So You Think You Can Dance

So You Think You Can Dance understands that there are as many styles of dance as there are styles of music, and strives to educate its contestants, forcing them to reach beyond their comfort zones.

So You Think You Can Dance

Airtime: Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8pm ET
Cast: Cat Deeley (host), Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy (judges)
Subtitle: Season Four Premiere
Network: Fox
US release date: 2008-05-22

Imagine having to tell someone you've decided he won't be able to achieve his dream. How would you handle it? Be sympathetic or painfully honest? Laugh, mock him, try to find something positive to say?

The judges of So You Think You Can Dance offered a mix as they sat through auditions for the fourth season last Wednesday (to be re-aired on Monday 26 May). They sent aspirants away with taunts such as "You will never be a dancer" and "That was movement, it wasn't dancing." Following the well-established pattern of the genre, the premiere episode of the new season exposed viewers to a wide range of hopefuls, talented and not. A few personal stories were shared, allowing us to get to "know" about one percent of the total number who auditioned, so we could laugh at those with hopes larger than their talent.

Herein lies the greatest shortcoming of So You Think You Can Dance: the show that asks of it contestants creativity and passion relies heavily on the tried and tired American Idol formula. The mindset of SYTYCD is that the formula has pulled in huge ratings in the past, so there is no cause for changing it, except in the most minor ways. It has apparently not occurred to anyone involved that this show attracts large audiences despite the increasingly tedious formula, not because of it. Nonetheless, SYTYCD relies on artistry and diversity in picking its champion more than any other talent contest on TV, which makes it worth watching despite its flaws.

Unfortunately, the American Idol recipe dictates almost every aspect of the show, from the fluff-filled results shows to the irritatingly long "dramatic pause" announcements of winners and losers. SYTYCD takes these to such extremes that the show had to roll closing credits seconds after announcing Sabra Johnson as last season's winner, leaving no time to interview the new champ or allow fans to watch her reaction to the news. Instead, the show granted full time for the judges' pontificating about the finalists.

The new season is playing out in predictable fashion. After the requisite two episodes of auditions, the show sets about picking a new champion by weeding down the list of hopefuls week by week. A panel of judges skewers or exalts their work, but the American public -- the same American public that picked Taylor Hicks to be an Idol and dumped should-have-been-champ Sabrina Bryan from Dancing with the Stars -- decides on who stays or goes. Hopefuls perform one night, and learn their fates the next.

Many of those performances, however, are remarkably compelling. Although some dancers come to the show with no formal training, having earned their krump dance creds on the street, each is expected to learn, assimilate, and perform everything from ballroom to Broadway, the Lindy hop to hip hop. To assist them on this journey, the show employs some of the world's best dancers and choreographers (choreographers and guest-judges Mia Michaels and Wade Robson shared last year's Emmy for Outstanding Choreography). Consequently, the dancing is frequently magnificent, covering a range of styles and moods.

Each of these choreographed dances is a partnered dance, which further demonstrates the dancers' skills and hard work. Few of the finalists are used to partner work, so viewers can see how well each adapts to the additional burden of supporting another in an artistic piece. Additionally, the opening dance of each performance show is an ensemble piece, presenting the opportunity to make side-by-side comparisons of all contestants.

And still, contestants are allowed to go back to what they do best in solo dances. In the end, each contestant leaves the show a better, more marketable dancer, which isn't necessarily the case with similar shows. Little training is done on most such shows, where competitors are expected to know how to sing, design clothes, cook, or whatever, and to handle whatever the show throws at them. Can't sing R&B? Don't know how to sew men's clothes? Fake it.

SYTYCD, by contrast, understands that there are as many styles of dance as there are styles of music, and strives to educate its contestants, forcing them to reach beyond their comfort zones. This goal is even reflected in the judges' comments, which include productive criticism and suggestions for improvement, not just hollow platitudes or snarky ridicule (although there is some of that as well, as evidenced by the typically painful audition rounds).

It is too early in the new season to know whether this year's wannabe stars will live up to the standard of previous seasons, but the fact that several of the contenders who were put through to the next round were also-rans from last season raises concerns. Is the talent pool running dry, allowing former losers another shot at the title? Or are the breakout stars being kept under wraps so that producers can hope for the "Wow" response from voters?

Either way, the first two episodes of this and every season are a waste of time, unless you enjoy watching bad performances being derided. Haven't we all seen enough of that? However, once the series gets into Week Three and the selected dancers start competing, SYTYCD has always presented something worth watching, top-notch dancers performing innovative choreography. If only viewers didn't have to sit through so much fluff and ritual to see them.


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