My love letter to So You Think You Can Dance

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Dear So You Think You Can Dance,

This is a hard letter for me to write. Not because it’s hard for me to think of things I love about your show, but because: first, there are so many things I love; and, second, sometimes the more you love something, the harder it is to be coherent. Nonetheless, I’ll try.

– Craft. Sometimes when you watch SYTYCD, the judges and choreographers use words and expressions that you don’t understand (at least I don’t), because you are not an expert on dancing. That’s just fine with me. I am comforted that Mary Murphy knows all the technical terms for what goes into a well-executed tango. Dancing is a craft, as well as an art, and part of the point of the show is to help the dancers excel in their craft.

What is craft? In writing, I think of it as the nuts and bolts. The basics. You have to be able to write a grammatically correct sentence before you can pen the great American novel. You have to be able to point your toes before you can join Alvin Ailey.

On SYTYCD, they are not afraid to talk about craft, even if half the audience has no idea what they’re saying. I suspect this is because they love dance, and so they also love craft. The show is certainly about entertainment. But you also get to watch experts attempt to educate young people in their chosen field of endeavor. That is a beautiful thing to see.

I wish, sometimes, we could see more of this. Longer segments of the choreographers with the dancers. More about the differences in movement between contemporary and ballroom. Seeing people talk about craft exposes you to the inner workings of an art form, and I think that is a beautiful and fascinating thing.

Expression. Sometimes the most technically skilled dancer gets voted off early. Or doesn’t make the cut at all. Dancing is more than craft alone. It is learning to express something through the movement of your body. Joy. Sorrow. Attraction. Anger. What it means to be human. Sometimes a whole lot of expression can make up for a lack of skill.

so you think you can dance auditionsArt, in the end, is about more than just skill. It is about feeling, and if you can’t convey feeling, what’s the point? It is wonderful to watch dancers learn how to do this–how to express something through their dance. This season, it was Curtis during Vegas week, who broke down in tears after doing a contemporary routine. This is what art should do, for those creating the art and for those of us in the audience. It should make us cry and laugh and scream and run out into the world with our hearts full.

Versatility. In writing, they tell you to kill your darlings. Write something, and then set it on fire. This is because to create great art, you must do the things you fear. In SYTYCD, this means dancing in a genre different from your own. Hip hoppers do jazz. Ballet dancers do Bollywood. Ballroom dancers do Broadway. Crumpers do contemporary. It is terrifying. It is how you learn. It is so fun to watch.

Art. Okay, in case you haven’t picked up on this by now, SYTYCD is a show about art. As someone who aspires to be an artist, there is much to learn. As someone who loves art, it is a joy to watch.

Niceness. I’ve always felt that there’s quite enough meanness in the world, especially if you go out looking for it. I don’t know why anyone would want to sit down in front of the television and dedicate hours of their time to meanness, but that seems to be what much of reality television is about. Meanness on the competition shows. Meanness on the reality shows. What more is there to say about that?

I love SYTYCD because it is not about meanness. Perhaps meanness happens on the show. If it does, it’s carefully screened out of what I see and bravo for that. In fact, what you’re more likely to see on the show is someone being scolded or reprimanded for their meanness. You want to throw your partner under the bus and suggest he’s holding you back? Fine, but you’re going to get a stern talking-to from the judges. At least in the culture of the dance world as represented on SYTYCD, this is not a business that rewards ugly behavior. Lift each other up, or hit the road.

Love. There’s niceness, and then there’s love. Okay, maybe I’m easily duped, but I believe that Cat Deeley (who deserves every Emmy there is to give) really loves those dancers. She is sad when they get voted off and she is happy when they dance well.

I believe that the judges and choreographers love the dancers. When Adam Shankman cries, it is because he loves those kids and he is happy to see them do well. When Sonya Tayeh yells during one of her routines, it is because she loves what those dancers are doing with her choreography.

I believe that the dancers love each other. How many times have you seen the dancer who wasn’t voted off that night burst into tears for the dancer standing next to her who’s going home? SYTYCD cultivates a culture in which dancers are competing not against each other, but against the limits of their own abilities. Isn’t that the essence of what every competition should be?

Family and friends. I started watching SYTYCD when I was visiting friends in Sacramento, California. “That’s a stupid name for a show,” I said when they suggested we sit down and watch one night. “No, no, Robyn. You must watch this.” And thankfully, I did. I’ve been hooked ever since.

When my husband and step-daughter moved in, I thought SYTYCD might be a show she would like; that was an understatement. She’s addicted, now. It became one our favorite family activities–to pile onto the couch and debate who we think will win and which routines are the best (like Cat, we use the goosebump test). It still is one of our favorite things to do. Though our daughter goes back and forth between our house and her mother’s, we always DVR SYTYCD so that we can watch it together; no one watches SYTYCD alone.

Sometimes as a step-parent you wonder what kind of influence you have on the children you help raise. It’s nice to think about the fact that I gave my daughter SYTYCD and the memories of watching it together. I gave her a show about craft, expression, versatility, art, niceness and love–along with all the other things about the show I’m forgetting. Thanks so much for making that possible.

Hugs and kisses,
Your fan

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