As a dancer, it’s gratifying to see the many different dance shows on mainstream TV (including PBS’s real-life American ballroom competitions). The high-profile shows are predicated on some sort of combination of goofy judges (never more than one woman), audience voting and bubbly, tightly scripted contestants. Generally dumped into the “reality show” genre, they are really more like sports competitions. The number of competitors gets whittled down – like on “American Idol” – until the winner is the last one standing. Before I get to the one I truly love – “America’s Best Dance Crew” – I’m going to touch on two others.
“Dancing With the Stars” is probably the most pathetic of the shows, with its ageism (“not bad for a 60-or-70-or this season an 80-year-old”) and its sexist insistence on conflating role/gender – as in leading/men and following/women. The cross marketing is getting a bit tired, too. However, it has given an incredible boost to professional Ballroom and Latin American dancers who are tasked with turning a gaggle of B-listers into Pavlovas. For a professional partner dancer, being on “Dancing With the Stars” brings a level of celebrity and wealth never before available in their field.
“So You Think You Can Dance” is the one I used to wish, in its first years, had been around when I was young so that I could’ve tried out. Here talented young dancers in one genre – from hip-hop to jazz to salsa – are challenged week after week to work with assigned partners and varied choreographers. The production is repulsively self-congratulatory and cheesy, but there is no denying that it is the first television show to introduce and highlight individual choreographers. The dancers step up in amazing ways – and the condescension of the judges is palpable, even when they are lauding the dancers’ performances.
Both of these shows are about transformation – for that’s what dance is about. When I am teaching a new group of Ballroom and Latin American dance students I always give them homework: go see the Japanese movie “Shall We Dance” (or even the not-too-bad American version with Richard Gere.) The film is all about the transformation dance can render in even the least-talented civilian earthling. In “Dancing With The Stars,” it is often the athletes and performers who win – including Apollo Anton Ohno, Kristy Yamaguchi, Shawn Johnson and Donny Osmond, so the sense of transformation is relative. But in “So You Think You Can Dance,” you find untrained street dancers taking on the most complicated and sophisticated dance styles – and nailing them. You see them absorb the regimen of make-up, costume, heels, staging and camera work. You see them pulled off of farms and factories and becoming astounding artists.
All of which goes to prove my life theory that achievement is more about opportunity than talent. But that, as my friend says, is another story.
And now, finally, onto the best of the rest: “America’s Best Dance Crew.” Here you have competing crews – groups – of dancers who develop their own styles of hip-hop. This year the emphasis is on challenges – from integrating magic tricks to riffing off well-known dance videos (like that of Beyonce) to interpreting the smooth moves of Usher. Unlike the other shows, the judges are reasonable, clear and encouraging, especially Lil’ Mama (Niatia Kirkland - see photo on left) a hip-hop singer and choreographer herself. They don’t speak down to the crews, they don’t attack them, and when they are critical they aren’t mean. It makes for a whole different atmosphere.
Randy Jackson – of “American Idol” fame – is the producer and Mario Lopez (who was robbed when he came in 2nd in 2006 on “Dancing With The Stars”) is the MC. The stylish show introduces the amazing world of street crews to American TV viewers and there is no denying the artistry, athleticism and innovation of this movement. This year’s crop of crews included some really interesting constellations. For example, these three sizzling crews have already been eliminated: Saltare features professional jump-ropers who integrate their sport with their dance. Heavy Impact members are generously-sized dancers out to kill the equation of sedentary with fat. And Jungle Boogie folks specialize in the Southern “Crankin” style, led by their only woman member (photo at left).
But why not check them out yourselves? This irresistible clip shows the whole “Usher” round in less than five minutes by eliminating all the chat, judges and commercials and showing you only the brilliance. Enjoy.