats, imagining a rhythm in a space of silence.
Lewis's big, featureless voice attempts to make vague lyrics of desire and fear seem superhuman; the dance instead gives emotions a coherent, physical form, returns them to human scale without diminishing them. The last time TV made me care this much about a song I don't care about was when I watched Tara leave Willow, Giles fly to England, and Buffy make out with Spike while Michelle Branch sang "Goodbye to You" at the Bronze.
So You Think You Can Dance is reality TV, and reality TV requires that each contestant have a story. But these are kids, most barely in their twenties, some younger still, and you don't have much of a "story" at that age. You have photos of yourself in cute outfits and you have video clips from dance recitals. You have ambitions and you have dreams. Maybe you have a sick little brother or an inspiring older sister. But mostly what you have at that age is parents. Unless you don't. Unless they've abandoned you. Unless they're dead.
The dead dads of So You Think You Can Dance are hard to ignore. There have been so many over the years, folded so neatly into the contestants' biographical interviews, providing so much inspiration in their absence. There were two dead-dadded contestants in this season's audition episodes alone: Caleb Brauner, who'd tapped onstage with his father in last season's auditions, went home; Bridget Whitman, who declared, "He's gonna be onstage with me," made it into the Top 20.
It's hard to begrudge those kids playing the sympathy card—how often is a deceased parent an advantage?—and by encouraging them to do so, the show smartly plays up its overall affinity with young-adult fiction, where dead dads have long been a staple. But death is a tricky subject for such a sentimental show. Like pop music itself, SYTYCD is often at its best when, unlike the classier arts, it insists that our less reputable emotional extremes, from giddy infatuation to spurned heartbreak, deserve to be taken seriously. As such, it's a tool for empathy. But nobody needs to be told to take the death of a parent more seriously. To do so risks pop empathy's evil twin: pop sanctimony.
Indeed, there was a dead dad at the center of one of the show's most self-celebrated moments: Mia Michaels' tribute to her father in season three, set to Billy Porter's smoove jazz-pop ballad, "Time." Lacey Schwimmer stands in for Michaels, and Neil Haskell is her late father, both dressed in angelic white, sprinkling each other with multi-colored flowers. I snickered at the routine initially, dismissed it as Mitch Albom's Ghost Prom. The judges' fawning, which seemed to prize seriousness of intent over effectiveness of performance, fortified my resistance. But revisiting it, I noticed more control and understatement than I had remembered, and even its kitsch spirituality—Michels explained that she envisioned a "reunion in heaven"—has a homely charm. After all, I don't want grandmas to stop hanging poems about angels in their kitchens any more than I want dads to stop dancing to Robin Thicke.
Still, I know for dead dads: My own father died four months after I met the woman who taught me to love SYTYCD, and at 44, I'm now old enough to be a contestant's dead dad myself. And I know the loss of a parent is a subtle pain, dormant for months then unexpectedly sharp. I recognize my lusts and longings and heartbreaks in the show's dance routines, but not my feelings for my parents in this melodramatic shorthand. As my friend Evie said during a recent Facebook conversation about SYTYCD, "For people who have lost a parent, it's not the ones who have also lost parents that make you emotional, it's the ones who have them."
So maybe "Time" isn't for those of us whose parents have died. For young fans watching older kids competing to become adults, the dance resonates because it's not about losing your parents to death at all. It's about watching them becoming a smaller part of your life. It's about leaving childhood—and your family—behind.
So You Think You Can Dance is also about gaining a new family: When mom and dad are off-camera, the judges act in loco parentis. After one mess of a self-choreographed group routine during this season's auditions, a disapproving Lythgoe ordered the participants to leave the stage and decide among themselves who deserved to go home. The dancers conferred and returned to announce that they couldn't single out one dancer among them for blame. Lythgoe, claiming to be pleased that they were willing to sacrifice their chances of success in solidarity, allowed all the dancers to remain in the competition.
In other words, he decided they had learned their lesson, just like the sitcom dad he is. (Pause to barf into the receptacle of your choice.) Lythgoe was "Nasty Nigel" back in his Popstars days, where he established the judge-as-heel template that Simon Cowell later fleshed out on Idol. But here, as one of the three judges, his persona is paternally mercurial, doting one moment, lecturing the next. (Of course his Britishness is an asset, because England really still is America's dad, and nearly two and half centuries after we ran away from home, we still only truly acknowledge approval expressed in a proper accent.)
Lythgoe's favor is fickle and hard-won, but ballroom specialist Mary Murphy, who has settled in beside him as the surrogate mom, overcompensates with enthusiasm. (A third judge—either one of the show's choreographers or a small-time celebrity or, if all else fails, Jason Derulo—rotates in from show to show.) If the judges can be irritating—Lythgoe is inappropriately lecherous and overly concerned with the dancers' adherence to trad gender roles, whereas Murphy cackles insufferably and praises dancers in the singsong voice usually reserved for cute dogs—well, that just makes them more, you know, parental. And these flaws just throw into relief the role of the show's host, the supernaturally likeable Cat Deeley, who plays the fabulous aunt who swoops in to take you on a glam shopping spree or sparks an inappropriate tween crush.
If a nightmare version of stage-parents still rules the public imagination, lingering in its most grotesque mode on shows like Toddlers & Tiaras, here we're offered an idealized if conservative alternative: a world where adults just want children to do well, providing care and discipline and instruction. Yes, you may be eliminated, but the world will give you a fair shot first.
Still, this is America, where families ultimately exist to produce cheerful and effective workers, and the SYTYCD family is no exception. Contestants work hard, sometimes to the point of injury, learning two partner routines and a big group number each week, but must always maintain the correct attitude, expending emotional labor. And for what? The contestants don't compete for fame, as on Idol, or for love, as on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. (And it's just as well, since those shows rarely deliver on their promise.) Supposedly, the winner becomes "America's Favorite Dancer," but that's obviously a lie, because in 11 seasons, Beyoncé hasn't won even once. He or she also makes the cover of Dance Spirit magazine and takes home $250,000. But the real prizes are unannounced. You get to dance behind Lady Gaga or become a third-string Pussycat Doll. You appear in a Step Up sequel or an episode of Bones. Of course, Dancing With the Stars is always hiring. The reward for all that toil is more of it.
It's the 21st century's rarest reward: meaningful work. "Doing what you love." Some old-timers even return to take their place in the family business, becoming choreographers like Travis Wall, helping with the auditions, or partnering with the contestants over the course of the season. Corny and cheesy it may be, but it's nice that SYTYCD provides a shelter for its own—until someday, when the show itself dies. As all parents must.
Keith Harris is an immigration attorney who writes about music (mostly) and lives in Minneapolis. Sometimes he tweets @useful_noise.
Image by Tara Jacoby.
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