Deciphering Dance in Reality Television: The Good, the Questionable, and the Unconscionable

Article excerpt

People sometimes ask for my perspective on reality-television dance shows. I often sense that these requests are accompanied by some degree of hesitancy or fear that, as a university-level dance educator, I might devalue a show they enjoy or even admire. This makes me think that they already suspect that these programs convey some questionable material.

Clearly there is a large audience for such shows, or else they would not remain televised. It is also likely that the students we teach (and their parents) are watching and becoming influenced by them. It is also possible that reality TV shows are influencing the teaching practices of dance and physical educators. So, what are the potential positive and negative issues related to reality-TV dance shows? What can we learn from them, how might they influence our fields, and what specifically do teachers need to be aware of that could be potentially harmful? In this editorial, I will discuss some pros and cons of two popular reality-TV dance shows that involve audience-voting processes, Dancing with the Stars (DWTS) and So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD). Following this, I will discuss another type of reality-TV dance show, Dance Moms, that is in a category all its own.

Dancing with the Stars involves famous individuals or "stars" from athletics, the arts, entertainment, and even politics with little to no dance experience matched with ballroom dance professionals. The professionals choreograph and teach their star one or more ballroom dances each week that are then performed, evaluated, and scored by a panel of experts. Television audience members have the opportunity to vote for their favorite couple after each show. The couple with the least amount of votes (corn-bined with the judges' scores) is eliminated, until the final couple standing wins.

Using a similar voting and elimination process, SYTYCD differs in that it involves highly trained and experienced dancers who are selected to compete by a panel of experts. Each dancer is paired with another contestant, and the two perform a pas de deux each week that was choreographed and taught to them by a dance professional. Each couples' dance style is selected randomly and differs each week. The dancers also perform brief, somewhat improvised solos and participate in at least one large group dance on most weeks. As the season progresses, pairings may change, and the number of dances performed per contestant increases.

In both DWTS and SYTYCD, judges comment on the performances in order to provide feedback to the dancers and, seemingly, to help guide the audience in their voting.

The Good

In the 1960s and 70s, when I was growing up, one could find televised dance only in the form of popular freestyle and couples dancing on shows like American Bandstand and Soul Train, and as part of occasional talent contests. In the 1970s, being a trained dancer was never as highly valued as being in athletics, especially not for men. Nearly 50 years later, I believe the increased visibility and accessibility of dance on television has many advantages.

Highlighting dance in reality-TV programs promotes the popularity of dancing in general and may even inspire people to pursue dance instruction or participate in dance as a lifestyle activity. The DWTS cast, showing some diversity, has included people of different ages, genders, races, ethnicities, abilities, and body shapes. The dancers learn and practice their dance over the course of a week, through focused training, time, and effort. It is actually quite impressive how much they are able to learn and improve in such a short time. This demonstrates that anyone can learn ballroom dance, at least at some level. More important, though, the mostly novice dancers seem to gain a level of understanding of the art form, the hard work involved, and the sheer joy associated with dancing. Also, having popular figures, especially famous athletes, become successful in the process increases the appreciation of audience members who may not have considered dance as a viable form of physical activity. …