(Note: I spent most of tonight writing a Very Serious Post for the Austin NOW blog, talking about why Social Security cuts are a feminist issue, so now I will relax by writing about fluffy pop culture.)
I detest most ‘reality’ television. But one of the few such shows I totally dig is So You Think You Can Dance. I resisted it for a few seasons, because I thought it would irritate me solely on the basis of being reality TV. But then the gay male roommate with whom I shared a flat in San Francisco while I was there for a summer seminar a few years ago introduced me to it, and I was hooked after one episode of sitting on the couch with him, eating ice cream, jovially bickering about our favorites, and forgetting to breathe as I watched all these incredible performers blend athleticism and art to create such ephemeral beauty. (I tell you what, that was some seriously fun fag hagging; we were both aware of the cliche and amused by it.)
A few reasons why SYTYCD is a fixture in my DVR:
- I love dance. I own not just a DVD of Center Stage, but the soundtrack. For real, I am a dork for dance. SYTYCD is a delicious weekly buffet of all kinds of dancing. Woot!
- The lighting, costuming, and makeup are freaking amazing! That’s got to be a hard job - so much to do every week, and very little time in which to do it. On rare occasions I’ll have a “…. seriously?” moment with the costumes, but overall I think they do an outstanding job.
- There are tons of people of color on it - dancers and choreographers, sometimes judges - but it’s not relegated to the second-class status of a “black show” that advertisers think white (read: middle and upper class) people won’t watch.
- The random drawing of partners results in many multiracial pairs, and I think it’s awesome that we’re visually normalizing that a little bit more. I still have such vivid memories of season 4 competitors Ade and Melissa’s incredibly moving contemporary piece inspired by breast cancer survivors. Yeah, that’s a big black dude and a teeny white ballerina, nobody found it strange, they both got to play complicated characters, and all the judges were crying at the end because the performance was so gorgeous and amazing. And from the same season, Joshua and Katee, a black man and a Japanese-Irish-American woman, rocking a Bollywood routine was, for me, a multiculturalism I can totally get behind: learning, sharing, beauty, and joy without cultural appropriation and with respect. Rad.
- I think it’s so kickass that all kinds of dance are treated equally. “High culture” (read: rich people like and fund it) contemporary dance, “middlebrow” (read: commercial and hobby dancing) forms like Broadway and ballroom, and “lowbrow” (read: stuff poor people do) styles like hip-hop and Bollywood that are strongly associated with people of color, are set side-by-side. We watch them one after the other, and they’re just positioned as different styles rather than having icky race and class bullshit attached. That’s a big deal.
- They make such a point of saying that dance is for everyone and (not wholly, but to a large extent) backing that up for real. A few episodes ago, they featured a performance by a couple from Axis Dance Company made up of a guy in a wheelchair and an able-bodied woman, and it was amazing. A loosely affiliated nonprofit, the horribly named Dizzy Feet Foundation, offers scholarships to increase access to dance education regardless of ability to pay. And this season, they have beginning, intermediate, and master-level routines for National Dance Day so more people can join in. And the beginning routine demo video has a person in a wheelchair doing it! That’s awesome.
The show is not unproblematic. The panel of judges does tend to be majority white. So even though Lil’ C annoys me, I would like to see him and Debbie Allen up there a lot more.
Also, there’s a ton of tangled-up gendered and homophobic bullshit. There is a lot of annoying rhetoric about what sort of movement is “masculine” or “feminine.” It is heteronormative; the dancers are sorted into male-female couples and an irritatingly large percentage of the dances have love story plots. Head judge Nigel Lythgoe said some dumbass things about same-sex ballroom couples a while back; GLAAD did some outreach and this got better, but still, that was crap.
And boy, do they deal weirdly with body size. The dance world is notorious for this, and SYTYCD is no exception. This season, sisters Sasha and Natalia Mallory both made it through Vegas, but thin Sasha was selected for the top 20 and bigger Natalia (she doesn’t even read as fat to me, she’s just considerably larger than all the other teeny tiny dancers) was not - and no real reason was given. It’s true that Natalia got diagnosed with diabetes in Vegas and of course that needs dealing with - but then why didn’t they just say that? It totally feels to me like the partnering issue she had in Vegas, when she was paired with a very small guy for a routine with serious lifts and, what a surprise, they had trouble, is the undiscussed elephant in the room here. This is also crap. Put her with a guy with enough leverage and strength to swing her around, and she’s lovely. I get that there are practical concerns here - several of the guys in the top 20 are quite small, and they’re randomly paired, so the partnering issue would come up again in unpredictable ways - but I just feel like they were first patronizing (“Awww, it’s so cute that you’re SO GIGANTIC but you’re still a good dancer”) and then silent because they didn’t know what to say. FEH.
So it’s not perfect. But it does have a lot of awesome subversive qualities, plus so much gorgeous dancing. My revolution totally has dancing in it.