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The "So You Think You Can Dance" Effect: How a TV Show Changed The Dance World

Ricky Ubeda and Jessica Richens perform a Sonya Tayeh number on "SYTYCD." Photo by Adam Rose, Courtesy FOX

Last year, it looked like "So You Think You Can Dance" might be on its final season. Viewership and ratings were down, and the show seemed to be trying to hang on by switching up its format, focusing on young talent ages 8 to 13 instead of the adult dancers audiences were used to.

But this summer it's back to its traditional formula, and embarking on a 14th season starting next Monday. That means we get another summer where dance gets an audience numbering in the millions.

That much exposure for that many seasons begs the question: What kind of mark has the show made on the dance world?

Since it began in 2005, "SYTYCD" has won 14 Emmy Awards, and made choreographers like Mia Michaels and Nappytabs into household names. It's helped launch initiatives to give back: the Dizzy Feet Foundation, which brings dance education to underserved communities and provides scholarships; and National Dance Day, which encourages dancers and non-dancers alike to embrace the power of movement.

And for the generation who grew up watching the show, it proved that dance has a place on television. "It really has changed the perception of dance in the public eye," says commercial dancer Alex Wong, who competed on Season 7.

" 'SYTYCD' has brought mainstream appreciation to the extremely hard work that goes into being a dancer," adds Karla Garcia, who competed on Season 5 and is currently in Hamilton on Broadway. She points out that in pop culture, it's rare for dancers to be the main event rather than backup. "We are always seen behind an artist or in an ensemble." But "SYTYCD" puts dancers and their stories front and center.

It's undeniable that dance today is part of pop culture in a way that it wasn't a decade and a half ago. You see it on TV shows like "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and in films like La La Land. It's become a more original and creative part of music videos. And a surge of marketing campaigns and ads are featuring professional dancers, or trying to use dance to brand their products. The genesis of this trend can arguably be pointed back to "SYTYCD."

This increased exposure hasn't necessarily translated into more ticket sales for live performances, but it has presented an alternative way of experiencing the art form. The show launched in the same year as YouTube, and to Sydney Skybetter, a dance-media and online-presence expert, its biggest impact was setting the standard for dance on the internet with its "snackable, and eminently shareable" dance clips.

" 'SYTYCD' has been incredibly successful in creating a place for dance online when that was by no means inevitable," says Skybetter. "We didn't have a common vocabulary to understand how dance could impart meaning online, and 'SYTYCD' answered that abundantly."

The show's routines are short and to the point, providing a taste of whatever style is being performed. Their themes and storylines are easy to follow and often pack an emotional punch. All of this makes them ideal internet fodder. Last season alone featured 159 dances that were viewed online over 170 million times.

Although the subject matter isn't always complicated or boundary-pushing, it's certainly accessible. It's free, widely available and easily understandable to an audience with no prior dance knowledge.

"This is accessibility in every sense of the word," Skybetter says. "It's something that the dance world really struggles with. Getting people into a theater is hard enough, let alone getting them to understand why La Bayadère is a thing."

Nigel Lythgoe, the co-creator, executive producer and judge of the show, notes that "SYTYCD" came out the same year as the also-popular "Dancing with the Stars," and that both helped audiences learn not only about the technique and athleticism involved in dance, but also the artistry.

"It was noted how choreographers could tell stories that sometimes you wouldn't even discuss at home—about addiction, breast cancer, homosexuality—through movement," Lythgoe says.

Skybetter adds, "I don't run into the argument as often that dance is not art. Thanks to shows like 'SYTYCD,' there is a kind of mass-market understanding of how a dance performance creates meaning."

These effects have also changed the way dancers themselves are able to access the art form, how trends emerge and spread, and how artists in all styles can gain recognition. "The world of dance has opened up enormously," Lythgoe says. He cites the many dancers who have thrived on "SYTYCD" with little to no formal training, who were initially inspired to move by clips of dancers from YouTube.

Ricky Ubeda, the Season 11 winner, says that watching "SYTYCD" as a kid is part of what made him want to become a dancer in the first place, and begin taking classes at his hometown studio.

For Wong, that opening up of the dance world is invaluable—because it's allowed so many aspiring artists to see themselves onstage. "I never had that growing up. I didn't see anything on YouTube or on TV. It just wasn't available," he says.

Now, he's able to be that inspiration for others. "I can't tell you how many young dancers have come up to me, especially boys, saying, 'I started dancing because I saw the show,' " he says. "That's really special."

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