Big Dreams, Small Screen: Tuning In to Dance Reality Shows

In Dance, January 2011

IT’S BROUGHT US SCHEMING Survivors, sadistic restaurateurs and women intent on marrying millionaires they’ve never met. And reality TV is now dance’s biggest venue, with shows like So You Think You Can Dance, Superstars of Dance, America’s Got Talent and Dancing with the Stars consistently at the top of the ratings. If there’s no such thing as bad publicity, then reality TV is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to dance: millions of people see ballroom, contemporary, Bollywood, hip hop and more on So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) alone, and after seven seasons it’s still going strong.

The shows usually start with open calls in cities across the country, and the young hopefuls, usually no older than 30, include goofballs who show up on a lark and professionals raising their profiles. Over a roughly three-month season, the judges narrow several thousand contestants to ten or twenty finalists, who perform work by noted choreographers (on SYTYCD) or produce their own material (on Superstars of Dance and America’s Got Talent). The TV audience votes for their favorites, and the eventual winner receives anything from SYTYCD’s $250,000 cash to the $1,000,000 and headlining Las Vegas show awarded by America’s Got Talent (AGT).

Money, fame, connections…it’s all good, right? Well, the essence of these shows isn’t dance, it’s drama, which is what keeps viewers (like me) tuning in. That means promoting conflict over craft—judges dish out often-humiliating criticism; the fast-moving format pushes dancers hard enough to weaken their defenses along with their bodies; and crafty editing fabricates arguments out of unrelated lengths of footage. So what’s to be gained from these shows, and what’s the cost?

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