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By Emily Macel
These days you can’t swing a sequined dress without hitting a dance reality TV show. Every major network has its angle on them: from contestants competing weekly in front of a live audience, to behind-the-scenes looks at the lives of commercial dancers trying to make the cut, to “celebrities” paired with professionals fox-trotting their way across the stage.
The trend caught on after Fox premiered So You Think You Can Dance in July 2005, and that same summer ABC launched Dancing With the Stars, the U.S. version of the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. Both shows reached huge viewerships, making dance an exciting and accessible art for both dance and nondance audiences.
But dance on TV is not a new thing. In fact, Dance Magazine had a regular column that started in the 1950s called “Looking at Television.” It covered a range of cultural programs like Omnibus and The Bell Telephone Hour. These shows brought performers like Natalia Makarova, Rudolf Nureyev, Bambi Linn, Frederic Franklin, and others to the small screen. Then came hugely popular shows like American Bandstand, Soul Train, and Solid Gold, that gave nonprofessional dancers a chance to show off their social dance moves, putting dance in America in the spotlight like it had never been before.
The current competition aspect was born out of the popularity of American Idol, a show that’s also the brainchild of SYTYCD’s producer and lead judge Nigel Lythgoe (see “A Man, A Plan, A Wildly Successful TV Show,” Aug. 2007). And ever since, networks have been trying to reinvent it with new twists. But where do you draw the line? When is enough, enough? Dance Magazine has rated nine shows on a scale of 1–5 stars, based on their skill level and entertainment value. Here’s a look at the dance reality TV series that you love to hate—and hate to love.
So You Think You Can Dance
Dance Magazine Rating: Five stars
Host: Cat Deeley
Judges & choreographers: Tyce Diorio, Tabitha and Napoleon D’Umo, Jean Marc Genereaux, Lil C, Nigel Lythgoe, Mia Michaels, Mandy Moore, Mary Murphy, Wade Robson, Doriana Sanchez, Dave Scott, Adam Shankman, Jamal Sims, Shane Sparks
This show has enormous appeal. Amazingly diverse dancers with vivid personalities perform technically difficult routines week after week. As one of Fox’s most popular shows, and with 8.8 million viewers per evening and growing, expect many more seasons to come.
For judges—and viewers—sex sells. Some of the salacious routines and costume choices leave you wondering if it really is family-friendly viewing!
The choreographers hired to work with the dancers make the show: Wade Robson with contemporary and jazz routines, Tyce Diorio with Broadway pizzazz, Jean Marc Genereaux with smokin’ hot Latin dance routines, and Mia Michaels with her own mix of contemporary, modern, and lyrical. Every once in a while the dancers perform a number that leaves you with a dropped jaw. While there are plenty of poor attempts to pop and lock from a classically trained dancer, or faux pas when a b-boy tries to tango, wonders never cease. Some dancers are so talented that, without a day of ballroom training they can make a Viennese waltz look weightless, or a ballet boy can rock a hip hop number. Versions of SYTYCD air in Australia, Canada, Greece, Malaysia, and Scandanavia.
Its fourth season, the show continues to impress. And the dancers become household names: Danny, Sabra, Nick, Melody, Blake, Dmitry, Donyelle, Benji, Heidi…
Dancing With the Stars
Dance Magazine Rating: Three stars
Host: Tom Bergeron and Samantha Harris
Judges & choreographers: Len Goodman, Carrie Ann Inaba, Bruno Tonioli
TV audiences love this show. With two seasons a year, it had a spinoff in January (Dance Wars) hosted by two of the judges, and the hype for the show keeps growing. But from a dancer’s perspective it’s lacking. The celebrities aren’t quite A-listers (if the host didn’t provide extended bios you often wouldn’t know who they were). The most dance-able of these “stars” are the professional athletes. In fact the last two winners were both Olympic gold medalists! (Speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi.) The professional dance partners only recently started to get their due. We’re learning the names of regulars Cheryl Burke and Julianne Hough, ballroom goddesses who can morph between salsa and jive, tango and disco. DWTS obviously has international appeal: Versions of this show have been produced in Chile, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, South Africa, and the Ukraine, to name just a handful of the 27 versions currently underway.
America’s Best Dance Crew
Dance Magazine Rating: Four and a half stars
Host: Mario Lopez (who competed on Dancing With the Stars), Layla Kayleigh and D.J. Rashida
Judges: JC Chasez, Lil Mama, Shane Sparks
This was the sleeper of last season’s dance shows. Backed by Randy Jackson of American Idol, America’s Best Dance Crew premiered on MTV in February and was an immediate hit. It’s full of the kind of mind-blowing b-boy battle-style dancing you’d see at the audition level of SYTYCD. Sadly they don’t make it to the competition stage of SYTYCD because the battlers rarely pull through the choreography round. But their tricks, freezes, flips, twerks, and pop ’n locks are held in the highest regard on ABDC. Rather than the partnering skills that are emphasized on SYTYCD and DWTS, here it’s teamwork that takes the spotlight. Working together and staying in sync makes or breaks the routine. If a crew is tight and unique, they’ll move on to battle against the rest of the best. Last season JabbaWockeeZ, the white-masked crew from San Diego who also appeared on America’s Got Talent (some of whose members were in the film How She Move), won the whole shebang. The second season, which started in June, has already stepped up its game in terms of talent.
Step It Up and Dance
Dance Magazine Rating: Three and a half stars
Host: Elizabeth Berkley
Judges & choreographers: Jason Alexander, Mel B, Jordi Caballero, Carolina Cerisola, Luke Cresswell, Jacques Heim, Robert Hoffman, Cati Jean, Jamie King, Tina Landon, Lee Martino, Jerry Mitchell, Nancy O’Meara, Vincent Paterson, Dave Scott
With Jerry Mitchell as the Tim Gunn of Bravo’s entrée to the world of dance reality TV, there were high hopes for this show. Bravo is known for its reality TV, and between Project Runway and Top Chef, not a season goes by without high-drama, reality competition style. But Step It Up and Dance fell short. The contestants didn’t serve up enough drama so the behind-the-scenes footage felt like filler. The weekly challenges showcased a wide variety of styles so that each of the contestants was forced to leave their comfort zone. One week they’d be working with Jacques Heim of Cirque du Soleil performing on a large hanging sphere, the next they’d be doing Lee Martino’s Broadway choreography for Damn Yankees. Then they’d have to learn to battle b-boy style with Dave Scott. Some of the dancers were great at moving between styles, like Michelle “Mochi”, a Lion King ensemble member. Cody Green, trained at Juilliard, impressed judges and choreographers with his technique and won the show.
Your Mama Don’t Dance
Dance Magazine Rating: One star
Host: Ian Ziering (who competed on Dancing with the Stars)
Judges & Choreographers: Ben Vereen, Vitamin C, Cris Judd
Yep. As the title suggests, this one involves parents. Dancers auditioned for a show they thought would be called “Dance Nation” and then after the audition their dance partners were revealed—Mom and Dad. In theory, it could be cute. But when a father dances with his teenage daughter to Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and there’s a lot of gyrating going on, it’s more creepy than cute. Lifetime has not announced plans for a second season.
Dance on Sunset
Dance Magazine Rating: Three stars
Host: Quddus Philippe
Judges & choreographers: Tony Testa
Celebrity Guests: Akon, Fergie, Janet Jackson, Jesse McCartney, Menudo, Panic at the Disco, Ashlee Simpson, Soulja Boy
The dancers of Dance on Sunset, dubbed The Nick 6, range from 15–22 and are led by choreographer Tony Testa. Each week Karen Chuang, Johnny Erasme, Ashley Galvan, Shane Harper, Aubree Storm, and Hefa Tuita teach a variety of moves to the viewers, both audience members and people watching the show at home. It’s interactive reality TV, and it’s perfect for a network geared towards kids. Props go to anything that gets them up off the couch and moving!
Legally Blonde The Musical: The Search for Elle Woods
Dance Magazine Rating: Two and a half stars
Host: Haylie Duff
Judges & choreographers: Paul Canaan (a Broadway performer), Heather Hach (who wrote the book for Legally Blonde), Jerry Mitchell (director and choreographer of Legally Blonde), casting director Bernard Telsey
This one is for musical theater lovers. Following in NBC’s You’re the One That I Want footsteps (competing for the two leads in Grease), Legally Blonde The Musical: The Search for Elle Woods is another pick-a-Broadway star through viewers’ votes. Ten girls compete to find out who the blonde will be—and the winner gets the lead in the hit version of the movie, currently on Broadway starring Laura Bell Bundy. With a lot of cattiness, this show plays out as a dance competition mixed with the drama of The Hills or The Real World. As for the talent, it unfortunately favors singing and acting over dancing.
Master of Dance
Dance Magazine Rating: Two stars
Host: Joey Lawrence (who competed on Dancing With the Stars)
Judges: Lucinda Dickey, Tyce Diorio, Loni Love
The Learning Channel (TLC) caught on to the dance competition trend with Master of Dance, which premiered in June. But this is not a show for serious dancers. The competitors are regular joes who like to cut the rug at family functions and frequent the club scene. The show’s object is to prove that just by hearing a popular song you can start to dance in the style appropriate for the tune. Each episode features five new “dancers” who are eliminated throughout the half hour until a single dancer is crowned the Master of Dance. Although the contestants display an impressive ability to transition from Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” to Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” these performers can’t hold a torch to the level of talent in other dance TV competitions.
Dance Magazine Rating: Three and a half stars
Host: Jason Kennedy
Judges: Studio audience
Similar to Master of Dance, this show is a competition for the amateur who thinks he or she can dance. Each episode, six people compete in one-on-one dance-offs—and the contestants range in age from 20s to 70s! The show gives the studio audience a chance to decide the fate of the dueling dancers. The winner receives $100,000, the title of “Dance Machine” and an odd statue dubbed “The Dance Machine Disco Bubble.” The contestants aren’t professional caliber, but the show is entertaining—especially when the senior citizens groove.
We asked you to vote for your favorite and here's what you told us.
72% So You Think You Can Dance
9% Dancing with the Stars
8% America’s Best Dance Crew
7% Step It Up and Dance
2% Your Mama Don’t Dance