02/08/2008 02:32 pm ET Updated Oct 10, 2011

What's With This Prime-Time Dance Craze?

On the first day of auditions on Dance War, the latest in the proliferation of TV dance-competition shows, which premiered in January, judge Carrie Ann Inaba said to co-arbiter Bruno Tonioli, "Well, it's easier to teach someone who can't dance to dance than someone who can't sing to sing." And so the ability to sing well became the focal point of the show, the dancing relegated to the background. So why the show's title? Maybe because the judges come from the popular TV show, Dancing With the Stars, perhaps because the judges only discovered the truth of Inaba's statement during auditions, or it could be that the show was so named for the simple fact that the TV dance scene has taken off as of late and the producers felt the name would lure audiences. Yes, reality TV shows with a competition slant have been the rage for some time now. But, while there are only one or two such shows devoted to other arts, like singing, modeling, fashion designing, or cooking, there's been an outright explosion of shows devoted to dance. There are currently three such shows on network television, and now three cable channels -- Bravo, MTV, and Lifetime -- are slated to begin broadcasting a total of five more in the next couple months, making for a total of eight dance competition shows currently on television. Why?

In case you've no idea what I'm talking about, let me briefly catch you up to speed. First was Dancing With the Stars, whose sixth season begins in March. This show, the American version of the popular BBC series Strictly Come Dancing replicates a genuine American teacher / student (or "pro / am") ballroom dancing competition. (Well, almost: in a real ballroom competition the far greater emphasis is on the group dances -- of which you can see a great example on the current Wednesday night PBS special America's Ballroom Challenge -- rather than the individual showdances. But the Stars producers knew a bunch of people on the floor all at once dancing to pre-selected music in generic costumes would bore everyone to tears, so we ballroom aficionados forgive them for the slight inauthenticity.) Also, the students here are celebrities, most of them culled from former TV shows.

Then was So You Think You Can Dance which, in its recently-ended third season, rivaled the popularity of Stars. A Fox TV offshoot of the network's American Idol, this dance comp is open to anyone with the talent and drive to make it through the auditions. Rather than focusing on one style of dance, like ballroom, this show's barometer is the dancer's ability to be versatile, as contestants compete in several major dance forms including contemporary / modern, ballroom, hip hop, and jazz. In contrast to Stars, all of the contestants thus far have been unknowns to the public at large, though some in the last season are well known in their respective dance communities. Finalist Danny Tidwell is very familiar to Ballet fans, having been an up-and-coming star at American Ballet Theater and Complexions Contemporary Ballet. And top-ten finalist Pasha Kovalev and his partner Anya Garnis are popular among ballroom enthusiasts, having made finals at several major national and international competitions.

Finally, Dance War is the latest in the network shows, and I would argue, thus far, the least focused on what exactly it aims to be. This show tests a person's ability to both sing and dance simultaneously, making it very different from a pure dance contest. Requiring one to sing while dancing necessarily means lowering the range of movement, as it's rather impossible to go barrel-turning all around the stage's perimeter while belting out Aretha Franklin lyrics. The contestants are divided into two teams, with each competitor taking over the singing part for a short time during each number, while the others provide the background dance. The result is a kind of pop music concert but with continually alternating lead singers.

Other big upcoming shows include Bravo's Step It Up, similar to So You Think You Can Dance but with a larger variety of dances including ballet and burlesque; MTV's America's Best Dance Crew which showcases competing dance teams like Dance War but will hopefully be more focused on the dancing; and Lifetime's Your Mama Don't Dance which pits pre-professional dancers partnered by their parents in competition against each other.

Anyway, to answer my initial question: why this mad craze with all the cable networks scrambling to get in on the action? Unique to the arts, dance is simultaneously high art and popular culture. It's both an art to be watched, moved by, and compelled to think about, and a fun, social, participatory form of entertainment. Though I danced ballet briefly as a child, I began seriously dancing ballroom as an adult. At first I did it socially, dancing swing and salsa, then became more serious, taking classes in competition ballroom, eventually competing in amateur divisions and performing with my instructors. The more I struggled to develop my own artistry, however amateur, the more intrigued I became with watching other dancers -- ballroom and otherwise. I began regularly going to the ballet, as well as Broadway musicals, and any other forms of concert dance I could find - Modern, Flamenco, African, and even Experimental. Nothing taught me lyricism, grace, delicacy and subtlety - how dance could sublimely poetic - more than watching ballet, whereas studying the African dancers taught me how to move your pelvis with beautiful fluidity and speed, as required by samba. Artistry is something all dancers need and constantly seek to improve -- from those dancing in a club, to those on the competition floor, to those dancing for an audience on a proscenium stage. At the same time, watching so much professional dance made me not only appreciate the beauty of the dancers, but also the choreographers' art - their ability to make music visible, to create ingenious and visually stunning shapes and geometric patterns, to compel you to think, to bring you to tears by evoking something fundamental about the human condition.

Over the summer in New York, photographer David Michalek's Slow Dancing exhibition was shown on the Lincoln Center Plaza. It consisted of several large screens strung up on the New York City Ballet's theater's façade, showing dancers from several different genres moving in extreme slow motion. Many of them were giants of concert dance -- famous choreographers or dancers. The exhibition coincided with Lincoln Center's Midsummer Night Swing, a big social dance party where diverse bands -- salsa, big-band swing, country western, Brazilian samba - play and a parkay dance floor is set up for social dancers. Prior to the party, there's a short dance class hosted by a local studio teaching the style of dance for that evening. I attended the exhibition numerous times and often saw the social dancers gazing up at the giant screens, briefly trying to emulate a move - a leg-extending developpé, a high-kicking battement, a pointed toe and delicate fan of the arms - then return to their rhythmic Latin

Dance is for everyone. We've all swayed our hips, skipped, hopped, and punched the air to a rhythmic beat. Like the social dancers watching the Slow Dancing exhibition and like me at the ballet, people at home watching these TV shows feel both an appreciation of the dancers' (and sometimes choreographers') artistry, and an actual sense of participation in the dance. You come to know the dancers a bit through behind-the-scenes clips illustrating their struggles to learn each new dance, their idiosyncratic weaknesses and strengths, their interactions with others, their accounts of their lives and backgrounds, their challenges, accomplishments, their personalities basically, who they are and what they represent. As you see them compete, you identify with them, imagining the exhilaration of performing the moves yourself as they fly across the floor in a grand jeté or do a sexy Latin body roll. You also appreciate watching the dancer's unique interpretation of the choreography or dance style - from a sobering Mia Michaels piece about family, to a raucous robotic Wade Robson, to a slinky samba or flirty Quickstep by Julianne Hough. It's this dual ability of dance to engage the spectator on two separate but interrelated levels that makes these shows such an
immense hit.