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,”...read more