FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance began its fifth season last week, leading the total viewer count for its time slot on Thursday at 8 pm by over a million people. This popular reality show/dance competition that challenges dancers to step up to choreography in varying styles began with auditions in New York and Denver. It had its usual assortment of classically trained, ballroom, and street dancers, as well as a few surprises that had the judges alternately laughing, cringing, crying, inspired, and even awkwardly sidestepping what appeared to be a bad case of foot-in-mouth regarding one of the hot political issues of our time. Who could ask for anything more?
In a recent interview, host Cat Deeley elaborated on the upcoming season and some of the reasons why So You Think You Can Dance is such a popular show. She began the interview commenting on how the show helps to erase some of the stereotypes about dancers, and stating that diversity is the nature of the show. “We like to celebrate people from all different races, religions, backgrounds, colors, creeds. You know, that’s the whole idea of the show, is that anybody from any background at all with any training can come on the show, and as long as they’ve got the talent and passion and they’re prepared to work hard, and also show their personality, of course, they are more than welcome to be on the show.”
She added, "We’re not necessarily looking for a certain body type or a certain style or anything like that. We’re looking for America’s favorite dancer, which doesn’t necessarily mean the best. I’m certainly not asking people to fit in certain boxes. We’re not asking people to fit in certain molds. We’re kind of all-encompassing. We want people who the American public are going to identify with and are going to pick up the phone and vote for, and that’s what’s so special about our show."
One of last season’s highlights for me was seeing a Bollywood routine performed for the first time. I asked Cat if there were plans to bring more of an international flavor to the show and she replied, "Actually, we’d like to embrace all different types of choreography and styles and nationalities." Since the Bollywood choreography was such a success, and since we live in a more global environment "… we do have all these different cultures available to us and all these different art forms and we absolutely should embrace it. I know that Nigel [Lythgoe] is very adamant that we should bring these new styles to the show and put them in people’s homes where they wouldn’t normally have their eyes opened up to it. So, to give them something new, whether they’d like it or whether they’d hate it is great, just to have people slightly educated and to have an opinion about it is brilliant."
Diversity seemed to be the name of the game in this recent round of auditions. There were some dancers auditioning for a second time, as well as newcomers. One highlighted duo from New York danced in a style that I had first encountered with the Ringmasters dance crew on America’s Best Dance Crew. The two who auditioned for SYTYCD painted their faces green and called themselves The Mutation. They certainly put their own spin on the bone-breaking, flexing, contortionist style of this popular dance from the streets of Brooklyn. They seemed to present a certain challenge to the judges, who invited them to head for a choreography round to see if they would fit into the competition. I would have loved to see if the two dancers could do the choreography, but they opted out at that point. They were, of course, grateful for the opportunity.
Another example of diversity from Thursday night’s show was a dancer from New York who had only three vertebrae. While her back and neck never grew, her limbs had developed normally. She spoke of the pain she had to endure growing up, both physical and emotional, and her story was meant to inspire. Unfortunately, while the judges applauded her bravery in auditioning and the fact that she chose dance as the way to overcome her obstacles, she was not accepted into the competition due to her lack of technical prowess.
The most controversial example of diversity came in the form of Misha Belfer and Mitchel Kibel, a male ballroom dance team. Only one of the dancers is gay, but they were the show’s first same-sex ballroom duo. They danced a spirited samba, which ended unfortunately in a failed lift. However, it was the judges’ response to the couple that was the most unfortunate of all. Nigel Lythgoe said, “I think you probably alienate a lot of our audience. I mean, we’ve always had the guys dance together on the show, but they’ve never really done it in each other’s arms before.” Nigel went on to suggest that both of the men in the group go into the choreography round and dance with women. Neither of the duo made it past the choreography.
When I first heard Nigel’s remarks, I thought, “Uh oh… that’s going to get him in trouble,” and sure enough, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) was outraged and demanded an apology. It seemed to me that Nigel had not given any thought to the portion of his audience that would be alienated by his comments. Nigel compared the duo to the film Blades of Glory, and fellow judges Mary Murphy and Sonya Tayeh seemed confused about who was leading whom and about the male/female role that each of the partners typically assume in a ballroom couple. Instead of applauding the duo for challenging the status quo in ballroom dance, the judges could not get beyond their notions that ballroom couples should be male/female. It was an unfortunate and embarrassing incident for the show and for the dancers who took a calculated chance in being different and had it backfire.
Nigel did post the following apology: “I sincerely regret the fact that I have upset people with the poor word choices and comments I made both during the taping of the So You Think You Can Dance audition and on my personal status update. I am not homophobic and it was extremely upsetting for me to be classed as such. Professionally and personally, I believe the sexual orientation of an auditioner or contestant is irrelevant. I trust that my humor will be more sensitive and mindful moving forward.”
I can only predict that future installments of SYTYCD will have more and more same-sex couples auditioning in order to challenge stereotypes in the dance world. Who knows, maybe Misha and Mitchel will be back for the next round of auditions for season six that begin this week in Boston. I am looking forward to watching part two of the season five auditions which airs on Wednesday, May 27 at 8, and I know that we will be entertained, thrilled, and, yes, even challenged to expand our conceptions of dance throughout the summer as we watch and vote for America’s favorite dancer on So You Think You Can Dance.