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Dance on the Small Screen, Part 1

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So for my latest post, I had to really put in couch time in order to catch up on some television. I've found the recent surge of dance shows on the small screen so compelling. Could it be a passing fad, or something more? In a series of posts, I'll dissect the dance-on-TV phenomenon, attempting to pinpoint the appeal of these shows as well as their potential effects on dance audiences.

I believe the beginning of this new trend can be traced to hit shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars. They prove that there is an eager audience for dance. Season after season, viewers engage with the show by casting votes and determining winners. Unlike the classic dance performance model where the audience is passive, viewers have some power to determine the content of their programming over the course of a season. The dancers (and the styles they perform) that survive the competition thus become an indication of popular opinion.

After several successful seasons of the voter-fueled competition template, newer shows have shifted to focus on the how of dancing rather than the what of dance.

The original competition models emphasize the performance and showmanship of dance (the what dance is). It focuses on the end product, if you will. Judges' scores, audience votes, eliminations, and a dwindling field of competitors mark the progress from episode to episode.

The new shows aim to pull back the curtain and reveal the sweat and tears and hours of rehearsal (the how dance comes to be) behind an art form that traditionally aims to appear effortless. Dancers on So You Think You Can Dance and the professional partners on Dancing With the Stars are already trained. They aren't shown taking technique classes and building skills. Most of the dancing shown is performance, with cursory shots of learning choreography in the studio.

The three most prominent relatively new dance shows are Dance Moms, Breaking Pointe and Bunheads. Each show has a unique perspective on dance and dancers and sends specific messages to audiences about how to watch and understand dance.

Dance Moms is a reality show that follows the young dancers of the Abby Lee Dance Company. It is filmed both at the dance studio in Pittsburgh, Penn. where the dancers rehearse and at the regional and national competitions the team attends. The relationships between the mothers, their daughters, and company director Abbey Lee Miller provide gratuitous drama. The competition among the dancers is epitomized in the weekly pyramid in which Abby literally ranks the team members based on a variety of factors in a pyramid comprised of their innocent, smiley headshots.

Every dance the girls perform is done in front of a panel of judges. While many aspiring young dancers participate in the "competition circuit" during their early years of training, those who go on to dance professionally aren't judged and trophied. The world of competition dance is its own very specific thing and not truly indicative of the lifestyle of professional dancers. Is Dance Moms setting audiences up to silently rank and judge dancers in live performances?

Furthermore, the typecasting by Abby Lee cultivates permissive attitudes about bodies and their value onstage. To put the only African American girl on the team in an afro and insist on her learning "ethnic" dances (an unspecific and inaccurate term for the dances she performs) in order to boost her marketability is lazy at best, and ignorant at worst. Are you kidding me? It normalizes the concept that certain bodies can only move in stereotyped ways.

Dance Moms is flashy and sassy. It is a dance show, but it is also dramatic reality TV. Like all reality television, there must certainly be crafted editing of footage that capitalizes on the appeal of catfights and tears. It certainly shows the long hours and intensive training the girls dedicate to dance, but at the same time they have a very narrow end goal. While Abby has big hopes for her girls to go on to dance professionally, the immediate objective is to win at dance competitions. After all, "second place is the first to lose."

So, readers, have you caught the show? Do you think it helps or hurts dance in general? Is a comparison of dance shows to live concert dance like comparing apples to oranges, or does the popularity of dance shows indicate an audience fascination and interest in all presentations of dance?