Since I started writing about dance for this newspaper, I've been asked a recurring question. Someone might pull me aside at a dinner party or gathering and, with a furtive glance over her shoulder, say, "You know, I'd love to hear what you think about So You Think You Can Dance." I explain that I don't really have an opinion: I've never seen the show. "Oh," she'll continue, visibly disappointed. "I was hoping you could tell me if it's actually any good."
What interests me about this conversation is the way it epitomizes a general insecurity about watching and liking dance. Whereas popular audiences are confident sharing all sorts of opinions on movies, television shows and new music, they tend to push dance into a separate category. Taste and instinct suddenly feel inadequate; there's an assumption that dance requires insider knowledge, a certain level of expertise to effectively decode and understand. So while these viewers may relish the spectacle of a young man performing perfectly a Russian split jump to something by Lady Gaga, they're skeptical of their own enjoyment. Has the step been executed correctly? Is that even the point?
Not everyone is hampered by this critical uncertainty, and So You Think You Can Dance's rather insane popularity is testament to that. Now in its 12th season, and with a huge international franchise, SYTYCD draws several million viewers an episode. (Its audience has decreased since it debuted to 10 million viewers in 2005 but, still, this kind of enduring popularity is extraordinary.) There are all sorts of blogs and fan sites dedicated to the Fox show; clearly, lots of people think SYTYCD is worth turning on.
And then there are other people, certainly many in the dance world, who see the show as a commercialized diminishing of their art form. I recently gave a piece of abstract, text-based dance a poor review, and one of the choreographers replied facetiously that I should turn on the TV and watch a competition. Despite not owning a TV, I decided to take her advice to heart. I attempted to watch Season 12 of So You Think You Can Dance. (Luckily, it's all online.)
Did I like what I saw? In a word (or two): not really. Does that mean the dancing isn't of high calibre? Not at all – it's often very good. At this point of the season, voters have narrowed the competition down to the illustrious "Top 6" (viewers across the country vote by texting their favourite dancer's name to a number on the screen). Like everyone else, I've figured out who I'm rooting for.
One of my favourites is Megz Alfonso, a hip-hop dancer from Long Island, N.Y., who has the equivalent of a hedge maze shaved into the sides of her head. She's utterly compelling as a performer, melding sharp musicality with the physical ferocity needed to master krumping and waacking – forms of jointed, syncopated street-dancing that the show has taught me all about.
There's Jim Nowakowski, a ballet dancer from Rochester, N.Y., who has strong classical lines and gorgeous jumps, i.e. the technical excellence that could land him a contract at a top ballet company.
And then my top pick is undoubtedly Gaby Diaz from Miami, who's billed as a tap dancer, but is clearly classically trained and distinguishes herself with expressive maturity in a variety of forms. She's one of those mercurial performers who seem capable of anything. After a routine in which she is riveting as a "hip-hop geisha," judge Jason Derulo shook his head in disbelief. "I didn't know you had that little twerking in you."
But while I may be impressed by the calibre of these performances, being "impressed" has little to do with what I expect or want from dance. Imagine if critical engagement with literature centred on its ability to impress, rather than its ability to provoke thought and feeling, to trouble and inspire, to mitigate the disjuncture between our conscious and unconscious minds. The demotion in richness, in complexity of experience, would be self-evident.
My first big problem with the show is the choreography. The dance sequences – which usually last less than two minutes – are intended to grab our attention with minimal work or investment on our part. The dancers typically "act out" the music, capitalizing on the easy sentimentality already present in the accompanying pop song. We're left with what looks like a music video or, worse, that terrible cliché about "interpretive" dance, in which the dancers emote and literalize the lyrics. The routines deploy cheap tricks that keep us watching: gymnastic tumbling, figure-skating lifts. It's hard to figure out what the analogy for this would be in another art form. Maybe it's the opera singer hitting the high C over and over again.
In a 2012 article in The Drama Review, dance scholar Kate Elswit argued that everything that's emotional, moving and narrative about SYTYCD has nothing to do with the actual dancing. By framing the routines with footage from the dancers' real lives, and layering that with interviews in which the choreographers explain the emotional inspiration behind their work, we're instructed on how to watch and understand the dancing, on exactly how the choreography should make us feel.
Elswit's example is a routine from Season 5 that's been dubbed the "Cancer Dance." During the episode, choreographer Tyce Diorio explains the routine's sad back story, the dancers relay their personal struggles with the material and, finally, the judges watch the routine and sob. The piece was wildly popular on fan sites before it was restaged for the season finale, remounted on the British version of the show, and almost nominated for a 2010 Emmy for choreography. Elswit watched the routine over and over again, often on mute, and couldn't get what the fuss was about. Without the emotional conditioning provided by the non-dance elements of the show, the choreography was unremarkable and, ironically, emotionally flat.
When the dancing is understood not for its actual choreographic content but for the narrative accoutrements that surround this content, the show isn't about dancing any more. It's about reality TV.
I recently had coffee with a dancer who asked me whether I thought articles about dancers' diets and what they keep in their handbags might get the general public more interested in ballet. I told him that I wasn't sure. The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that these kinds of lifestyle pieces might, in fact, be useful. For every hundred readers who consequently buy a certain brand of granola, maybe one or two will think, "Hey, I should check out a dance show."
But in a culture where the public feels alienated from dance – and insecure about how to watch it, think about it, enjoy it – this approach seems pretty risky. Instead of encouraging people to patiently engage with what's singular and remarkable about the art form, these marketers are busy adding all kinds of justifying distractions. The message is that dance is inadequate, that it needs intervening stories to make much sense to us at all.
I'm not sure how to work out the math between what SYTYCD offers in terms of accessibility and basic critical education in dance, and how it might detract from what's most elemental about the art form. There's been much made about how the show has inspired a whole generation of young male dancers and exploded associated stereotypes about gender. I spoke with a former National Ballet of Canada dancer who told me how fantastic it is to turn on the TV and see forms of hip hop she'd never heard of. These are all great things.
And yet my attempt to binge-watch Season 12 saw me get through all of half its episodes. My failure had nothing to do with my concerns about art, progress, or whether dance was being framed in a productive, meaningful way. I just got a little bored.