Where else on TV do you regularly see an attractive, shirtless, African-American man engaged in a passionately sexual dance with a lithe, beautiful blonde wearing almost no clothes, without controversy or comment? Or an Hispanic B-Boy with jerry curls performing a hip hop dance with a young Asian woman? Where else on network TV do you see such overt eroticism, rather than the fake, snarky kind that passes for sexual innuendo on many shows. On what other reality contest show do you see an obviously gay judge calling an obviously gay contestant "honey?" Where else but on "So You Think You Can Dance", now in its 7th season on, of all places, Rupert Murdoch's Fox Network?
Here, the culture wars of the past 30 years appear over, at least for an hour or two, and the progressive side--which has stood for racial equality, gender equality, and gay rights--is the undisputed winner, without the need even to overtly comment about it. I'm not sure what Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, or the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal would have to say if they were watching. But then, Rupert Murdoch has never been known to let his conservative political views get in the way of making a buck.
"So You Think You Can Dance" is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. I'm hardly the target demographic which is made up largely of pre-teen and teen girls, and I wouldn't be surprised, by more than its share of gay men. But dance and basketball are two of my favorite things to watch and in many ways for similar reasons: Their joy comes from the pure kinesthetic movement of the human body, and when dancers or athletes wearing few clothes push their bodies to the limits of human ability, a certain human truth is bound to come through. My love of basketball started from playing after school on the famous West 4th Street courts in New York , and then on the weekends watching from outside the cage (I wasn't good enough to play in the weekend games) when the greatest street players in New York took the subway from all over the city to dribble, dunk and trash talk in the best pick-up game in town. My love of dance came later when I dated and then married a modern dancer and choreographer who was steeped in the avant-garde "post modern" scene and schooled me in how to watch this exhilarating art form.
And much as I enjoy sharing "So You Think You Can Dance" with my wife and daughter, its sometimes cheesy sensibility runs towards Vegas and MTV, which is a far cry from the post-modern dance of Merce Cunningham, early Twyla Tharp and their numerous progeny of post modern dancers and choreographers whom, we used to joke, never ventured above 14th Street (the imaginary boundary between bohemian downtown and slick uptown New York). In the third season, one of the prizes for the winner of "So You Think You Can Dance" was a contract to spend a year as a back-up dancer in Celine Dion's Vegas show which is about as far away as you can get from "art" dance. The show's sexy but cheesy costumes run towards sequins, ruffled men's shirts unbuttoned to the navel, and girls in short, frilly skirts and skimpy bikini tops. Its dance styles run the gamut from "contemporary" dance (a more commercial version of modern dance) to hip hop, break dancing, ballroom, '70s disco, and even Bollywood. And the choreography is always supposed to be "about something:" e.g. "this dance is about a girl who's broken up with a guy and now wants to come back but he doesn't want her anymore."
That's quite different than the modern and post-modern dance that I first learned to appreciate, which broke with the notion that a dance had to be "about" any specific idea, theme, or story, and instead could be only about the movement itself. Merce Cunningham--who continued to create new dances and tour with his company right up until his death at 89 last year--was, along with his life partner and frequent collaborator, composer John Cage, the father of this branch of dance. (The Cunningham Company is now on an 18- month "Legacy Tour" before disbanding. For a last chance to watch this extraordinary dance company, click here to see if they're coming to your city.) Cunningham introduced the notion of random chance into dance, sometimes throwing The I Ching to determine by seeming chance the various movements of feet and arms, or the order of various sections of music. While he used music from such avant-garde composers as Cage and David Tudor, and more recently by the likes of Radiohead and Sonic Youth (along with sets by such artists as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns), he choreographed in silence while his composers and set designers worked completely independently. The first time the dancers heard the music and saw the sets was at dress rehearsal. The idea was that if randomness and serendipity were introduced, a choreographer would create movement, sound and visual combinations, that could never be created with more traditional conscious methods. Most modern dance for the past half-century has been influenced, to one degree or another, by Cunningham and his progeny.
If I've got a gripe with "So You Think You Can Dance", it's not that it doesn't include modern and post-modern art dance, which would never gain a mass audience on national television. (To the contrary, along with presenting pop acts like Lady Gaga, the show has also introduced audiences to the extraordinary modern dancer Desmond Richardson, and to Twyla Tharp's masterful choreography to the music of Frank Sinatra.) What I object to is the judges' relentless insistence--led by head judge and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe--that the dancers constantly manufacture "personality;" mug for the audience, suck up to the judges, literally jump for joy, and endlessly hug each other in often feigned excitement.
Lythgoe deserves credit for bringing dance to a wider American public, but his sensibility is at the heart of the show's cheesiness. A working class boy from England, his background was as a dancer and then choreographer in the '70s for the Go-Go dancers in the BBC TV show "Young Generation" (see a You Tube clip here), before becoming a TV producer and eventually one of the creators of "Pop Idol" which morphed into "American Idol." You can take the boy out of Go-Go dancing, but you can't take the Go-Go dancing out of the boy.
The most disturbing example was Nigel's treatment of dancer Danny Tidwell in Season 3. Tidwell, a gay African American who had trained with The Kirov Ballet and been a member of The American Ballet Theater, was probably the most brilliant dancer ever to appear on the program. Like so many trained dancers, his face kept a natural expression when he moved, letting his body express the emotion. But Nigel and the judges verbally abused him throughout the season for not smiling enough, not demonstrating enough feeling, not being humble enough, literally for not shucking and jiving. As The New York Times wrote,
"The judges took Mr. Tidwell on in the hope of changing him, attitude and all. But he doesn't need any changing...If Mr. Tidwell is different from the other dancers on the show, the distinction has as much to do with his dignity as with his ability to infuse slight choreography with authority, rare on such a talent show. When it comes time for him to pose while a phone number for viewers' votes flashes on the screen, he never mugs for the camera. It's sad, yet hardly a surprise, that such behavior could be taken [by the judges] as superciliousness."
Danny made it to the final 4 that season, but lost to a far less talented woman who knew how to jump up and down for the camera, forfeiting not only the $100,000 winner's prize but the year-long contract as a Vegas back-up dancer for Celine Dion. I'm sure the black kid who grew up poor could have used the $100,000, but the year in Vegas would surely have been torture for him. Since then, all the contestants who manage to stay on the show have learned to plaster a smile on for the camera and shuck and jive for Nigel and the judges. (See a video clip of Danny here and then compare it to Nigel's silly Go-Go dancing.)
Still, I look forward to "So You Think You Can Dance" as my guilty pleasure on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. I watch "progressive "news shows on MSNBC like "Countdown" and "The Rachel Madow Show", although the news these days can be increasingly depressing. But when I just want to enjoy myself, as well as spend an hour or two with the most culturally radical show on TV--a multi-racial, multi-cultural program where race, gender and sexual orientation truly don't seem to matter--I switch the channel to Fox for "So You Think You Can Dance."