So You Think You Can Dance

12. June 2011 here now 16

Two sisters audition together. They are black. They’re built with thick hips and strong hands. They dance together, the only couple on the show. They incorporate African dance into their routine. They are easy with each other, best friends, they say they push each other to excel. One is a slightly larger version of the other. They dance with fierce, intense grace.

As soon as the music stops, the old crusty judge fakes a compliment. He addresses the heavier girl, says he admires her. Oh, you dance with such precision. Despite the fact that you don’t have a “classic dancer’s physique.” Unlike your sister.

They send them on to “choreography,” the second test for those who don’t dazzle in the initial audition. The girls nod and smile and learn the choreography. Back on the stage, at the microphone, they look up into the darkened audience, waiting for judgment a second time. “We want to talk about splitting you up,” the judges say. They beckon the slim sister with a plane ticket to Vegas. Just one.

How old are they? Nineteen, maybe? Twenty? The heavier sister sucks air in, bites down, blinks. They look at each other. She forces out the tiniest, briefest smile. She nods. You go, it says. Maybe they talked about this, what they would do if only one of them was called. Her sister looks into her eyes for permission. And her eyes say, It’s OK. I love you. Good luck. The slimmer sister lifts her hand, just a little.

She stands there in the stagelights alone as her sister tucks her chin and runs up to the judges.

And then the old judge makes a sly, offhand comment about how they are both going to enjoy Vegas. The girl on stage looks up. For one last second, she has the look of a wolf that does not trust the hand offering food. Both? Yes, both. They are waving a plane ticket at her. It was a joke. She gets to go. Her face dissolves and she runs off stage.

But the seal is now broken. I would have left you. I would have let you go.

Where is their mother, I want to know? But of course, these kids are all way past the age when their mothers have any say. They are sometimes there, the mothers, waiting in the lobby. The dancers burst out of the doors and tackle them, the mothers shot only as a pair of waiting arms trying to backstop all that raging emotion.

One of the girls who got a ticket to Vegas is eighteen and looks about twelve. She still has baby fat at the top of the tiny hotpants she wears. She dances to Beyoncé, all arabesques and hip-grinding and when the crusty old judge leers I am so disgusted. Who is he that she should trust him with all her liquid glowing talent? He claps and leers and she laps it up and all her mom can do is stand outside those doors and wait. Does she know ahead of time which girl is going to come bursting through, an ecstatic one or one in tears or both?

What do I do now that I am unfit to watch TV?


16 thoughts on “So You Think You Can Dance”

  • 1
    Sarah Mesle on Facebook on June 12, 2011

    Michelle Chihara. How is it that I spent even one minute in your presence without discussing this?????? I HAVE SO MUCH TO SAY.

  • 2
    thisblue on June 12, 2011

    !! Pray tell!

  • 3
    Laurie Wheeler on Facebook on June 12, 2011

    So You Think You Can Dance block party? I think Leigh is in.

  • 4
    Sarah on June 16, 2011

    On Nigel:
    The first line of Coetzee’s Disgrace is: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” When I think of Nigel, I think of someone who has not solved the problem of sex particularly well. There are a series of ways in which I’m not sympathetic with him (cf: the facebook group a friend and I drunkenly formed one night, “Nigel needs to get off the homophobia”) but other ways in which I am.

    It doesn’t do, of course, to be overly sympathetic to straight white anglo men of a certain age: what do they have to complain about, especially if they’re rich? Everything they do is vested with authority, authority I’ll never have. And most of me loaths that. And yet: just as I have my own myriad of first world lady problems, Nigel has his share.

    Where is a safe place for desire, for him? His desire is a danger, because it can’t be separated from his power. And here he is, and he loves dance, and these girls, these daughters, they love dance too. This is Nigel solving the problem poorly. In Disgrace, the protagonist pulls an Elliot Spitzer, takes desire out of his life into the professional sphere, sleeping weekly with a prostitute. Nigel doesn’t do that. Nigel tries to have it all: to love dance, to desire, to desire dancers–to still be a Man, with a capital M, and with a really big hard ticket to Vegas. Poor Nigel. The price of your power is your crusty leer, a leer even the daughters–as its veiled only thinly by that plane ticket–see.

  • 5
    Sarah on June 16, 2011

    On the sisters:
    I try to imagine someone in an editing room, considering the story. What’s the story? What production assistant said–keep her, keep the big one. It doesn’t matter that we all know where this is going, we can milk it a bit.

    A few seasons ago, the judges on American Idol let a blind guy through for similar “we will now show our big heart” reasons. His name was Scott and he had bad hair and three thousand health problems but was a lovely pianist. He seemed to have a sense of humor about it all. Eventually, everybody got bored congratulating themselves with how open minded they were, and Scott went home.

    Maybe I’m reading too aggressively, but I think there’s a bit more going on with Natalya and Sasha. Dance is complicated. Who can lift Natalya? Can she jump? What sort of choreography will work for her? The editors let us see all these questions play out. Is the problem her, or the show? Maybe they can keep her and bring Mark Morris in to choreograph. You sort of imagine them weighing the options. They probably don’t consider whether it hurts her, ultimately, to have this chance that is not a chance. But maybe they do. They try to be nice.

    And then, at some level not too far beneath the surface: this show has such a strange relationship to race, and to black women in particular. The show loves the black male dancer. It loves him for some good reasons, but more bad reasons. [Nigel luuuuuves the fetishized black dancing male body; Nigel gets to cast them and then they become his strange proxies, bringing the masculine back to dance. I think of Eric Lott’s great dependant clause that introduces so much: “Because of the power of the black penis in American psychic life, …”] But black women, that’s harder, here. The black woman’s body, unlike the black man’s, is not an attribute that she can substitute for training or technique.

    But this is all too subtle for the show to talk about. They have a vague sense of racism that they can’t really understand or discuss. When they try, it always goes so poorly. But they can talk about Natalya’s excessive body, her weight! So she “breaks barriers” because of her weight, not her race! Yay, we love breaking barriers! This is even a -better- story line than we’d imagined, wonderful!

    AND THEN, OH GOD, HER HEALTH. “They think I have diabetes,” Natalya says. And all of a sudden it all comes crashing down, this feel good “barrier breaking” that the show has been trying to do, because while the show had been juggling the separation between blackness and weight, now they come together, now we get the new racism: food deserts, bad health care. I don’t know where Natalya and Sasha are from, or anything about their lives–I don’t know if they’re poor, and I won’t jump to that assumption. Both girls have training that is no joke. But Natalya’s collapse, her potential diabetes, raises this intractible specter, the racialization of poverty. This barrier is not a feeling that some mean people have: “I used to think fat people couldn’t dance, and now I have changed my mind!” This is the gritty core of the black body in institutional machines, beyond feeling. And this show, about the expression of the body: maybe it just showed itself something new, in spite of itself.

  • 6
    thisblue on June 16, 2011

    Fascinating.

    Nigel is certainly deserving of pity… in some way. But I don’t think that the fact that his desire can’t be separated from his power gets him off the hook. The whole world is safe for white male desire, I think… precisely because power for straight white men = sexual power.

    Those girls come to him physically and emotionally in hot pants on their knees. If we lived in a culture with any decency, the onus would be on him not to crack jokes and leer — to make explicit — his desire. His desire, any viewer’s desire in the face of all that kinetic energy and youth and flesh, is a given. I think he gets away with more leering than a straight black man could, with young white girls. And of course older women are mercilessly ridiculed for expressing desire. TV-land is not safe for everyone else’s desire. It’s safe for him, it just seems occasionally sad that he still feels the need to wave it around.

    Nigel deserves pity, I think, not because there’s no way for him not to be lewd, but because he is so clearly rewarded in this context for being lewd. Dance as an art form could, in fact, be a way for him to share his passion with young women, without him being gross. But that would make bad tv. Of course the judges on reality tv don’t have to be lecherous and cruel. But we tune in, in part, for the cruelty and spectacle.

    I think Disgrace is a good call… the way that one of the things that breaks down when the social fabric disintegrates along class lines is our ability to communicate across gender and racial divides. The professor, after his lechery and desperation and helplessness, tries to write an opera. He turns to art out of a longing for a shared vocabulary, in an attempt to recuperate what has been lost, for the same reason that his daughter decides to keep the baby.

    I, of course, tune in only because I believe Dance is a High Art Form and I would like to organize a So You Think You Can Dance viewing party where we will learn the choreography to Beyoncé with only the purest of intentions.

  • 7
    Leigh on June 16, 2011

    Can’t believe I almost missed this post/thread. I feel ill-equipped to comment on all the wisdom here, but I do want to raise a couple of points

    1. Unless I’m mistaken, the only “plus-size” dancers to appear on the show in any significant way were black women. I think one of them had a brief stint on ABDC with an all plus-size lady crew. I clearly remember an overweight guy auditioning on one of the early seasons and he was AMAZING. Crazy height on his jumps, graceful. But he was fat and effeminate and the judges openly mocked him in the audition rounds. (On a sidenote, I found the skinny sister to be disingenuous and annoying.)

    2. This show not only encourages lechery from Nigel, but stupidity and outright asshattery from the other judges. They are SO much more obnoxious and out of control than on the first season and it gives me the grossies.

  • 8
    Leigh on June 16, 2011

    btw, Mich, your description of this totally broke my heart.

  • 9
    thisblue on June 16, 2011

    “outright asshattery”!!!
    Thank you.

  • 10
    Sarah on June 17, 2011

    yay, we are smart!

    I do want to clarify one point–not to object, but…well, just because, it’s interesting–I am not interested in whether Nigel’s desire is safe for Nigel. Obviously it is.

    My point is that, precisely because straight white male power is sexual power, there is no way in which his desire can be safe *for the girls.* The thing that is sad, to me, about Nigel is that he wants to have his (always sexualized) power, his authority, AND be the nice guy. He’s not, like, *mean.* I think if you said “you are being abusive,” he would be horrified. And yet, he is more or less abusive, or at least coercive, though in a way that the show and tv land in general condone.

    I think it’s interesting to compare Nigel to, say, the fat nice dad on any sitcom (like Everyone Loves Raymond, for example). Those guys are nice. Those shows are about how men, in an effort to be nice, trade in their virility and their authority, and the humor comes from the absurd things their newly-authorized wives make these emasculated men do, because, being men, they still aren’t very nice. They’re still clueless; they’re just now also fat. The men find comeraderie around the BBQ. Oh, back in the day, they sigh; they feel like they’ve lost something, but something they admit they probably didn’t deserve.

    I mean, sucks to be Nigel, right? The desire of aging women is always absurd; the desire of black men is always threatening (though also exciting); the desire of aging white men is always coercive and crusty. Which would you pick? I guess to be Nigel. Still. Everyone has to walk the tight rope of their own subject position. Nigel’s is just the one on top, the one really far off the ground.

  • 11
    Sarah on June 17, 2011

    also note the dueling banjos here: mother of daughter vs. mother of sons. oh, sigh. there’s still so much work to do, here in this strange world.

  • 12
    thisblue on June 17, 2011

    Heh. Of course. I hadn’t even really thought of our separate positions, Sarah.

    I think the key here is to separate crusty old Nigel’s desire from his power, on our end. He is in a position of actual authority to these girls, which is separate from his inherent cultural power and sex appeal as a white man. He’s not a fictional father figure, so it’s not about whether one can be fatherly and sexual, which I think is a separate and interesting question. When he sits at that table, he wields authority over those dancers. The authority invested in him by the show makes him–and the other judges–much more like a teacher, assigning a grade, determining who gets to move on.

    Power differentials are sexy, no matter what, yes. But the onus not to leer, to create some other professional persona, especially when you are white male 50 and she is 18 from Chino Hills and on her knees, is very much on Nigel. It’s not a situation that needs to make his desire safe, for anybody. Context is key, and I think there are many other contexts where Nigel’s desire would not be gross, or coercive. He’s got the rest of the world, the world he’s not judging, to rut around in.

    But Nigel is on TV, not in a classroom, and therefore he needs to make the show sexy — it’s a show about sexiness! — the sexiness has to factor in, to the judging, the girls want to be sexy… so we demand that he leer. This is not Nigel’s fault. And I don’t think he’s abusive.

    Feminists should not stand up and demand Nigel be taken off the air. Nor do I think that we owe white male desire much sympathy. I mean, think of As Good As It Gets. A whole hit movie about how Jack Nicholson is still hot — hotter than Keanu Reeves — precisely because he’s crusty and kind of a jerk. I think both Jack Nicholson at 80 and Nigel are kind of icky. What’s interesting is why people love them.

    I would contend that white male desire is almost always perceived as normal. It’s a boys-will-be-boys, Dominique Strauss-Kahn kind of world. I think that white male desire is sometimes punished, but I don’t think this is one of those situations. All that said — I do think there is something in what you and Kyla and Leigh are raising about masculinity and the dynamics of the show, beyond whether it’s gross when Nigel leers at very young girls. (Still gross!)

    There *is* something more complex going on — in his homophobia, in the way masculinity is displayed and exploited on the show, that I’m sure is just as unfair to young men as it is to young women. I mean, think of how hard it is to be a guy and want to dance, in our culture, for straight guys maybe even more than gay guys! Masculinity is hard and complex in precisely as many ways as femininity, after all, because we define them against each other. So, perhaps the question is not so much whether it is safe for Nigel’s desire but more how his desire *polices the sexiness* of straight men who dance, black women, gay boys and children from Chino Hills (I know nothing about Chino Hills, for some reason, that detail just gets to me, I keep thinking of my successful writer friend who published a book and called his mentor and said “Things like this don’t happen to people from El Monte!!”).

    Clearly I have to watch all of the rest of the show, and then you ladies have to tell me more, and then I have to figure out how to get a unified comment thread going, because right now it’s split up on two posts.

    I kind of see the leering as inevitable, as much as it brings out the lioness mother Harper we’re moving to a monastery when you turn 13 in me. The post, originally, to me, was more about the cruelty of forcing those sisters to choose… I felt like the quiet cruelty of that moment was dressed up as a joke, as kindness, even.

    That is where I wonder most how it would have been different for two boys. Would they have joked about forcing one brother to abandon the other? Hey, look, he was going to leave you behind because you’re not as good-looking! ha ha! Now, go dance together.

    But maybe they would never have allowed two brothers to dance together in the first place… for other reasons.

  • 13
    Morgan on June 17, 2011

    Yes.

    They would absolutely have joked about forcing one brother to abandon the other. On a basic level, drama is drama and ratings are ratings, no one is going to pass up that kind of an opportunity for the quick emotional suckerpunch.

    How A Less Invidious Version of That Conversation Goes:

    Producer: What about Ted and Fred?

    Producer with “expertise”: realistically, a male duo is hard to work with… and Ted doesn’t have the technical training Fred does. There’s no way they can win.

    Producer 2: Can Fred win?

    PWE: Maybe.

    Producer 1: Can we split them up?

    Producer 2: How does that make us look?

    PWE: Um, realistic?

    Producer 1: What if we just PRETEND to split them up?

    Producer 2: Well, then, we’re still left with the can-they-win problem. We don’t want to look like we’re going for cheap melodrama.

    Producer 1: We just need to make sure they won’t be the first to go home. Who else is on the board?

    PWE: Well, you know, I really don’t think Ashley’s going to be able to hang once we’re out of her wheelhouse.

    Producer 2: Our spoiled Daddy’s girl? Perfect.

  • 14
    Sarah on June 18, 2011

    fwiw: at least two sets of brothers have had brother drama in SYTYCD auditions. I would be lying if I hadn’t spent at least half an hour (and sent an email) trying to track down video–but, I’m going to stop now so we’ll have to do without the replay. One pair, interestingly, was a pair black, twin, hip-hop dancers. They were really young, and there was some excellently awkward male emotional moments. I do remember close-up footage of one of the brothers from the other pair calling the other to say he’d been cut. It was this really emotional moment, and it seemed sort of invasive to watch it, except that the brother put his phone on speaker so the camera could pick up both sides of the conversation.

    Morgan, I need you to know how deeply fascinated I am by reality tv casting. I’d love to talk about it sometime. I am not convinced that, from a drama perspective, they did a particularly good job of casting SYTYCD this time around. There’s only a few whose names I can remember, and I don’t remember them with particular fondness. hmm.

  • 15
    Brandon on June 22, 2011

    You know, it’s been an illuminating discussion, but I’m left with the idea that the dynamic that’s interesting here — the cruelty visited upon the two sisters — may have less do with gender, and more to do with story.

    What stories do is subject some subject to abuse. The word they use in the how-to books is ‘conflict’, but in other traditions the kernel of the story may be referred to as trials, ‘progress’, agon. (Kathryn Stockton has written some interesting stuff about narrative and race, posing plot as a plot *against* the main character.)

    SYTYCD is a judgment show, a contest. And its producers have a simple strategy, really: play every angle that becomes available that can (at least seem to) put the subjects in some discomfort, without breaking the bounds of good taste. In your comments above, you are patrolling and parsing these boundaries, as regards these particular contestants, and these particular judges. And it’s well done.

    But if the show’s details were slightly different, all that stuff would be different, and the show would still be about the same thing! If the contestants were handicapped people written off by their doctors, we could call it “So You Think You Can Walk”. And the content of the show’s drama would end up being very much about the demographics of — and our social sensitivities or lack thereof regarding — whoever it is who wants to (wants to!) enlist in a show about trying to walk.

    These people are willing grist for the drama mill. (Also, they generally know what’s happening, and many scenes are shot multiple times and/or not in realtime.) So whether it’s brothers, sisters, twins, or dwarven mutes, you can count on the moment of cruelty to be there for you… because otherwise you are not being told a story.

    Nigel knows that very well! See his resume.

  • 16
    thisblue on June 24, 2011

    Ah yes. Brandon, I think much of what you’re saying here is… this is reality television, people. Of course it’s cruel.

    Is it ridiculous to get exercised about this is? Well, yes. Which is what I meant by “I have become unfit to watch TV.” I have some kind of new sensitivity, and it’s useless. Yes. Touché.

    When Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire first came on, I wrote about it for The Phoenix (I know, I’m a dinosaur) and basically said, “This is Rome! This is gladiatorial spectacle! This kind of show spells THE END OF OUR CIVILIZATION!”

    I don’t know that I was wrong. Our civilization is decadent. But I also think that reality tv has actually evolved in ways I did not expect. Some of it has gotten much worse. But some of it has also gotten much better. Morgan, I’m sure, if she is still reading, could speak to this eloquently.

    So, yes, you’re right, some of what I attributed to gender was probably just story, and my reaction was partly just my ridiculous knee-jerk and utterly personal need to protect all girls. I think Sarah was calling me out on this, too. It’s me.

    At the same time, while I have watched SYTYCD too sporadically to post without watching more, I do think we should continue to look at it closely. Yes, even reality tv, even cruel reality, is worthy of our critical attention. As a culture, when the stories we consume with such relish are cruel, we can’t just say, it’s a story, it abuses its characters. Reality tv is here to stay, its cruelty is nuanced, and we should parse it, because we are lit people, and the devil is in the details of how we are cruel to each other. But I suspect you wouldn’t argue with me on that.

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