Dancers & Companies

Op-Ed: The Problem With So You Think You Can Dance's Fast-Food Activism

Wall's piece for SYTYCD

Last week for "So You Think You Can Dance," Travis Wall choreographed a routine to Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit." It had beautiful dancers, liquid movement and subtle lighting. The concept no doubt had good intentions. But the execution was troublesome.

My complicated relationship with "So You Think You Can Dance" will never cease. I was in the second row when the "SYTYCD" Season 2 tour hit my city; I've taken class from Season 1 winner Nick Lazzarini; I saved Melanie and Marco's duets to my "Favorites" on YouTube.

The show creates opportunities for dancers and choreographers, yet consistently holds the artistic integrity of dance to such a low standard. The nature of this competitive dance show is quick-paced, where choreographers set several dances on performers in one week or less. The repercussions of this learn-dance-eliminate cycle are such that the process, research and discussion of the dance—namely the work in spotlight—are condensed into a week.



I will turn a blind eye to Travis Wall's choice of dressing his dancers in plantation clothes of the 1800s. I will not critique his choice of a song that resonates with the black community on a level beyond white people's understanding—and even that of my community of other people of color. I will ignore his use of movement that is commercialized and un-archived in the bodies affected by/leading conversations on race. I am not even bothered by the fact that not all the dancers are of color—because every body is allowed to use dance as a response, and everybody should be talking about race regardless of heritage or skin tone.

However, I cannot excuse the fact that Travis Wall, as a white man with credible dance accolades, reduced the topic of blackness in America's past, present and future to a loose creative process of seven days or less.

Of course, it's possible that he created this dance months ago after spending time in communities with histories of systemic/social oppression, and that he acknowledged to his dancers his privilege of being white—that his own struggles in society are not written directly on his skin. And I have no doubt that Travis Wall, as an award-winning choreographer and major commercial-dance personality, sat down with his dancers to discuss the residual effects of slavery in America. He has every right and obligation to respond to the current state of the Union; we do not have to be black to make or perform work about black bodies and racism.

But even if Travis Wall were a person of color I would not excuse the foolery.

Where he could have used his white voice to reiterate the black call for equality, he has instead voiced the white plea for peace, ending his dance with a still of the darkest male in the cast shaking hands with a white woman. Had he utilized his dancers' skin tone throughout the whole of the work, rather than just the ending, he might have better succeeded in a call for equality. I guarantee only a white choreographer could get away with such a bold, direct statement on national TV without hypercriticism. (Remember how the nation responded to Beyoncé's "Formation" performance using only black dancers?)

Unsurprisingly, Travis Wall has become a victim of fast-food activism, just like many of us (myself included) in a world run by social media. Not only has he consumed it, he is also now serving it. It is so clear that the impact is lost when the creative process, particularly research and incubation, is cut short. We cannot watch a two-minute piece about racism and suddenly be "woke," even if accompanied by the 30-second behind-the-scenes clips. We cannot be considered allies or accomplices without researching, listening and rallying. We must educate ourselves before utilizing our platforms.

There are countless choreographers who have dedicated their entire body of work to the story-telling of blackness in America (Kyle Abraham, Camille Brown, Okwui Okpokwasili and the collaborators/choreographers of Urban Bush Women, to name a few). There are the nameless choreographers working four part-time jobs in order to share their stories and experiences in a downtown factory-turned-studio-turned-theatre. A white man creates a vaguely political two-minute work and he goes viral, turning the purpose of his work on its head.

At the end of the day, dance is our way of responding to the human experience, and this must have been Travis Wall's well-intentioned way of sympathizing—not to be confused with empathizing—with people of color. For this I commend him, but not without a firm reality-check of his whiteness and surface-level interpretations of American race-relations.

Yes, "SYTYCD" brings dance to the masses and has potential to be the sole reason a child opens the door to dance. But it is such a shallow view of our art's endless possibilities and its means of communication and story-telling. As artists, we should be holding each other accountable for disclosing the entirety of dance, not just churning out work for media.

Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.

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Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.

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Anne Arundel Community College students, PC Kenneth Harriford

Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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Dancers & Companies
Joan Marcus

Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?

The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."

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Dancers & Companies
From left, Ethel Merman, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Debbie Allen. All Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

January 16 might as well be a Broadway holiday. Three gigantic names were born on this day, in 1908, 1950 and 1980, and they represent three distinct eras of powerhouse musicals. Without them, there'd be no belting Reno Sweeney, no "Fame"-ous Lydia Grant and no rapping Alexander Hamilton. Happy birthday to these indelible superstars.

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News
When it comes to BodyVox, it's best to expect the unexpected. Photo by Lois Greenfield, Courtesy BodyVox

In the midst of its 20th-anniversary season, BodyVox is taking a moment to look back. The Portland, Oregon–based company presents Urban Meadow, an amalgamation of some of its most popular works, at Philadelphia's Prince Theater, Jan. 18–21. Expect whimsy, and the unexpected. bodyvox.com.

Advice for Dancers
A dance career can send you on a roller coaster of emotions, but evaluating reality can help give you perspective. Thinkstock.

I never believe that I deserve to be happy. This reaction kicked in big time since I got a steady job. My emotions are a roller coaster: joy at the chance to perform, terror that the people in charge don't like me and resentment at not getting solo roles. I'm driving myself crazy.

—Terry, Philadelphia, PA

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