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‘You’re Good at What You Do’: Backhanded Compliments and Thinly Veiled Bias on ‘So You Think You Can Dance’

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I would be the first to say that So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) is one of the top five reality competitions on television today. The talent of the dancers is matched only by the will, determination, and rocky roads that have led many of them to the SYTYCD stage. By the time we get to the live shows…Wow! I often feel like I have a front-row seat at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater or the Bolshoi. As with any reality show, hosts are important as well, and Cat Deeley makes seem easy a role that others like Carson Daly make painful.

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Also, however, like any competition show, SYTYCD has judges, and this is where the show loses major points. The bias – particularly from judge and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe – toward contemporary, lyrical and ballet (described as Western classical dance) is overwhelmingly apparent. For several seasons now I’ve been struck by Lythgoe’s reactions and responses to dancers who choose Hip Hop, Crump, Animation, Pop, or Vogue (described as Street or Club styles) as the forms in which they audition – particularly the “cautious awe” effect.

Audition after audition, I’ve watched the judges’ jaws drop while witnessing the grace, athleticism, and creativity of styles in which they themselves are not trained, and then follow their obvious elation with, “But, I’m not sure what else you can do.” To the contrary, a solid ballet performance in a SYTYCD audition tends to be judged solely on its own merit and almost never leads the judges to question the dancer’s ability to dance other forms. This wouldn’t be a problem for a show called So You Think You Can Pirouette. It also wouldn’t be a problem if valuing ballet over breakdancing weren’t inextricably linked to the classes and cultures from which these art forms emerged.

“It’s not about race. It’s about the quality of the art form” is a very tired argument that willfully ignores two realities: 1) “Quality” is subjective, and elevating “classical” above “folk” or “street” is rooted in a sense of Western supremacy, and 2) persistent racial inequality in America still means that young people of color with a love of dance have unequal access to its “classical” forms.

Of one performer who danced in the style of New York Vogueing, one judge said, “This program requires you to be more versatile,” before rejecting him. And this happened right after another judge praised his “flexibility” and called him amazing. Of a Black woman who danced a Ballet routine, a judge confessed, “I’ll be honest; I didn’t know what I was going to get. What I got was a fabulous dancer.”

Time after time, my analysis shows a three-layered phenomenon quite clearly: 1) comments that indicated surprise at a dancer’s ability were consistently reserved for non-white dancers who performed a classical routine; 2) comments that indicated concern about a dancer’s ability to excel in other forms were consistently reserved for those whose auditions were a street or club routine; and 3) comments that pointed to a judge’s belief that a dancer “could do anything” were reserved for competitors like the Ballroom dancer who was told “I can tell you have exemplary talent in every area” after seeing one minute of one routine in one genre.

When I first started contemplating the ways that different dance forms elicited different reactions by the SYTYCD judges I immediately leapt to the question of how bias might actually affect the outcomes of the auditions and, ultimately, the outcome of the competition. I figured I’d review old seasons and collect, code, and crunch the data. What I began seeing, however, is that early biases and assumptions didn’t necessarily affect outcomes later on in the process. When given the chance to prove themselves, some Hip Hop dancers were able to demonstrate their abilities to artfully dance other styles. Conversely, some contemporary dancers (who were assumed to “have it all”) were not able to adapt when forced to dance Hip Hop. What this suggests to me is the truth in the old adage that some individuals need to work twice as hard to go half as far, while others benefit from a “foot-already-in-the-door” privilege.

About KJ Ward

KJ is a Hollywood-based ghostwriter, editor, and social science researcher.
  • MJ

    So very tired of hearing this racial bias tripe. Fact is, these dancers need to stand a chance at looking good doing every style. Hiphop dancers have won on more than one occasion, and Nigel’s promotion of them is a big part of the reason why. ALSO – as a producer, he chooses to showcase the dancers who are fabulous AT WHAT THEY DO so that they can be appreciated – even if they aren’t going to make the cut for the competition. Plenty of people of color in many different genres have competed here and done well. Quit trying to make something out of nothing. It’s sad and pathetic.

  • 1040law

    Sorry, but I think that you are missing some important points in understanding of both dance and the premise of the show. “Street” dancers, as fantastic as they are, are not trained in either partnering or learning choreography. Both skills are obtained in traditional dance classes such as ballet, contemporary or ballroom. Since the show’s format is predicated on learning movement from someone else in a sequence and working with a partner it is only natural that those with such backgrounds would be favored.