So You Think You Can Make Me Like Dance?

by Ben Rubenstein

10 November 2009

Rubenstein views dance much like his girlfriend watches a baseball game; the subtleties are lost on him.

Sunday night is typically my least favorite time of the week. The weekend’s over and the long work week looms ahead, with only a half-finished New York Times crossword puzzle and another depressing episode of Mad Men for distraction (I’m usually too burned out on football by that point). That was until, one fateful Sunday evening while flipping through the channels, I happened upon Can I Step With You?, a Chicago cable-access show featuring color-coordinated couples dancing to smooth R&B at a south side (Chicago’s south side, that is) nightclub.

It’s kind of like a more refined, mature version of MTV’s The Grind. Watching these people do the step, the bop and the walk is a lot more soothing than witnessing Don Draper’s life unravel, and it never fails to boost my mood.   

My girlfriend’s favorite televised dance show, So You Think You Can Dance, usually has the opposite effect. For those not familiar, So You Think You Can Dance is an American Idol-style dance competition featuring famous choreographers who challenge contestants to master everything from hip-hop to modern to Eastern European styles. Its judging panel includes two regulars: Nigel Lythgoe, famed dancer, choreographer and producer of Britain’s Pop Idol, and Mary Murphy, ballroom champion, acclaimed choreographer and easily excitable screecher. She cries occasionally, too.

Like American Idol when So You Think You Can Dance on, it’s on. Once the real competition gets started, the show can air as much as three hours per week. As a result, I got to know the Season Five contestants fairly well over this past summer. I’m not saying I was heavily debating whether Brandon or Jeanine should’ve won (Jeanine did), but I at least knew who those people were, and saw some of the routines that made them “America’s favorite dancers”.

So I had at least some idea of what I was getting into when, in early October, I surprised Angela with tickets to the So You Think You Can Dance live show at Chicago’s United Center. This was why I drank a lot of wine beforehand. I was one of the few members of the audience who had such a luxury, as the majority of those in attendance were either underage (I’d put the average age at about 14) or would have to drive the carpool back to the ‘burbs. It should go without saying that there was not much of a wait for the men’s bathroom.

We settled into our too-far-away seats (I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to buying tickets for a dance show) just as the show began with a group dance, featuring the final 12 contestants (six girls, six guys) from Season Five. I will admit that these people don’t just think they can dance – they definitely can. They execute moves that I could never imagine attempting for fear of dislocating something, and it’s all the more impressive that, while on the show, they learn to do things outside of their particular styles in a matter of a few days. If you like seeing well-toned bodies moving in perfect sync to the music and with each other, you could do a lot worse than this batch of “amateurs”. 

So You Think You Can Dance is controlled at least partly by audience vote, more so as the season progresses. Not surprisingly, hormone-fueled teen girls don’t always make the “right” decision.  As each dancer took the stage (the bulk of the live show consisted of recreated routines shown during the season, interspersed with “funny” introductions and short individual spotlights), Angela would explain whether they’d been screwed over by the process or had nabbed a top spot undeservedly.

This happens in most voting-related shows, but I can see why it would be more difficult to choose from among good dancers than, say, good singers. Unless there’s an obvious slip-up, the performances are judged on whether a contestant is deemed to have truly passed himself off as a particular type of dancer, or to have put her heart into every movement—at least that’s what I understand from the judges’ often confusing comments. (Mia Michaels: “You have the potential of being in the books of history if you take it seriously and go for it and break down those walls and those boundaries. Get them gone, make them go away, Danny. Whatever it is that’s keeping you chained a little bit, break it because you are beyond, beyond, beyond. BEYOND.”)

It seems pretty subjective. Granted, you could say that about almost any sort of art, but I rarely sit and contemplate other art forms for nearly three consecutive hours. (Yes, I am the best boyfriend ever).

Having attended one of the live events a few years before, Angela knew to expect at least one “tear-jerker” performance during the set. This year, there were two: one was a portrayal of addiction, while the other showed a couple dealing with the woman’s battle with cancer. In both cases, I knew I was supposed to feel something, yet I saw nothing in the choreography that made me especially goose-bumpy. My only clue that these were sad dances (besides the “you might want to get the tissues out” intros) was the somewhat somber music.

I’m not trying to diss the choreographers, who are very talented and respected in their field. It’s just that I view dance like Angela watches a baseball game; the subtleties are lost on me. I’ll say I liked a dance if I liked the song it was set to (and there’s a pretty good soundtrack for the show, including everything from Ciara and Justin Timberlake’s “Love Sex Magic” to “Get Me to the Church on Time”) and if there are a few mind-boggling moves. The emotional side of it doesn’t really come through for me, though, and I don’t think it would no matter how close we were sitting to the dancers. Without that element, I’m never going to be invested in the show or understand its appeal for more than a few minutes at a time.

Not that it matters, as So You Think You Can Dance doesn’t need me. As long as there are hordes of overexcited tweens (and the occasional 27-year-old geometry teacher) willing to watch every night and maybe buy a few cheesy $30 t-shirts, the producers have done their job. If you’re not in that group, but wouldn’t mind a quick dance fix every once in a while, and you happen to live in the Chicago area, I’d recommend turning on Channel 11 at 8:30PM on Sunday nights.

Can I Step With You? may not have big-time choreography, technical proficiency or sex appeal, but it also requires no text-messaging ability nor a critical eye of any kind. All viewers are expected to do is to enjoy the groove, and maybe do a little dancing of their own. Best of all, because there are no announcers and no judges, there’s absolutely no screeching.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media