so you think you can dance

It’s true, we have totally gotten into this tv show. Not the competition part of it so much—if you don’t know, “So you think you can dance” is an open audition dance competition show that whittles the dancers down to a dozen or so finalists. Then, after each round of performances, viewers can call in to vote for their favorites and, of the bottom three dancers each week, one is voted off the island by the three judges, until only one dancer is left. This part of the show we tend to fast forward.

But the dancing!


I have had very little exposure to performance dance in my life. I used to love to dance, myself, spent many crazy nights going nuts in Miami clubs with my girlfriends. And I’m telling you, there is nothing like gonzo dancing till three in the morning with some of your favorite people for letting loose and having fun. Good times. But watching dance…of that, I’ve had almost no experience. I did see Pilobolus once, but my seats were so far back I couldn’t see much at all. And I don’t know—I think a lot got lost in the translation for me. That is, I didn’t know what I was seeing, and so I could hardly see it. Like hearing a wonderful story, only told in a dialect I barely understand. The first time I watched “So you think you can dance,” it felt like that, too.

In contrast, one of the only other performance dances I can remember seeing was a total surprise. It was at a large talent show sort of event I happened to be at. Most of the acts were wild and silly, but then this tiny Japanese woman came out in a rather plain black dress, and this—well, it wasn’t music, it was birds and water, maybe there was a flute?—music came on and she…barely moved. Maybe went up on her toes, slow. Arms lifting, a quick head motion, then…I can hardly remember. What I remember is that in three minutes I went from feeling rather raucous with my friends to…crying. How did she do that? I remember at one point her arms moving like water flowing at her sides—not out to the sides, but straight down, like they had no bones. I remember her long hair flying out with an unexpected turn. I wish I could remember more! I wish I had a video, I wish I knew her name, I wish I could replay it the way I can with “So you think you can dance,” as often as I wanted, so I could understand what she had accomplished in three short minutes. But I know this: it was as if I had been crashing through the woods when I suddenly came upon a hidden waterfall, some place of surprising beauty, and a golden, rare creature was there, bathing. A glimpse, then it saw me, and then it flew away, and I was changed.

I hadn’t known dance could do that!

Well, watching “So you think you can dance” has been showing me just how much dance can do that. Because, competition aside, what the show really is, is the gathering together of a group of amazing dancers and choreographers, and then using these talented people to give demonstrations each week of an incredible range of dance styles and dance languages.

In addition, the three judges discuss the performances, commenting on things like the choreography, specific moves, texture, performance, heart, character, story, costume, music, technique, art, connection to ones partner (when there is one), connection to the audience, all of it. And, honestly, at first, I didn’t want to hear any of the critiques. I was afraid they would be mean, a la American Idol or whatever, and I just wanted to watch the dancing and have my own experience of it. Just watching dance was new to me. I didn’t know what I was feeling, most of the time, except at the grossest level. It made me happy. I felt uncomfortable. Or bored. Or I was impressed with the tricks. Sometimes I didn’t even know that much. I just felt lost in a kind of overwhelmed sensory experience. A kind of dazzle. Kind of…what was that?

But gradually I realized many of the dances told a story. Gradually I started to understand something about the different styles of dance I was seeing. How ballet was different from contemporary, different from broadway, different from ballroom. Listening occasionally to the judges, I realized that often they put words to something I had felt watching the piece, but had only been semi-aware of. Surprise—they had some good things to say (sorry, judges). And, now, I find I’m quite interested in what the they say. I don’t always agree, but then, neither do they. But either way, it’s really interesting. Despite my fear with this type of competition sort of show, these critiques have, in my experience, never been snarky or designed to create false drama, and I have heard nothing mean or even dismissive. All the feedback I’ve heard has been respectful, sometimes funny, sometimes high praise, sometimes specifics about what was not working for them, but always kind. I’m glad for that.

We stumbled on the show while surfing around one night. Sophie likes to watch ‘tricks’ and it looked like there might be some, so we landed there for a few minutes. We liked it, so I told the dvr to get some more. We started watching after the audition part had already been done, and have just been seeing the finalists perform. Now we’ve got a few of them backlogged, waiting to be watched.

There have been several performances that have made me cry. Several that have gotten us all up hopping around, dancing in the yurt. Some have made me laugh. Some have made me shrug—dance styles that are just too far from my limited dance-language for me to know what I’m seeing, I think. Some have had our jaws on the floor with the athleticism and incredibly physical ability of the dancers. Some have been deeply moving.

I didn’t know dance could do all of that. I didn’t know dance could tell a story, with characters, an emotional arc, a story-turn, a conclusion. But it totally can. What a cool show to deliver that experience to me, in my very own yurt! I feel like I’m taking a fabulous, fully funded, live, class in dance. No—I think I’m learning to speak rudimentary Dance.

Which reminds me of one time, oh-so-long-ago, back when I had healthy knees that could take it, in one of those Miami clubs, I saw an older couple dancing together, just crazy-awesome partner dancing, sort of like salsa only more contained around the head while the hips moved constantly, and fast. At one point, the woman was doing a slow turn while her hips moved at a blurred-with-speed swivel, and her husband grinned, took off his hat (he wore a hat), and fanned at her pelvis. Like it might overheat if she wasn’t careful. I loved that! I talked to them later, really nice people. They were from an island I had never heard of where they said, “everybody dances.” They had been married over 20 years.

That wasn’t a performance dance. They were dancing for the joy of it, and for each other. Sometimes, for sure, the dancers on the show seem to be performing, competing, showing their stuff. Which is fine. But sometimes, when it’s all working really well, they seem to just be dancing for the joy of it, and I notice that those moments never fail to make me—or the judges, it turns out—engaged, smiling, happy. That’s cool. It seems to be a more universal thing. Maybe some dance, like smiling, works in any language?

I would have, on principle, turned my nose up at a show like this, from the description. Man would I have been missing out. And I guess I have missed out, because this is the show’s seventh season—clearly I am way late to this party. But oh well. I’m here now. And we’re all having a good time learning about dance. Recommended! Just keep your finger on the fast-forward and buzz through till you get to the dancing bits if you don’t like the competition component.

The dancing will knock your socks off.

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  1. Pingback: the legion of extraordinary dancers | mayaland

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