So You Think You Can Dance is a show for all seasons, for all people. Insert hyperbolic comment here that is later, after sampling the unearthly delights of the movement and talents found on the show, proved to actually be sort of an understatement. It’s not at all what you expect, and yet entirely exactly what it claims to be, which is a bit like pulling the ghost mask off a Scooby-Doo villain to find a grumpy old man who would’ve gotten away with it if not for you meddling kids, except that’s a mask, too, and he’s really a ghost after all. Yes, I know that’s a bizarre analogy, but because So You Think You Can Dance is so easily lumped into categories like “Yet Another Reality Show” or “Summer Season Castoff” or “That’s Still on the Air?” I feel it’s important to stress first and foremost how unheimlich the program is, despite working within a highly conventional framework. So, to those who think that SYTYCD is just American Idol with dancing, here are some key differences.
- To get on American Idol, you simply have to sing someone else’s song. Perhaps more than once. Perhaps as part of a group, perhaps not, depending on the year. To get on So You Think You Can Dance, you’ve got to come with original choreography to perform, you’ve got to show that you can pick up someone else’s choreography, and then you’ve got to dance pretty much without sleep for three days while producers check to see that you can hold up to the physical strain of competing in the various styles. Oh, and after all of that? You need a more compelling reason to be there than the other forty technically flawless dancers standing beside you. It’s easy for a lemon to sneak by the producers and there-for-the-paycheck judges and get Vote for the Worst’d through round after round; anybody making it to the Top Twenty of SYTYCD deserves to win.
- Speaking of judges, on AI, a bad singer often gets praised or has their flaws reduced to nonsense syllables having to do with “pitchiness,” a “karaoke quality,” or simply the fact that one is “not feelin’ it.” Simply showing up is enough, for both contestants and judges, and everybody’s afraid to say something mean or do something genuinely daring. On SYTYCD, you can take two dancers completely out of their element, have them dance a hectic, non-stop jive–which they nail the steps and energy of–and still end up criticizing them for footwork or rhythm that, to anybody else, would be invisible to the naked eye. Yes, their judges have tropes and go-to statements that they repeat, and they get a bit too weepy over Big Idea pieces like the “Cancer Dance,” but for the most part, there’s a sincerity and astonishment–even among know-nothing guest judges–that’s terrific to see. Oh, and it’s not just about judging: Nigel Lythgoe gets involved in the occasional number or two, and goes out of his way to promote a culture of dance beyond the program (his foundation, his national dance day, etc.), so there’s the sense that the stakes are higher for all involved as opposed to American Idol, whose judges–even the ones who weren’t celebrities beforehand–are too big for the show.
- Group numbers and opening routines on American Idol tend to be poorly arranged, not entirely in unison, occasionally lip-synched, and/or are commercials for cars. SYTYCD pushes the boundaries with theirs, using big set pieces and innovative staging, as with their Season 10 opener, which was one long tracking shot (complete with quick costume changes) through the SYTYCD studio and backstage area. Saturday Night Live is eating its heart out. (Did we mention that many of the judges were gamely involved in this one?)
- The biggest stylistic risk taken by Idol is to have a gender-swapped song (man singing a female part), or to a sing a theme week’s country song, but, you know, in a style that’s more comfortable to Who They Are As “Artists.” For its first week of competition, SYTYCD paired an animator and ballroom dancer and had them dance an obscure African Jazz routine; featured a highly physical and emotional contemporary routine with two untrained partners who both happened to be blindfolded; and promoted the romantic, airy Viennese Waltz, even though that doesn’t draw as many viewers as a high-octane hip-hop number. They’re not about catering to a lowest common denominator, they’re about elevating all the dancers and, through them, the audiences, to a higher standard/quality of global dance–exposure and experience is key, not iTunes sales.
- Idol changes its voting panel and thinks that represents a huge departure or experiment for the program, forgetting that what should be important are the performers. SYTYCD experiments in ways that seek to heighten the experience for the dancers (and to keep an even playing field): when partnerships were holding back dancers, they introduced all-star partners; when dancers were being crippled by limited exposure or unfortunate Week 1 draws, they were given a showcase episode in which to “debut” them; when male and female dancers were pulling in different voting blocs, they allowed for a female and a male winner; and rather than risk the whims of an uneducated American audience, eliminations are shared between voters and judges (up until the last few episodes), with America’s votes outright saving the top, and with the judges eliminating the dancers from the bottom (often first giving them one last chance to “Dance for their Lives” with a solo).
I never know what to expect from an episode of So You Think You Can Dance, save for knowing that I’ll be blown away by at least two of the routines and impressed by the others. It’s a reality show by association only; in actuality, it’s a high-level showcase, and not necessarily of amateurs. (Some of the auditioners have left jobs with ballet companies in the hopes of learning new things and getting more exposure; others have grown tired of winning medals in international competitions within their style and want to branch out.) I won’t say it’s innocent of some of the unfortunate psyche-outs and shenanigans that surround “results” shows (though being limited to one episode a week helps in this regard), but its heart is in the right place, and that’s why it deserves your eyeballs to be on its right place. So: I think you can watch.