Last Thursday's episode of Step It Up And Dance, Bravo's new reality dance show, which premiered three weeks ago, was, for the first time, actually about dance. Before this week, I felt the show had been more about personalities, catering to the judgment-prone "peanut crunching crowd" (in Sylvia Plath's words). For example, in the first episode, considerable time was devoted to the dancers greeting and interacting with each other in their assigned apartments; you could see in their eyes how they sized each other up. We were shown Miguel badmouthing others and asserting his beliefs that he is by far the best dancer. We are shown others rolling their eyes at him. The competition was on before the dancing even began.
Then, throughout the first two weeks during rehearsals and even actual performances, rather than showing us the full routines or even a single dancer's body in its entirety, the camera would focus in on faces. During the first week's dance segment, we saw a close-up of Miguel's profile caught in a somewhat odd half-closed-eye expression - something you'd likely miss had the camera not so homed in. The camera then followed Jessica as she fled to the wings and remained for several seconds talking with dancers not onstage about her stage fright, all the while completely excluding those dancers still performing.
In the second week, we saw Nick complaining that his rival, Cody, had taken over, choreographing all the good parts for himself. Then, during the performance, the camera focused on Nick looking at Cody with jealousy and annoyance, rather than panning out to capture the whole routine. We were also shown Tovah telling us she feels insecure about her curvaceous body, but, during her performance, we saw more of the quizzical facial expressions of the judges and other contestants watching her than Tovah herself.
Since we got to see so little of the dancers' bodies moving in time to the music, we were left instead to judge their personalities: Tovah for her insecurities, Miguel for his arrogance, Jessica for her fears, Nick for his jealousy, and Cody for his dominance. Nor did the judges shed any light on the value of the dancing with their remarks, instead telling Miguel he looked "too feminine," Michelle and Janelle they looked "too much like angry men," and guest judge Mel B of The Spice Girls exclaiming to Tovah, "how can you not know Hip Hop; you're black!" (Too feminine, too masculine, not black enough? Isn't art about transcending boundaries, questioning dichotomies anyway?)
I realize audiences vote partially based on personality on all reality shows, but at least with Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, you can see the entire dance performance. The camera doesn't focus on judges or jealous contestants or backstage trifles during the actual dancing. So, even though contestants' personalities can be an issue, you're judging them mainly on their dance success.
But, as I said, all this changed with Thursday's Hip Hop competition. Perhaps because the battle, which emulated a real Hip Hop / B-boying one, took a good deal of time, with contestants sparring each other to the finish, perhaps because part and parcel of Hip Hop is the body posturing, perhaps because the body movement is so big and full-out - for whatever reason the camera focused on the bodies this time, not just the faces. I could actually see that Tovah can let loose and do very well at Hip Hop even if she is ballet trained, I could see Janelle's natural talent at the dance style, I could see Cody's brilliant, unique way of combining his ballet moves -- barrel-turning leaps and whipping fouette turns -- with the attitude of Hip Hop and the awesome floor acrobatics of break-dance. And I could also see the limitations of Jessica and Oscar, the way they struggled to make basic ballet moves into something resembling Hip Hop, without success.
Please, Step It Up producers, continue to highlight the dancing! It's a dance show, after all.