Assessment of American concert dance world: Needs Improvement

I have seen the dance world from multiple perspectives. I have studied dance most of my life and performed, choreographed, and taught dance. I have learned about dance (with a degree to show for it) and read, thought, and written about dance. I have worked in administrative roles for dance education, presenting, and service organizations. I have engaged with Dance/NYC, Dance/USA, the Congress on Research in Dance, the Arts and Business Council, and the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. I live in New York City where I see dance performances and hobnob with a variety of dance professionals on a regular basis.

And my consensus from observing the dance world from these diverse vantage points is: 1) I love it; I believe in it; I’m not done with it, and 2) It needs a lot of work if it wants to grow and sustain.

I have compiled here a list of problems or areas that I think need improvement in the large context of concert dance in the U.S. I have been thinking about these things for a while, but when I went to actually write down a list, I was surprised that I came up with so many – 20 in total. Because of this, I decided to divide them into categories, so that the full list wouldn’t be as overwhelming. Thus, here is my current list of areas of need for American concert dance

Coming together

  • There is not enough connection and caring among the different sectors of the dance world. I often refer to the 4 A’s and an E: Artists, Administrators, Advocates, Academics, and Educators. I feel that there need to be communication bridges between each of these groups as well as mutual respect and concern for the health of each sector.
  • Specifically, academic researchers and writers tend to be very exclusive. I spoke about this in my review of the Congress on Research in Dance conference last November. I particularly wish that academics were more inclusive of the rest of the field in their studies and also shared their findings with a broader audience, sparking positive change by sharing the knowledge with those it actually affects.
  • Once connecting bridges are established between the different sectors, there needs to be more discourse among people in dance. We need to come together to talk about issues and discuss solutions.
  • I feel dance writers could play a critical role in helping this discourse to happen – using media platforms to bring up topics and engage conversation (not just providing dance criticism). In order to do this, though, we need more opportunities, support, and compensation for dance writers.
  • To fully bring everyone to the table and working together to promote change, we may need to improve our current service organizations and possibly create new ones. For example, I think the Dance Critics Association and Dance/USA could benefit from clarified missions and rejuvenated energy. And with so many separate organizations for each professional group (though each useful), is there need for a national umbrella organization for all things dance, to at least bring representatives from each community together for cross-conversation?

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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. (more…)

So You Think You Can Dance isn’t all bad: 10 positives about the show

In my last post, I focused on the negative aspects of the hit reality dance show, So You Think You Can Dance, with 15 reasons why dancers don’t like the show. But as I noted in my conclusion, there are also positives about the show and some things that SYTYCD does very well. So for this post, I’m diving into glass-half-full mode and noting 10 positive qualities about the show. (Though, the fact that there are less items in this list should be telling.) Without further ado, let’s look at the sunny side of So You Think You Can Dance.

1)  Yes, the show has flaws, BUT it does conquer the huge tasks of introducing people to dance and educating them about dance. Millions of people that would not otherwise have a connection to the form are now welcoming dance into their living rooms. And in doing so, they’re also gaining an education, learning about technique, various dance styles, what makes a good dancer, etc. I mean, the show averages 5 million viewers an episode. Go dance!

2)  Yes, SYTYCD focuses on pursuing commercial dance, BUT at least it shows dance as a valid career. Perhaps now when young people say they want to pursue dance, they are met with slightly more understanding and encouraging responses from others. And perhaps there are actually more jobs created for dancers as people come to recognize its potential and popularity.

3)  Yes, there are skewed aesthetic preferences made about the dancers, BUT a positive preference of the show is the way it rewards good personalities. For the most part, a contestant will not go far by being arrogant and rebellious. The judges literally promote those who are good-natured and mindful of corrections (and the audience typically follows suit), which teaches dancers that acting professional is just as important in having a successful career.

4)  Yes, many pieces are just about entertaining and tricks, BUT some are actually really creative and even artistic. It’s always a special moment when some enlightened choreographer teeters on that edge of art, abstractly using the dance as a tool for expression and lifting the form to a slightly higher place. To me, one of those dances this season was the Billy & Adé contemporary routine from Week 7 – if you haven’t seen it, you can check it out here. These rare gems alone could make the show worth watching (or at least watching the video clip the following day after hearing all the buzz).

5)  Yes, it’s somewhat strange to have previous contestants back on the show, BUT having All-stars perform with the current contestants and voting off one dancer at a time seem to be suitable changes to the show. Now, the dancers are judged more individually and a strong dancer isn’t unfairly eliminated for having a weak partner. Working with the All-Stars also seems to make for more creative and interesting routines, perhaps because more same-gender pairings have occurred or because there is less pressure to highlight both dancers at the same time. Whatever it is, I welcome the change.

6)  Yes, there are oddly many singing guest performers, BUT there are also a few included guests from the world of concert dance, like ABT and Alvin Ailey. These provide a rare but welcome crossover into other dance realms. Plus, the pop singers that perform are usually joined by back-up dancers, at least making their appearances seem more legitimate.

7)  Yes, the judges say some ridiculous things, BUT they are also good at providing constructive criticism when they see fit. The judges are usually quite honest with their feelings and even harsh when they think it’s necessary, which shows that they care about preserving the integrity of the form.

8)  Yes, the voting public has a lot of power, which can lead to some mistakes, BUT sometimes the viewers actually get it right, choosing quality over popularity. And when they mess it up a bit, at least the judges get the last say about who goes home. Which is how a fair competition should be – mostly in the hands of the experts.

9)  Yes, SYTYCD may be cheesy and schmaltzy, BUT it does a great job being cheesy and schmaltzy. With its appealing camera work, funky costumes, and focus on personal stories, the show really knows how to grab people and keep them interested. If you’re going to put dance on TV, then you better take full advantage of the medium. And they absolutely do.

10)  Yes, some may still be disappointed by the dancing done on the show, BUT those people should at least find some peace in the fact that SYTYCD uses its popular platform for other good things. From shedding light on the Dizzy Feet Foundation to promoting National Dance Day, Nigel Lythgoe does a nice job providing air time to worthy causes involving dance.

I completely admit that while watching So You Think You Can Dance for the past several weeks, there were many times that I just gave in to the fabulousness of it all, throwing all dance snobbery to the wind and simply enjoying the fun routines and pretty dancing. There are certainly many reasons why the show is insanely popular. But, as I hopefully demonstrated through this list, there are also many reasons why the show is legitimately doing a good job at showcasing dance to the public. Though the show has many flaws, its positive qualities deserve to be commended as well as equally noted when discussing the huge impact of the show (which I plan on exploring in my next post). So to end on the positive, I’d like to thank SYTYCD for simply sharing dance with so many people and making such discussions about the form even possible. Go dance!

15 Reasons why dancers do not like So You Think You Can Dance

To be fair, there are many dancers that do like So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD). The hit reality dance show has become hugely popular among the general public, with many dancers themselves included in the dedicated viewership, following every performance and every elimination. While such a liking for a dance show may be expected from dancers, it is also understandable that many other dancers lie at the other end of the spectrum. Just as some doctors don’t like House and probably most lawyers hate Judge Judy, a show’s overall popularity does not mean that its own community is on board. As a dancer myself, I know there are many grievances to be had with SYTYCD. (I have sat through plenty of episodes with my mother, grimacing and eye-rolling on the other end of the couch.) And so, with the show nearing the end of its 7th season, I feel it is fitting to shed some light on why some dancers do not actually like So You Think You Can Dance.

1)  Perhaps the biggest beef to be had with SYTYCD is that it focuses on commercial dance and fails to educate the world about concert dance. Yes, there are the few guest performers from American Ballet Theatre and Alvin Ailey and so on, but for the most part the show highlights dance that is entertaining and crowd-pleasing, not necessarily artistic. Especially for those within concert dance, it can be difficult to see millions of people watching dance but not actually knowing its full potential or appreciating it as a valuable art form.

2)  Poor tapping Melinda – she didn’t stand a chance. But you don’t have to be a tapper to be annoyed at the gross amount of dance styles not included on the show. If they have to learn Bollywood or ballroom dancing for the first time, why not ballet, or African, or modern release technique?

3)  Even the genres of dance that they perform on the show are often stunted. For example, the hip hop could draw from many more styles of hip hop. And I’m sure ballroom enthusiasts get frustrated with watered-down routines. In general, the dances could be more thorough, authentic, and advanced.

4)  When the judges say technique, they really mean ballet technique, and that’s just not fair. Because then they say that someone (like Jose in season 7) does not have technique, when the reality is that the dancer has technique, it’s just not in the style of dance that the judges prefer. This limited view of technique could ruffle many a dancers’ feathers.

5)  This technical preference for ballet lines and fluidity is just one of many annoying aesthetic preferences of the show. Dancing on SYTYCD favors 180-degree extensions, dramatic drops to the floor, speed, athleticism/gymnastics, and crazy partnering lifts, among other things. Certainly a crowd-pleasing list, but not always necessary for great dancing, and often choreographed to the exclusion of other interesting movement aesthetics and nuances.

6)  Not all good dancers are young, pretty, and skinny. Unfortunately it’s still television, and the aesthetic preferences extend well beyond the movement on the stage.

7)  It is hard not to be annoyed at times by the judges. Whether they are picking favorites, or swaying the viewers too much toward lesser dancers, or rambling on ad nauseam about how great a dancer is, it is hard to not want to slap them across the face at times (or at least hit the mute button). Dancers are informed and able to fairly judge the contestants, so it can be frustrating when the judges disagree with their opinions, especially when the voting audience seems to follow what the judges say.

8)  Putting some of the voting power into the hands of average Americans means that sometimes they get it wrong. Thankfully the judges get the last say on who goes home each week, but often the voting public bases their judgment on personality or skewed aesthetic preferences, landing stronger dancers in the bottom 3 spots where they should not be.

9)  People only see the popularity, the glitz and glam that the show receives. What they don’t learn is the harsh reality of actually making it as a dancer, in either the commercial or concert dance worlds. Why do you think so many “All Stars” are eager to come back and rejoin the show?

10)  And yet, is it fair for dancers that have already gotten professional gigs to compete on the show? Perhaps this is just me and my tendency to root for the underdog, but I can see how other dancers would be miffed to award such an opportunity to a contestant who doesn’t need it.

11)  Too campy. Too cheesy. Too schmaltzy.

12)  It’s great that SYTYCD portrays dance as a valid career, but not great that it promotes dancers skipping college and not getting a higher education. We certainly don’t need any reinforcement of the dumb dancer stereotype.

13)  The show hasn’t thought of a better prize than money. Just dropping a boat-load of cash to jumpstart a dance career shows that even the show’s producers don’t really understand dance, or at least don’t really care much about the contestants’ futures.

14)  Because of the show’s focus on successfully performing all varieties of dance styles, dancers watching can feel pressure to master every style shown (and feel inadequate as a dancer if they don’t).

15)  Last on the list is jealousy. If for no other reason, dancers may not watch SYTYCD because they wish they were on it themselves.

 

So You Think You Can Dance is not entirely bad; in fact it has plenty of positive aspects that I plan on discussing in my next post. But there are also several legitimate reasons why dancers might have issues with the show and not like to watch it. Though certainly not exhaustive of all the possible complaints, hopefully this list provides some insight into the minds of many dancers. For it should be known, that not everyone is a fan of So You Think You Can Dance.

Is Edward Hopper correct? Is pure dance impossible? (Part 3)

After much consideration and inner debate on the subject at hand, I come to my third and final entry in a series discussing the significance of a quote by the late visual artist, Edward Hopper. (If you have not read the first 2 parts, it would probably be good to do so before continuing: Part 1 & Part 2.) Previously I have discussed the meaning of Hopper’s words and how his opinion would translate to the art of dance. For my summation, I will present my perspective on the subject of “pure dance” followed by an examination of various performance examples. First, for one final time, here is the quote of interest by Hopper (as taken from a video retrospective produced by the National Gallery of Art).

There is a school of painting called abstractionist or non-objective, which is derived largely from the work of Paul Cézanne, that attempts to create pure painting – that is an art which will use form, color, and design for their own sakes and independent of man’s experience of life and his association with nature. I do not believe such an aim can be achieved by a human being. Whether we wish it or not, we are all bound to the earth with our experience of life; and the reactions of the mind, heart, and eye and our sensations by no means consist entirely of form, color, and design.

So, is Edward Hopper right? Is there no such thing as pure art or pure dance? For the most part, I agree with the opinion of Hopper as it relates to dance. I believe that there are those that create dances for dance sake, focusing solely on the medium – movement, space, energy, time, etc. And I think that some of them perhaps have the goal of creating a pure dance, a dance that is separate from the rest of human experience, while others simply do not care whether or not a piece has possible connections to reality. But whether they try to create a pure dance or not, I do not think that creating a pure dance is possible. I agree with Hopper that we are all bound to our experience of life, and seeing a dance (just another life experience) cannot be separated from the rest of our lived experiences. As an audience, we bring to the performance all that we know and have seen before. And our senses, our minds, and our hearts cannot react solely to the substance on the stage; they are naturally and automatically bound to respond to the performance based on our entire lifetime of sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Because we are human, it is impossible for a work of art to be purely non-objective or abstract, no matter the artist’s intentions.

Also, some may choose not to acknowledge the connections to human experience; they may decide to focus on the form of the art and speak to it as a separate entity. This does not mean, though, that connections do not exist. The true reality of human experience does not change because of someone’s preferences or choices.

To flesh out these words, though, let’s look at a few examples of potentially “pure” dance. (more…)