IT’S BROUGHT US SCHEMING Survivors, sadistic restaurateurs and women intent on marrying millionaires they’ve never met. And reality TV is now dance’s biggest venue, with shows like So You Think You Can Dance, Superstars of Dance, America’s Got Talent and Dancing with the Stars consistently at the top of the ratings. If there’s no such thing as bad publicity, then reality TV is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to dance: millions of people see ballroom, contemporary, Bollywood, hip hop and more on So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) alone, and after seven seasons it’s still going strong.
The shows usually start with open calls in cities across the country, and the young hopefuls, usually no older than 30, include goofballs who show up on a lark and professionals raising their profiles. Over a roughly three-month season, the judges narrow several thousand contestants to ten or twenty finalists, who perform work by noted choreographers (on SYTYCD) or produce their own material (on Superstars of Dance and America’s Got Talent). The TV audience votes for their favorites, and the eventual winner receives anything from SYTYCD’s $250,000 cash to the $1,000,000 and headlining Las Vegas show awarded by America’s Got Talent (AGT).
Money, fame, connections…it’s all good, right? Well, the essence of these shows isn’t dance, it’s drama, which is what keeps viewers (like me) tuning in. That means promoting conflict over craft—judges dish out often-humiliating criticism; the fast-moving format pushes dancers hard enough to weaken their defenses along with their bodies; and crafty editing fabricates arguments out of unrelated lengths of footage. So what’s to be gained from these shows, and what’s the cost?
“For us it was an incredible opportunity,” said Isabel von Rittberg, artistic director of Berkeley’s AscenDance Project. A viewer and judges’ favorite on the spring 2010 season of AGT (they narrowly missed the top ten), AscenDance combines the emotion of dance with the athleticism of rock climbing. “Five million dollars wouldn’t have been able to bring me that much advertisement on national TV—international, actually, because I’m getting e-mails from all over the world. No time or money would have paid for what I just did for my company.”
Von Rittberg also got to find out whether her intimate choreography could translate to television. “Through this completely different way of presenting our work, we changed people’s lives,” which AscenDance learned at the River Rock Festival in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “One woman came up to us, she was a foster mother and she had seven kids with her. She said, ‘You guys were my favorite act on America’s Got Talent. I haven’t done anything in years for my birthday, and today is my birthday, and I can’t believe you guys came here. I don’t even know how to tell you.’ This is what I live for: to connect with others. I have had many moments like this since America’s Got Talent.”
Mary Ellen Hunt, who writes about dance for Pointe, Dance Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle, also appreciates the bigger audience these shows represent. “People need the entry point for dance. And once they have it, they feel a lot more comfortable; then maybe they’ll go to their next dance performance and their third one.” There don’t seem to be statistics on whether more people see concert dance because of reality TV, but it stands to reason that increased awareness is the first step toward improved attendance.
No stranger to dance competition, San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Maria Kochetkova has said that she wouldn’t be where she is today without them. Her trophy case holds medals from the world’s top ballet competitions—and first prize in the soloist division on NBC’s 2009 reality show Superstars of Dance, a competition for professional dancers. In an August 2010 interview with DancePulp, Kochetkova echoed Hunt’s feelings: “I’m happy that so many people that don’t get a chance to see ballet—they don’t have opportunity to go to the opera house, they don’t have enough money to buy tickets—they got to see it on the TV. And some of them didn’t even know what it is. They were like, ‘Oh, ballet is boring,’ and then they saw it and they were like, ‘Oh, I’d actually like to try some lessons.’” The show was equally productive for Kochetkova, who received 2,000 e-mails in response to her performances. (There’s much more to the interview, which can be viewed at DancePulp.com.)
“[The shows] generate conversation,” Hunt continued. “Somebody will call you up and go, ‘Oh my god, can you believe that so-and-so got eliminated?’ And you’re like, ‘I can’t believe you even liked them! They sucked! Of course they got eliminated.’ Right there, suddenly you’re having an argument about dance, which I’ve found myself getting into with people who are not dancers, not critics, hardly ever go to dance, but they’re really, really, really firm about how this guy’s frame was all off in his foxtrot.”
Someone’s got to pay for all that publicity, and that someone is the dancers. On mixed-talent shows like AGT, they have it hardest: as contestants are eliminated, the breaks between performances get shorter, which puts vastly greater physical demands on the dancers than on, say, the ventriloquist they’re competing against.
“It’s raising the bar on technical skill, which is always increasing over the years,” said Frank Shawl, co-founder of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. He’s seen it all over a six-decade career that spans Broadway, concert dance and The Perry Como Show. A dedicated teacher for fifty years, he is staunch about nurturing dancers rather than sacrificing them to the television gods. “At the same time, you’re seeing what I call ‘flashdancing’: exceptionally demanding show-it-all-in-a minute-and-a-half, and then be judged on it. It seems like it would be heavy-duty pressure for the competitors. I love what Martha Graham said: ‘There’s only one person you compete with: yourself, the person you aspire to be. Others are your inspiration.’”
“I’m sure they’re doing their best to take care of you, but you see a high injury rate. The contestants are probably overtired; they’re expected to do a lot of things that we don’t actually see on camera,” Hunt said. Even professionals suffer; among the numerous dancers injured during the spring 2010 SYTYCD was former Miami City Ballet principal soloist Alex Wong, who was forced off the show by a detached Achilles tendon sustained during rehearsal.
Toward the end of SYTYCD, dancers perform two very technically demanding two-minute pieces in different genres, plus a group dance and a solo of their own choreography—every week. “It’s a lot to learn a piece for the next week; I’m not going to lie about that. But think about how many hours we put into dance, if that’s your profession,” said Berkeley hip-hop and contemporary dancer Newman Howell, who has auditioned for SYTYCD in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Oakland. But if he were cast on the show, “I would take it arms wide open. I want to better myself; I want to prove that I can do this.”
The shows test character as well as stamina. Von Rittberg had to choreograph a new 90-second piece for each show, making last-minute adaptations when producers changed her songs. “Music choices might be made two, three days before because they have to clear music; you’re working on choreography and you know you may not do it to this song. You have to be quick. You have to be super spontaneous and very flexible. If you are stubborn, if you are lagging, it’s not gonna happen.”
But meeting those challenges is child’s play compared to surviving the feedback from the judges: one week they’re fawning over a dancer they “love,” and the next week they’re excoriating the same person for being talentless. The judges’ job is to stoke that all-important drama, and their fall guy is the dancer on the receiving end.
“The judges, to me, was the hardest part,” von Rittberg said. “As an artist, you don’t want to sit in front of three judges who have a frickin’ buzzer. You want to be with an audience that can walk out and say ‘I liked it’ or ‘I didn’t like it,’ but they’re not going to buzz you and then be like, ‘This is awful.’” AGT judges Howie Mandel, Sharon Osbourne and Piers Morgan “loved our first three rounds and really praised us. But you really don’t know how they will respond to your next piece. You must be ready for criticism and not get frustrated when it comes. It’s not in your control.”
Howell, who got in the ring with SYTYCD producer Nigel Lythgoe, Broadway choreographer Tyce Diorio and ballroom champion Toni Redpath, was philosophical. “What you do could be the best thing in the entire world, but not what they’re looking for. They want to fill certain molds, to balance it out.” He recommends coming prepared with a steel will: “You gotta get over it. Go up there and do it, show your best. If they don’t like it, they don’t like it, but tomorrow’s a new day.”
“At times I wish I had a cream pie. I’d go smack it in the judges’ face,” Shawl said, only half joking. His fitting analogy: “It’s like the Springer Show—get people to cry, get people to be devastated. I think you have a responsibility to [young dancers]. They’re not expendable. I’ve known people who went so far so fast, and then you never heard of them again. They burned out so badly, physically or psychologically, they got so bruised and damaged by it all. You just can’t treat people like little machines.”
“What I prefer to see is that the judges make honest criticisms that are meant to improve the dancer,” said Hunt, who is a ballet teacher as well as a critic. “It’s not necessarily bad to look at a dancer’s performance and say, this is what makes it good, this is what makes it not as finished or polished, because that educates the audience. It trains the audience’s eye to appreciate what excellence is.”
One wonders whether viewers are learning to appreciate excellence or to sharpen their claws. “We’re very competitive by nature, so we like to see somebody crowned the winner. We like to see who’s the best, who does the most,” Hunt observed. Is it reasonable to humiliate a hopeful, vulnerable 17-year-old dancer on national TV for the sake of delighting a bloodthirsty crowd (and selling advertising)? As Shawl put it, “There’s a perverseness in the American public of winners and losers on reality shows. Why not put them in a Colosseum and feed them to the lions?”
The reality is that competing on a dance show guarantees nothing but audition experience and a behind-the-scenes look at reality-show production. Blessed with a strong sense of perspective, Howell was not surprised when he “heard from other dancers that they’ve seen previous SYTYCD contestants auditioning for the same things they’re auditioning for.”
Top finishers have garnered choreography gigs, movie and music-video roles and advertising campaigns. But any moments of reality-TV glory—or even a full fifteen minutes of it—are likely to be fleeting. So along with determination, Howe advises arming yourself with a healthy perspective: “I don’t look at SYTYCD as a bad thing. In dance, in art, you have to be strong for a lot of criticism. I’ve been dancing for this long; I’m going to keep on doing it.”
Yes, the judges can be wretched, and the contestants’ well-being is a legitimate concern. But the participant whose goal is to grow as a person and a dancer, win or lose, stands to gain a lot. “As an artist, you do what you can, you give it your all, you create every piece with the same honesty, integrity, passion and love. When you stay true to your heart, you walk away with pride and dignity,” von Rittberg said. “And I did.”