I’m going to part ways with the general consensus that the judges on FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance offer the contestants inane feedback on their performances. Of course, the judges on FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance do offer the contestants inane feedback on their performances—shrieks about Hot Tamale Trains, endorsements of “buck”ness, general confusion about each dancer’s identity. However, if the show’s seventh season has proven nothing else, it’s that the judges can offer commentary that is straightforward—and potentially racist, sexist, and homophobic.
I began writing this entry on the afternoon of 28 July, hours before the next installment of So You Think You Can Dance’s seventh season was set to air, and when I was still reeling from the 21 July episode, during which the judges, once again, sliced into Jose Ruiz for being untrained and, according to Mia Michaels, too human. Lauren Froderman, on the other hand, received credit from Nigel Lythgoe, after Adam Shankman remembered who she was, for giving a “sick” performance; later, she “shot her partner with her butt”.
These comments followed a series of performances that, in many ways, pitted Lauren and Jose against each other. Juxtaposed during the broadcast were Lauren’s sick hip-hop routine and butt assassination samba with Jose’s edge-of-the-stage contemporary routine and his Paso Doble with AdéChiké. (Clips of each performance, and subsequent commentary, are available in a searchable playlist on the So You Think You Can Dance website.)
At the end of the episode, it was fairly clear that, in the judges’ collective mind, Jose remained a bit of a poser—an amateur outside of the academy of dance whose technical flaws emerge in whatever style of dance he performs. Lauren, by contrast, rises to every occasion. Hence her apparent status as a shapeshifter: no matter what style/character she is asked to inhabit, she does so flawlessly.
On the surface, these comments seem fairly sincere and potentially accurate. However, and this is a big however, what underlies these comments is the judges’ fairly pronounced phobias of difference, be those differences cultural or aesthetic. Throughout the night—indeed throughout the season—Jose has consistently been called on the proverbial carpet for not being a classically trained dancer. On top of that, Jose has also, for whatever bizarre reason, been held accountable for being given routines that attempt to mask his lack of training.
These attempts by the choreographers ultimately become insulting fodder for the judges as they offer Jose all manner of backhanded compliments, like Shankman’s claim that he couldn’t critique Jose’s contemporary routine because it challenged their conventional conceptions of dance. Lauren, in contrast, receives effuse praise when her blouse is unbuttoned, and she, literally, rides her male partner.
Sure, one way to contextualize all of this is by attributing it to the AmericaTM that votes for these contestants every week. It wouldn’t be completely off base to trace America’sTM history of voting for young blonde girls in reality competitions of this kind.
We would be remiss, though, if we did not hold Dance’s producers, a team that includes Mr. Lythgoe, accountable for the progression of Season 7, because they reorganized the show’s format to allow only 11 contestants on the show, thus limiting their pool of finalists. Likewise, the judges, a team that includes Mr. Lythgoe, are the ones who chose those finalists in Las Vegas.
In short, they put Jose on the show. If he wasn’t good enough for the televised episodes, why advance him in the first place? Moreover, what is the point in advancing him, knowing he is untrained, only to remind him publicly every week that he’s an unskilled B-Boy?
If we overlook the fact that B-Boy style, in its broad connections to Hip Hop culture, often disidentifies with conventional conceptions of dance and what qualifies as “technical proficiency” (this is, of course, an enormous concession), we’re left, really, with one simple question. Could Lauren breakdance?
If we follow the judges’ “logic” all the way through, Jose is not a strong dancer because he is not trained and is consistently given routines that cover up his weaknesses. Why is it, then, that the hip hop routine designed for Lauren found her sitting on her backside as opposed to standing on her head—like Jose? Didn’t that routine similarly cover up her potential weaknesses—weaknesses that would only be exposed if she wasn’t, week after week, jiggling all over the stage? Or could it be that such jiggling is in keeping with conventional conceptions of dance?
Either way, Nigel’s respect for cowboy-inspired routines seems to have improved over the past year. Then again, with Lauren and Twitch’s performance, the, ahem, gun was, ahem, in the right, ahem, holster, which might explain his seeming progressivism.
All of which leads us back to Jose and AdéChiké’s ill-fated Paso Doble. In plain terms, the judges had no idea what to do with it, which is ironic considering, once again, that the judges had everything to do with the circumstances that lead to the routine in the first place. “Effort”, “commitment”, “aesthetics”—all in place. The dance, however, remained merely “an interesting exercise” that “Spaniards” can do well because they—and they alone, apparently—put “something” into it.
The mind boggles at this string of essentialisms. At the end of all this so-called diplomacy, Jose and AdéChiké, were still called out for not being conventional—for not being conventionally Spanish (not their fault), for not having conventional capes/female partners to lead in the dance (also not their fault), and for not having that conventional something that none of the judges could define (also not their fault because I’m sure they don’t know what that something is, either).
For the judges, this Paso Doble routine concluded the show on an apparently troubling, unconventional note. As such, it serves as a perfect point of contrast to Lauren’s opening sick routine—a routine that excited the judges and was clearly conventional in its setting of a hip-hop throwdown in the Wild West, a locale known for its longstanding connections to Hip Hop culture and that has, of course, come to be more welcoming to cultural difference than any other place in the United States.
Keep your butts holstered, folks. Another nasty ride on the Hot Tamale Train starts soon. If it’s not inane, it will definitely be buck.
Update, 28 July Episode: Jose’s hip-hop routine was “not his style”, lacked “swag”, and “did not work for [Mia];” Lauren’s Broadway routine (which paired her with the equally blonde Allison) found her “already being an all star”, left Mia “with nothing to critique”, and blurred the line between strong and sexy so that Lauren’s strength became synonymous with her sex appeal. Fascinating.