Reality TV isn’t all bad. Sure, it’s gimmicky and the contestants are usually attention whores in desperate need of a comeback, but reality TV has seen an increase in dance shows that have helped to correct its bad image. Though these shows often cheat — by featuring burlesque dancing or B-list celebrities — to nab high ratings, they often feature talented dancers who manage to thrive in a struggling business.
With the rising popularity of dance shows, ordinary Americans — not just the cultural elite — can be exposed to the art form. Prior to shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars,” people with low incomes or living in rural areas had few opportunities to attend dance performances. In spite of some of their gimmicks, dance shows are a positive addition to television as well as the dance world. Because they’re meant to entertain a varied audience, they have to show what most people find entertaining. However, that doesn’t mean classical ballet and modern dance should go unrecognized or ignored. Dance on TV isn’t a replacement for live theater dance but does provide additional ways for people to experience it.
The current crop of dance shows differ in how seriously they approach the discipline. Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” has a more professional and less campy approach than others like Bravo’s “Step It Up and Dance.” “So You Think” is a competition between 20 dancers contending for the title of “America’s Favorite Dancer” in many disciplines, from Broadway jazz to Argentinean tango. “Step It Up” is also a competition but contestants compete in novelty acts like dance-offs and exotic dancing. It isn’t often that a professional dancer has to pole dance unless that professional dancer is actually a stripper, which isn’t usually the case. Not all of the shows present dance tastefully; shows like “Step it Up” are riding on the coattails of their successful contemporaries without incorporating any artistic elements.
Since “So You Think” and “Dancing With the Stars” premiered, numerous networks like MTV and Lifetime have jumped on the dance-reality-show bandwagon. Dance shows range from featuring underground hip-hop groups to paired father-daughter duets. Elitists may argue that reality dance shows compromise the integrity of dance as an art form to receive high ratings by using Top 40 music and putting dancers in revealing costumes. In order for dance to succeed on TV, shows have to include things the mainstream public finds appealing. Is that so bad?
Dance shows aren’t entirely crass; “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing With the Stars” were nominated for Emmy Awards for outstanding choreography. Nominees like choreographers Mia Michaels (Celine Dion Vegas Concert) and Wade Robson (“Cirque De Soleil”) created works that are technically difficult and innovative yet appeal to the masses. For the first time since Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, dancers and dance choreographers have become household names.
As dance has secured its place in the TV world, shows have begun taking more artistic risks. Instead of having musical guests every week, “So You Think” featured professional dance companies such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Los Angeles Ballet. World dance forms also earn prominence on mainstream TV; an ensemble number choreographed for the cast of “So You Think” incorporated elements of Bollywood and traditional Indian dances. Integrating high art with entertainment is not as threatening to the audience and the fans will more likely be receptive to foreign and classical styles.
Dance reality shows creatively bring the art form to the forefront of American entertainment. Most people don’t realize that popular dances featured on the shows — like jazz, contemporary and even hip hop — are derived from classical ballet and modern dance. Both mainstream and theater dance require great technical ability and contain magnetic performance qualities. This past season, the two camps began to bridge the gap between classical and mainstream forms. Not only did “So You Think” feature theater dance companies, but Atlanta Ballet and Big Boi of Outkast collaborated on a ballet concert set to a hip-hop score. Everyone doesn’t enjoy symphony orchestras but people can still listen to mainstream music; why can’t people watch popular dance? It’s time that high and popular cultures cohabit peacefully.
Five years ago, dance had a small following comprised mostly of “cultured adults.” With 10 dance shows on TV today, enthusiasts have grown exponentially and its audience ranges from hip teens to macho guys; the skilled art is no longer just for stuffy old people. Just when the dance world was looking bleak, it’s hitting an upswing.