So You Think You Can Dance: Getting to the heart of the matter

Now that Season 7 of So You Think You Can Dance has come to a close and the confetti has settled since Lauren Froderman’s crowning in the season finale, I’d like to wrap up my reflection with one final post on the show for this summer. Previously I discussed the good, the bad, and the utterly frustrating with 15 reasons why dancers do not like the show and conversely a list of 10 positive aspects of the show. While I’ve enjoyed focusing on the quality of the show in these posts, what I’d really like to do is get to the heart of the matter and think critically about what it all means. Like, is it ok to hate the show? Is it really a big deal? And most importantly, what are we (particularly those in concert dance) supposed to do about it? By exploring the issues of perception, impact, and response, I hope to move from “utterly frustrating” to understanding and acting. Or at the very least, I hope to come to terms with how I regard this crazy phenomenon that is So You Think You Can Dance.

Perception: Is it ok to hate SYTYCD?

In short, yes, it’s ok, but ill feelings toward the show are really just wasted feelings. At least that’s what I’ve come to discover. See, I used to hate So You Think You Can Dance. Just hated it. To me the cons outweighed the pros, and the annoying aspects far overshadowed the few possible redeeming qualities. I hated the judges’ comments, the popularity voting, the dance choices, the belittling of my beloved art form to a shallow cheese-fest. I would get riled-up just at the mention of the show in conversation. And the few times I was forced to watch (while visiting the residence of a regular viewer), I would cope with many an eye roll and inner monologue of snide comments.

Since then, I have come to better appreciate the decent aspects of the show. But mostly I came to the realization that being mad at the show was pointless and possibly unacceptable. Why? 2 reasons.

The first reason is that it’s just a TV show. And as a TV show, a form of entertainment, it is bound to fall short when representing an art form. Television is limited in what it can do (or what producers allow it to do), so limited views of complex artistic forms and skewed aesthetic preferences should be expected. Even though SYTYCD is about dance, it will still always fundamentally be a TV show. Therefore, one cannot reasonably be outraged or disappointed when the show doesn’t treat dance the way one wants it to be treated. That would be asking too much, hoping it can be something that it can’t. So hating the show is pointless partially because it’s TV, and TV will always be flawed.

Secondly, the show’s chosen focus on commercial dance is a perfectly legitimate focus. The field of dance is divided into that which is done for commercial pursuits (in commercials, music videos, TV shows, movies, etc.) and that which is done for artistic purposes. I refer to these opposing sides as commercial dance and concert dance, which could also be framed as entertainment vs. art or even LA vs. NYC. Of course dance is not alone in this distinction, as most art forms have a more commercial counterpart – graphic design vs. visual art and jingles vs. concertos, for instance. The point is, though, that just because the show does not showcase artistic dance, does not mean it is without merit. It may not be fun for those in concert dance to feel excluded, but they cannot be too upset because commercial dance is just as legitimate a profession and a subject for a TV show.

Thus, upon realizing that SYTYCD is just a flawed TV show about a perfectly acceptable field of dance, I feel that I can no longer really hate the show. Getting all riled-up about a TV show now feels rather pointless. I have since settled into a stance of neutrality. I recognize that there are both good and bad qualities to the show. And I understand why many people like the show, and why others do not, feeling that it’s quite alright for people to have differing views. But mostly I feel that my perception has broadened and I have come to simply accept the show for what it is.

Taking this idea one step further, I would even suggest that such an open perception is vital to beginning to explore and discuss SYTYCD and its larger implications. The first step in starting the conversation is deciding how we receive and perceive the show. In doing so, I think it is important not to let any strong feelings get in the way of moving forward in analysis and discussion. We should recognize its faults and its assets, looking broadly at the show as a whole. For better or worse, SYTYCD is what it is, and we simply need to accept it and move on.

Impact: Is it really a big deal?

So by accepting the show and moving on we just do nothing, right? WRONG! So You Think You Can Dance is huge, so huge that it cannot be ignored. Consider these stats: The show started back in 2005 and is still going strong after 5 years and 7 seasons. It has continuously garnered critical praise with 16 Emmy nominations and 6 wins. Though the last 2 seasons have seen lower ratings than in years past, each episode still averages over 5 million viewers – 5 million sets of eyes in America watching dance twice a week. If the numbers aren’t enough, the show’s overwhelming popularity is evidenced in the innumerable amount of websites (like, blogs, and YouTube channels dedicated entirely to the show. From fans signing off on their favorite contestants to videos of the show’s performances, a simple Google search opens a Pandora’s Box of SYTYCD coverage. Then there are the big-name guest performances, from the likes of Usher and Flo Rida, which prove the show has successfully penetrated pop culture. And perhaps most insane are the spin-off shows that have developed in 16 other countries around the world. (Picture to the right is of a poster for Polish SYTYCD).

So yeah, I’d say it’s a pretty big deal. Because of the show’s popularity and success, it serves as a unique and powerful introduction of dance into the world. This includes the sad but true fact that SYTYCD is the only experience that many people have with dance at all. Thus, those in dance really cannot afford to ignore a TV show with such a far-reaching impact and a major influence on what people know of the form.

Along with influencing everyone else, SYTYCD also has a specific and direct impact on the world of concert dance. This means that we in concert dance cannot ignore the show, but also should not want to ignore it, since it directly affects us. As a dance reality TV show, SYTYCD has many negative consequences on the more artistic world of concert dance that need to be addressed. But there are also positive kickbacks of the show that we should embrace and take advantage of. Whether positive or negative, though, the point is that the show directly affects concert dance and we should not sit idly by. And this brings me to the third point of the discussion. Once we consider how we perceive the show and recognize its enormous impact on concert dance and the world at large, we are then called to action, to consider our response to this whole crazy phenomenon.

Response: What are we supposed to do about it?

In a dream world, So You Think You Can Dance would simply change into a better show with a broader view of dance and its artistic possibilities. (I also envision in this dream world that dance has as many viewers as football and that all dancers have full-time salaries with retirement plans.) But unfortunately this is real life, and there’s really nothing any of us can do to improve the show. The Hollywood machine of SYTYCD is not going to change in the slightest just because some disgruntled dance people start to hiss and moan. No matter which deceased choreographer’s spirit we try to invoke, I highly doubt any of us can really influence the powers that be and have them make choices that better suit our ideal representation of dance. Furthermore, it would be impossible for another, better show to be made for TV. Even if a separate concept of a perfect dance show could be created, it would probably never be mainstream enough or get enough sponsors to actually air on TV. The reality is that we can’t do much about what is on TV. All we can really do is focus on ourselves.

So in focusing on ourselves, what are we in concert dance supposed to do in response to the show? Clearly there is no simple answer to this question, and I am certainly not going to suggest that I know exactly what needs to be done. What I will suggest, though, is that we get the conversation started and begin exploring together possible ways to respond. The New York Times has covered SYTYCD in many articles over the years, always with strong critical analysis of the show and its impact. I particularly enjoyed Claudia La Rocco’s most recent article, which brought up many positive and negative effects of the show through interviews with a variety of people within dance. Yet while I do appreciate such critical reporting, what I really want to see/hear are people taking those analyses one step further, recognizing the effects of the show and considering what we can do in response to those effects.

To me, responding to the show involves counteracting the negatives and taking advantage of the positives. Let’s say we notice that the show does not showcase artistic dance, which means people are still blind to the meaningful dance we do on the concert stage. Instead of just sputtering and complaining (which I’ve done plenty of, to be fair), it’s important that we shift focus to what can actually be done about it. Perhaps constructive responses in this case would be developing better ways of educating the public about the possibilities of dance and brainstorming how to convince people to experience dance in a new way. Not easy solutions, but at least proactive attempts at dealing with negative backlash. Fortunately, not everything requires battle gear as there are also positive aspects of SYTYCD that we can use to our benefit. For example, possibly one of the best aspects of the show is that it introduces dance to millions of people in our country. As choreographer Roman Baca commented on one of my previous posts, “I give them props for the eyes they have brought to our art, and think it is up to us to take those eyes and keep them interested.”  In this case, we can rejoice in the extra eyes being brought to dance and focus on making them into our own audiences. Of course formulating responses and actually implementing them are not easy tasks, but they are necessary steps if we are to stand up to the show and use it toward our own agenda.

It should be noted here that staying true to ourselves and our art, as we focus on our own agenda, is very important when deciding how to respond to the show and other trysts with pop culture. We have seen dance productions that decided to use the popularity of SYTYCD by casting former contestants into their ensembles, and other performing companies that have incorporated SYTYCD-esque routines into evening programs to generate more appeal. Perhaps in these examples artistic integrity was kept intact, but we do need to be careful not to cross the line when using the show for our benefit. It may be tempting, but we cannot belittle our form or stoop to their level just to gain from the show’s popularity. In whatever we do, we must remember our own worth and maintain a high level of artistry and quality.

Personally, I feel that the best way of responding to such a TV show is to use it as a springboard for a national dialogue about dance in our country. Though, I will admit that this is not my original idea, but that of my good friend and talented dance writer, Brian Schaefer. In his own SYTYCD post, from his dance blog, My Two Left Feet, Brian concludes that the show has offered dance a rare link to pop culture and that we should use this link as a reference point for discussion. And I whole-heartedly agree. I think, above all other strategies, we should use this great opportunity to embark on a national discussion about our art form and how it relates to the rest of society. The specific ways we respond to the effects of the show are important to deal with the here and now, but a national dialogue about dance will continue to be relevant even after the life of this one TV show. I can’t think of a better response for concert dance than to begin such a dialogue.


Perception, impact, and response. As the length of this post suggests, there is a lot to consider for just a simple reality TV show about a dance competition. And as usual, the exploration and questions will continue on. What does SYTYCD teach us about ourselves? What are the unique effects of placing dance into pop culture? What responses have been successful and what else do we need to do? What do we take with us even after the show goes off the air? What is my own personal response to the show and my role in facilitating fruitful discussion?

Certainly this last question will be on my mind as I move forward in exploration. I’m sure I will always follow the show at a comfortable distance, but perhaps in future seasons I will embrace a more active role of participation and discussion. In the end, it’s just a TV show, which won’t even be around forever. But I (and hopefully others) will continue to think about the show and what it means in the larger context because I feel it’s not only a relevant conversation but a necessary one. So You Think You Can Dance has left its mark, and now it’s up to us to figure out what to do with it. 

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  1. Perfect blog ! i love to read your blog again and again.Much impressive for me.This is the first time i read about this show, at the first time itself i am much impressed such a quality post is published.

  1. Assessment of American concert dance world: Needs Improvement « The Hidden Language of the Soul

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  • Meagan Bruskewicz

  • Dance is the hidden language of the soul.
    -Martha Graham

    One of my aims is to present questions rather than answers. -Paul Taylor

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