Cut from the same cloth as American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance blends earnest if cheesy spectacle and reality TV conventionality. Apparently, this was enough to make it the “most TiVoed show” during the week of 24 July.
Like Idol, Dance‘s vote-in format creates automatic stakes for viewers. Contestants are paired into couples each week to perform a different style (or styles) of dance; last year, the judges singled out the three weakest couples for possible elimination, and the audience voted one out. This season, however, for the first five weeks of competition, the audience voted the bottom three, with judges choosing who would go home (“One guy and one gell,” in the words of host/English totty Cat Deeley). Since the judges now exercise greater control over which dancers left — presumably, the least talented — you’d expect viewers would feel distanced and be less invested in the contestants this year.
To reduce some of this potential distance, Dance has reemphasized the reality TV standby of the coming-of-age story. Injected between its fixed-smile ballroom numbers and overwrought contemporary/lyrical routines, the coming-of-age story allows viewers to invest in the proceedings. During Week Five, young Ivan reduced judge Mary Murphy to tears with a sterling contemporary performance filled with yearning and pathos, a performance which capped his “growth” from big-eared hip-hopper to mature and versatile dancer. We were reminded of that fact last week, when head judge and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe observed that Ivan was the only untrained dancer among the final six contestants. “This is what it’s all about: growing,” pronounced Lythgoe. Though Ivan was subsequently eliminated that night, Deeley underscored his maturation with her valedictory remarks on his behalf, “From boy to man.” That same week, judges berated Donyelle for not improving at a similar pace even though she consistently performed at the head of the pack.
The explicit arc of “Ivan’s Story” was a rarity for Dance, but the show provides other drama in the requisite annoying judges. Chief among these is Lythgoe. Taking up the Simon Cowell role, he dispenses acidic venom at contestants, as well as “brutally honest” critiques, of which the in-studio audience vocally disapproves. Less deliberately confrontational than Lythgoe, the other, merely aggravating judges also solicit the contempt from viewers and consequently align them with relatively sympathetic contestants. Murphy is the most prominent irritant. Her critiques rarely contain concrete points upon which the dancers can improve; instead, she’s focused on her own performance, in particular, her dramatic phrasing. “I mean, honestly,” she told frontrunners Benji and Donyelle after an exuberant Broadway routine, “Fifty percent of that was just corny and cheesy, 40% was energetic dancing, 10% was pulling faces, and I would have to say, 100% of it was just absolutely fantastic! Waaah!” While Murphy’s punctuation of such rhetorical convolutions with her “trademark” scream is annoying, the viewer might find Dance a less galvanizing experience without her.
But these conventionally despicable judges are only half of the show’s appeal, which is after all, a dance competition featuring a wide range of styles each week. Where Dancing with the Stars is firmly rooted in ballroom, So You Think You Can Dance runs the generic gamut; on its second night of competition, the show featured ballroom styles such as the foxtrot, the samba, the Cha Cha, and the American Jive, alongside contemporary styles like hip-hop and the now-ubiquitous krump.
Such diversity exposes neophyte viewers to unexpected marvels, like Heidi and then-partner Ryan’s Cuban rumba, an exhilaratingly rhythmic pas de deux. Alternately, the show’s diversity teaches philistines to appreciate classical styles, including the grace and eroticism of Heidi and Travis’ Paso Doble. In effect, viewers receive a crash course in the kinesthetic possibilities of human expression, but if that’s not your cup of tea, you can still wallow in the show’s trashy aspects. At the very least, the Mary Murphy Drinking Game would be a great way to spend a Wednesday night.