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Nora Younkin

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What So You Think You Can Dance Has Done to the Word 'Contemporary'

Posted: 11/09/11 02:25 PM ET

In our not-so-distant past, the word "contemporary" simply meant, "occurring in the present." These days, it has the stunning power to elicit anything from an exasperated eye roll to a peeved tirade to a polite smile from a dancer.

I don't necessarily know how or why, but somewhere along the line the competitive dance scene (think the little girls from Lifetime's Dance Moms and their high school counterparts) hijacked the word "contemporary" from its simple dictionary definition. This specific use of the word stayed underground for a while, living in its own context...

... And then came FOX's hit show So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD). In brief, suffice it to say that this author (and many others in the concert/contemporary modern/live-performance dance world) would never say anything disparaging about the actual dancers on these shows. They have phenomenal talent and incredible training. Period. Rather, it is the culture of these shows and the representations of dance that raise some eyebrows.

In the world of competitive dance conventions and, more recently, shows like So You Think You Can Dance, the word "contemporary" has morphed from a simple descriptor to its own quite specific and potentially limiting dance form. "Contemporary" dance on television often connotes jazz and ballet technique coupled with lyrical interpretation of music. "Lyrical" dance is somewhat synonymous with "contemporary" dance, and as one of my ballet teachers likes to emphasize, "Lyrical is an adjective. It is not a dance form." Yet, I digress...

Before this becomes some sort of Shark vs. Jets, i.e. competitive vs. non-competitive dancers' battle of values, I should note that in an ideal world all who dance could and would work towards common goals. With the state of the arts in general, and dance in particular, we have weathered blow after blow fiscally. You might say, "So why is now the time to get picky over the semantics?"

I hope to encourage audiences of both television broadcast and live dance to serve each other. Well-respected teacher, performer and choreographer Paige Cunningham (former member of Merce Cunningham Dance Company and current Associate Chair of the Columbia College Chicago Dance Department) has framed it this way: at what cost do these nationally broadcast shows serve local dance communities?

How can fans of nationally broadcast television shows become fans of live, regional performances? What is the bridge to that gap? Is it clever marketing, or does it go deeper? Can the values of popular broadcast dance and concert dance be reconciled? Can they appeal to dance audiences as a whole?

SYTYCD and other shows continue to highlight traditional dance values rather than push the performative boundaries of dancers. What impact might other, more contemporary-modern judges have to say within and about the competition?

For many young dancers, we live in somewhat of an existential crisis of how to identify what we do. Confronted with academic readings of dance history abreast of the ease of tuning in to Channel 12 for weekly broadcasts of SYTYCD, we are left in a grey area that is difficult to negotiate.

As we exist within this greater cultural context, more often than not our reality goes beyond simple distinctions. For some reason, the labeling of anything as "contemporary" within Midwestern culture is much more knotty than in cities like New York. Our audiences, like us performers, are constantly negotiating the dichotomies between stage and screen.

Therefore I am left to question: what are the intersections of these values? What tools does an audience need to enjoy and understand a dance form that is unfamiliar to them? When dance is brought into the living room of the average American how can the local professional dance community appeal to them in ways that capitalize on a renewed interest in dance and motivate them to become attendees of live dance performances?

Everything we do now is, in fact, "contemporary," as it is acting in the present. Yet, any dance artist has the obligation to enhance, captivate, educate and invigorate an audience. In a culture driven to consume, what is our role as live dance performers and who is going to come watch us dance?