You Can’t Stop the Beat – Dance: The Gen X Addiction

Curator's Note

Dance has for years played second fiddle to other art forms on television. Until recently, dance was the background to musicians and singers. It was the filler on award shows and sketch comedy programs. Dance was not at the forefront and beamed into homes during primetime. It didn’t dominate the ratings wars because there weren’t programs that dared to approach it as the focus. That is until Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance grabbed hold of unsuspecting audiences and hasn’t let go. Four years ago the fall months were filled with glitzy, glamorous outfits, and professional ballroom dancers found themselves becoming household names with the introduction of Dancing with the Stars. As this phenomenon transpired, another strange change occurred. Grown women from their 20s to their 40s found themselves bound by this new medium. Dance and curiosity about dancers were tempting viewers who were wary of online interaction to message boards and MySpace, all in the name of dance. I was among the ranks of those lost in the twirly haze and the beauty of an art form so long left in the background. The addiction ran strong, but it was fortified by the advent of So You Think You Can Dance the following year. Those long summer months that many lovingly referred to as “the time that DWTS forgot” was now filled with a younger crop of leaping lovelies. This show, in its cheesy American Idol imitation, embraced even more dance forms and brought choreographers and dancers right into your living room. Gen Xers fell in love with it. But why? What was is about this seemingly banal show that made so many clamor to watch and vote and run to see it live? I’m not quite sure, but it may be the humanity within the insanity. Logically, educated older viewers should scoff at the silly little dance shows, but instead they were moved by the strife and strength of the dancers. Dance is not a skill you can necessarily fake, so contestants, even the worst contestants, delivered the goods and entertained. Their bodies defied space and gravity and contorted those watching into a frenzy of amazement. The dancers’ personalities drew viewers in and it became more than just dance. Beautiful moments were captured much like the performance Hide and Seek, where raw emotion and pure talent were put on display for the audience’s enjoyment. Closet dance lovers came out in droves and stood proudly arm in arm, talking endlessly about foot position, lines and precision. We were moved. Dance had galvanized us all, addicts united and proud.


As someone who'd probably be classified among the "educated older viewers," I watch SYTYCD with history at my back. This, if nothing else, at least demonstrates that Dance TV is not a wholly new invention. In US television history, hugely popular shows such as The Arthur Murray Party (1950-1960), National Bandstand (1952-1989), Soul Train (1971-2006), Dance Party USA (1986-1992), Club MTV (1987-1992) all managed, in their own time and in their own way, to move, entertain, and irritate viewers. At the same time, these shows (like DWTS and SYTYCD) registered significant shifts in the status and development of embodied forms of cultural knowledge, styles of bodily presentation, and television’s outreach to youth markets. And I would want to consider all of these as precursory forms of reality dance television.

Nice piece, Kelli. I would add that a key component to the success of SYTYCD that Kelli hints at is the melodrama behind the performance. As viewers, we are encouraged to see the pathos and the pretension in every step because of the interviews and interstitials that accompany the performance. We are invited to reward hard work ethic and punish ego (though we don't always do so) and, of course, read all of this onto the dance performance. I think this hybrid competition-melodrama marks an important departure from the history of dance TV that does precede the current cycle. As a non-dancer, I find that I often cannot distinguish between good and bad performances and am usually irate when judges gush over what I thought was amateurish and awkward looking. I suspect that most viewers are like me - unable to distinguish between technical execution and something that looks "cool". That's why I like my emotional response to the dancing predetermined for me by the back story.

Avi, I agree the difference between the shows Dana referenced and SYTYCD and DWTS is the emotional connection viewer formed with the dancers. The competitive aspect of SYTYCD and DWTS allow audiences to learn back story and become attached to dancers they “like” or “dislike”. Soul Train, Dance Party USA, and other programs featured dance but dancers were still merely props and not characters that viewers followed week to week. It is that spoon fed back story that allowed the contestants on the current show to rise to pseudo celebrity status that was not possible before. The choreographers from STYCD can now tour together doing workshops that sell out from city to city. This by their own admission would have never occurred before because the general public did not know who they were nor could they identify their work. The shows did not only bring dancers to the forefront but by using the same choreographers each season they too have a recognition that is new. I challenge most to name the choreographers from the shows listed above but now many know a Mia Michaels piece and get excited when they hear the name Shane Sparks. Viewers who were not initially entrenched in the dancing world are becoming more conscious of dancers and choreographers.

I agree with the comments by Avi and Kelli. Because the nature of competition shows currently on television invites the audience to participate, coupled with all of the resources on the Internet, a sense of intimacy with the contestants, false or not, is created that was not possible during previous dance shows. The regulars on older dance shows may have been highlighted and had followings, but the producers didn’t delve into their lives like they do now. The new shows expose the behind-the-scenes practice sessions, and air vignettes and interviews with the contestants and their family members. Audiences see the progress that happens between the dancers’ first awkward steps learning new choreography and their final performances. The dancers seem more human. We feel like we know them. In addition to how shows are edited and how personalities are showcased on television, the popularity of the shows is taken to a whole new level on the Internet. There are sites filled with commentary and message boards. We can watch and re-watch clips of the shows online. We catch glimpses of their lives on websites like MySpace. We know what kind of music and movies they like, and can see photos of them in their “real” lives. The contestants blog, addressing their fans, which can be interpreted by some as campaigning for votes, but can be felt by others as feeling appreciated and more connected to the dancers. While previous dance shows were popular, today’s media elevates the dancers to celebrities, as Kelli mentioned.

So emotional! I remembered and loved this ensemble piece for the opportunity it gave us to see the collaborative aspect of dance, but it showed also the weakness of the dancer trained to competition. Immersive media really does help along the choreography. That would be something to think about--it's like taking class and sneaking glances at the person in line next to you if you don't have the sequence yet: using MySpace et al to shore up your performance prior to it by being "backed up" by your own backstory. Perhaps it's not so much pandering for votes as it is making the equivalent of eye contact with an audience member; of trying to get the "heat" of ALL of your audience, not just the ones at the dance event.

Kelli, I hope this isn’t too tangential, but your post made me think about the Tony Awards (The Antoinette Perry Awards for Excellence in Theatre), which have aired on television since 1967. More than just “filler,” the live performances from the nominated Broadway musicals (many of which prominently feature dance) are some of the most anticipated moments of each year’s broadcast. And though the awards for choreography and performance are decided before the broadcast itself, the Tony Awards can still be considered, I believe, a type of dance competition. Like the shows you describe, the Tony Awards have done important work in introducing choreographers (like Susan Stroman, Bob Fosse, Savion Glover, Michael Bennett, and Kathleen Marshall) to audiences outside of New York City, and in doing so, have helped to create audiences for national tours. Admittedly, the 2007 broadcast was the least watched Tony Award show ever, and certainly, the Tony Awards today have a fraction of the viewership that DWTS and SYTYCD do. All this makes me wonder – and your post and the subsequent discussion have gone a long way to answering this – what are DWTS and SYTYCD doing right, and what can those running the Tony Awards learn from the success of these shows?

I seems to be me that one of the recurring themes of the lively discussion inspired by Kelli's post is "back-story" and "emotional connection." I agree with all who claim that carefully edited back-story segments do generate a pleasurable (and possibly questionable) sense of intimacy, connection, and identification between viewer and contestants on SYTYCD and DWTS. However (and I apologize for assuming the role of the resident curmudgeon, but humor me-- I'm enjoying myself here), I want to take issue with the assumption (expressed by a couple of folks here) that TV dance fans today experience emotional connections that fans of AMERICAN BANDSTAND and other precursor dance shows never experienced themselves. First of all, how do we know they didn't? Wouldn't we need to conduct some sort of ethnographic study or interviews with fans to discover accurately the quality or range of their emotional connections? The academic in me wants some evidence for this speculative claim. But I'm also a fan. So, speaking as such, let me assure you that viewers of earlier dance shows knew intimately (or felt they knew) the names and lives of their favorite dancers--Kenny Rossi, Arlene Sullivan, Eddie Kelly, Janet Hamil, and Bunny Gibson just to name a few. They read about them obsessively in the pages of TEEN magazine. They followed their on-screen romances (whether real or staged for ratings), and their break-ups. They had fan clubs, and tie-in products, and crushes. In short, they felt pretty darn emotionally connected. And how can we say for sure that our emotional connections with SYTYCD are more authentic or immediate than theirs were? Maybe we're responding more to the new technologies of access (and the semse of immediacy they generate) rather than to the quality of connection and community that fans will create for themselves with whatever means are available at a given point in historiy.... And as for audience participation, every week the kids on AB (who were neither professional nor paid) would represent kids everywhere by voting for their favorite new song of the week (from whence sprang the tag line, "It's got a good beat, and you can dance to it"). So here we find a very early version of audience interactivity, in so far as the kids chosen for the show stood as proxy for the musical and movement tastes of the youth of America. And let's not forget that in 2005 Dick Clark, cognizant of the rising popularity of reality dance shows, announced the revival of AMERICAN BANDSTAND. This never quite came to fruition, but he did broker a deal for a new show based on the dance aspect of AB. The show was given a new title, SYTYCD, which is why Clark is listed as co-producer in the title. Finally, I like the fact that Kelli's piece takes its title from the show-stopping finale of the theatrical and (more recent) cinematic adaptation of John Water’s HAIRSPRAY. Here, The Corny Collins Show (a fictional dance show modeled on American Bandstand) links a fictionalized 1960 conflict over racial integration at a local Baltimore television station to the myth of national liberal democratic progress in the struggle for racial justice and civic equality. How, I wonder, do our more recent dance shows stage the ubiquitous utopian narrative of American opportunity, equality, democracy, and reward for work ethic? Or is just the motion of the ocean?

What a great discussion. Avi's last remarks about the utopian narratives have got me thinking about the way these shows smudge the line between so-called "professionals" and so-called "amateurs." Is the goal of winning competitions like these or American Idol to make it to a life of being a paid performer? (and clearly many of the non-winners have made this leap--so to speak--too). Is this a narrative of hard work and talent being rightly recognized...some idea of equality and justice in a sense? The "American Dream"? and if that is part of what is going on--the appeal--then thinking back to the fist video from this week, how does that narrative work into the contests being broadcast in lots of other places, like the Turkish example? Or does it?

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