Who Needs the Drama?

June 30, 2013

A look at reality TV


For a unique take on the recent spate of dance shows on TV, we asked our contributing editor (and former associate editor)
Siobhan Burke to cast her eye on how dancers are portrayed on TV. Trained in modern, postmodern, and Irish step dancing, Siobhan is a Barnard graduate who writes for The Brooklyn Rail and The New York Times, as well as for Dance Magazine.


Contestants in SYTYCD Season 8, left to right: Robert Taylor Jr., Mitchell Kelly (bent over),

Tadd Gadduang, Jess LeProtto, Jordan Casanova, Clarice Ordaz, and Miranda Maleski.

Photo: Michael Becker, Courtesy FOX

 “I am so ready”—gasp—“to make you love me”—gasp—“every one of you! Thank you!”

These words, breathlessly uttered by the doll-faced, bob-haired, part-laughing, part-crying Amelia Lowe on Season 9 of FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance, are typical of contestants on the hit television show, which has been throwing dancers into heated competition since 2005. In this episode, Amelia has just “danced for her life” (the program’s one-last-chance ritual of convincing the judges not to cut you), following a stern talking-to from choreographer and guest adjudicator Sonya Tayeh. “You need to search for that fire in your gut,” Tayeh told the 18-year-old. After a yearning, indeed fiery, lyrical solo, Amelia was still in the running—and determined to stay there.


As SYTYCD contenders battle it out for the title of “America’s Favorite Dancer” and a large cash prize—hair flying, spray-tans gleaming, rhinestone-studded bra tops glinting in the spotlights—they have to prove not just how well they can dance, but how much they want to win. (A cover feature in Dance Spirit, one of Dance Magazine’s sister publications, is also part of the jackpot.) For every exuberant penchée, shimmy, and split leap, it seems, there’s also a tear-streaked breakdown of elation or desperation in front of the panelists. Similar observations can be made of the aspiring models on America’s Next Top Model, the go-getting fashion designers on Project Runway, and the future pop stars on American Idol. Wanting it—wanting it bad—makes for good, addictive entertainment.


Certainly, establishing a career as a dancer—which SYTYCD and its spinoffs have helped some contestants to do—takes a lot of drive. It requires earning the approval of choreographers, artistic directors, casting agents. But is making the judges (and the voting public) love you all there is to dance?


Based on today’s dance TV shows (for many Americans, the main source of exposure to the art-sport), one might think so. Since the premiere of SYTYCD, now in its 10th season, and ABC’s wildly popular Dancing With the Stars, which launched around the same time, televised dance contests have exposed millions of viewers to the image of the striving dancer, fighting for votes, whether it’s a popper-and-locker trying to master a Broadway routine on SYTYCD, or an obscure celebrity being whipped into shape by a ballroom pro on DWTS. On MTV’s recent America’s Best Dance Crew, hip-hop dancers went head to head in explosive group routines, with $100,000 on the line. On BET’s short-lived Born to Dance, 20 women with little formal training faced off for $50,000 and a leg up in the commercial industry. (A particularly emotional ride, Born to Dance must have set the record for most tears shed per episode.)


Some of these shows do expose their audiences to concert dance artists: Desmond Richardson, Daniil Simkin, and Tiler Peck, to name a few, have appeared as guest performers on SYTYCD and DWTS. But the focus remains on the contestants. The portrait of a dancer that emerges—hard-working, hardcore, eager-to-please—isn’t necessarily unfavorable, but it is one-dimensional, and not just in the sense that it favors a work-the-crowd, show-us-your-tricks aesthetic.


For all the blood, sweat, and tears streaming over the airwaves, there’s little attention paid to what these dancers actually do—that is, when they’re not onstage vying to win. On SYTYCD and DWTS, we get brief glimpses into the studio, but more often than not, these barely scratch the surface of what goes on in a rehearsal. We might see a dancer struggling with a particular jump or ironing out some partnering kinks, but these clips quickly segue back into footage of a flashy final routine.


What about the hours upon hours of day-in, day-out training that must have gotten them here? What about the subtler moments of working things out in the studio? And when a dancer gets cut from the show and returns to actual reality, what then? Is there anywhere on TV that’s telling these stories?


To find out, I decided to take a look at recent seasons of less vote-driven shows, several of which have emerged lately (albeit not to stellar ratings), in search of more complex portrayals of dancers on TV. A good place to start, I thought, would be Oxygen’s 2012 All the Right Moves. The program follows Travis Wall, contestant-turned-Emmy-Award–nominated choreographer on SYTYCD, and three of his friends—Nick Lazzarini, Teddy Forance, and Kyle Robinson—as they try to get their own company off the ground. But for a show about creative directors, All the Right Moves offers remarkably little insight into anyone’s creative process. Instead, we learn a lot about internal dramas between the dancers and how business deals go down. When the troupe gets invited to perform on DWTS—a potential big break—we see mere seconds of rehearsal, which conveniently slow-fade into the glitzy on-air performance. (The show, mercifully, has not been renewed.)


Well, that’s just TV, you could say. But it doesn’t have to be, as evidenced by Breaking Pointe (see related article) and Ovation’s A Chance to Dance, created by SYTYCD’s Nigel Lythgoe and his son, Simon. Also based on a company-launching premise, Chance’s sole season (last summer) followed Michael Nunn and Billy Trevitt, the former Royal Ballet dancers behind BalletBoyz, as they auditioned and trained dancers for a new ensemble. While set within a competitive framework—with suspense building toward tough eliminations and dashed hopes—the show captures a more down-to-earth sense of the dancer at work, the dancer as a thinking person immersed in physical problem-solving.


This plays out in an episode featuring David Dorfman, a popular postmodern choreographer and professor at Connecticut College, who offers refreshingly sensitive, technical critiques of the dancers; he points out nuances like their “adaptability to style, groundedness, depth of plié, knowledge in the joints.” On working with Dorfman, contestant Joni Tuttle beams, “We’re just out there moving and dancing and creating without all the stress of competition.” We see what she means when Dorfman asks the dancers to improvise with “silly pelvic walks,” or breaks out his accordion during the warm-up as an analogy for breathing. “An accordion makes no sound without the bellows moving,” he says. If there’s a reality show that digs just a little deeper into the substance of dance as an art form, this was the one.


But the most complex portrait of a dancer in recent TV history is one that doesn’t claim to be real at all: that of Michelle on ABC Family’s sometimes cringe-inducing, sometimes brilliant Bunheads, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, who herself trained in ballet. The ballet-dancer-turned-showgirl-turned-small-town-dance-teacher, played by Tony Award–winning Sutton Foster (see cover story, Dec. 2011) couldn’t be more different, more conflicted about her ambitions, than the dancers we see on SYTYCD. Does she even want to “make it”? We’re not sure, and neither is she. Riddled with self-doubt after an audition where her mere presence elicited a flat-out “no,” Michelle fears that she’s too over-the-hill to tour with the musical theater productions of her dreams. Despite the odds, she gets back in the auditioning game on the season finale and makes it through several ruthless cuts at an Equity open call—only to learn that the tryout was a farce, held to meet union standards. Whether she wants to or not, she can’t win.


Much of the dramedy in Bunheads unfolds in the dance studio owned by Michelle’s mother-in-law, a former Ballet Russe dancer and a taskmaster of an instructor (played by Kelly Bishop, the original Sheila in A Chorus Line). The Paradise Dance Academy sees its fair share of cattiness and rivalry among students, reminiscent of competition shows. But it’s also home to something too mundane for reality TV: the daily rigor of showing up, getting dressed, and taking your place at the barre. That ritual anchors many scenes in the show. Even as absurd plotlines ensue, class goes on at its measured pace—no shrieking or sobbing, no one to please but the teacher, nothing at stake but the chance to get a little bit better.