The strange life of the dancer…
Tryouts this week on So You Think You Can Dance?: Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta. The tryout phase of So You Think…?, like American Idol’s version of the same, is quirky simply because they are both clearly filling time and trying to lure in viewers. You’d hope – maybe even think – that viewers would be drawn into the show by the sheer physical craziness of dance. People can do unbelievable things with their bodies. Seriously. But the producers have taken the now familiar and depressing route in recruiting viewers: humiliation.
Now, this strategy is learned and adopted from Nigel Lythgoe’s other show: American Idol. I don’t really understand this, both in terms of conscience and marketing, but it obviously works. Or at least works well-enough to pass for “best strategy.” It is just depressing. The show carries enough entertainment value through the body’s fabulousness. I doubt we need this humiliation motif.
It is painful to watch real people be humiliated on American Idol, and I have a difficult time knowing who is just a kook and who is a performance artist getting a much wanted stages; I guess that would be the other “much wanted” thing for performance artists – confusion of reality and performance. Alas. The kooks who get so harrassed…I just don’t get it, whether So You Think…? or American Idol. Yet, it seems especially painful to watch dancers undergo this same humiliation. Not sure why, but here are some thoughts…
I’ve come to this out of a particular event in this week’s episode. In the Los Angeles tryouts, there was a somewhat overweight, fairly effeminate male hairdresser who was singled out for humiliation. This was different than many other humiliations in that this guy actually knew how to dance and had choreographed a fairly elaborate routine. He was flexible, reasonably fluid, and elevated more than (maybe) expected on his leaps. The movement was well-integrated into the music. The appropriate response, the one I expected even, would have been “great routine, you danced it well, but you’re just not right for our competition.” That’s been done a bunch of times and, in this case, would have been exactly right. His body just got in the way, so we don’t know if his training and technique is much at all beyond the “unbelievably good for a regular person!” thing.
Instead, he was quite literally berated for being fat and “dancing like a girl.” Seriously. Wade Robson – who should know better, having spent his life in dance circles, right? well, no, apparently – actually said that, meant it, and intended it as both critique and humiliation. I confess to expecting better from Wade, whose MTV show featured plenty of gender-ambiguous dance styles. It was a real low-point in any reality television I’ve seen.
[Note: I actually think that was edited into the show in order to perform an apology and performance later in the season. We’ll see. Either way, it was fucked up.]
My question to myself, and I suspect to many other folks watching the show, was this: what was particularly painful about this humiliation? For me, it wasn’t the attack on his physical appearance. That was lame and cruel and shameful, yet we’ve seen the same humiliation a million times in commercials, films, American Idol, etc. A familiar cruelty, for sure (which makes it no less cruel). No, what was so painful for me was something about him as a dancer. And again, on this, the distinction between singing and dancing is crucial.
For all the publicity of performance, dance is an largely private undertaking. Private in two senses. First, there is the fact that most dance, outside of music videos and a few big-name tours, is really a marginal art. It is practiced in private, never really moving toward a glorious, hugely public moment to-come. The “big moment” is quirky and niche-y. I’m thinking in particular of lyrical and related forms, and also of the Latino guy from the Los Angeles tryouts who talked about how his father could never understand his need to dance and what it means to him. When we saw him dance, we knew exactly what he meant. As well, this is a time to reiterate: we just don’t see dancers on the cover of Time or Entertainment Weekly. Dancers – they have a strange kind of life that way, perhaps outside of or behind or in spite of the spectacle of all of this.
And that gets me to the second sense of privacy. Dance brings an intensely private something to the body in movement. So does singing, ideally, but on American Idol (and so much of singing we’re likely to hear) vocal expression is so commodified and imitative that we lose the connection between sung expression and the spectacle of certain vocal styles or techniques. Even though it is televised, So You Think…? can’t quite make dance a spectacle – at least not when the dancer takes it seriously in its privacy, which is to say, as an art-form. In fact, I think one could say that dance threatens to or even succeeds in interrupting the spectacle of television with something so human, so singular, so, really, private.
So, when this poor guy was humiliated for his (apparently) weight and gender-inappropriate dance, it wasn’t just a political objection going through my head (though that was there, for sure; that was some of the ugliest homophobic shit ever on the show). No, it wasn’t just the fucked up politics of it all. It really all went to the heart of what was happening in his performance. Something about him was present, right there, exposed. Willingly, yes, I know he chose to be on the show, but I don’t care; that doesn’t make him complicit in this cruelty. Rather, it makes him all the more innocent in the humiliation. He played the game authentically. Unlike the joke-performers, he actually came with a real dance game. Embodiment of something, a something that initially goes by his proper name, then becomes something more. Dance, played authentically, is a pure (non-Foucaultian) confession of self: here I am. To make that confessional moment happen in public is, for lack of a better word, immensely courageous. It takes the utterly private into the public. Any judgment whatsoever makes me tense, even though I know that critique is central to any and all arts. Dance is no exception. But cruelty at this moment is just too close to the soul. That soul, for real, it is what Levinas rightly called the “jewel that adorns our earth.”
The strange life of the dancer…and the strange life of this humiliation motif. Looking forward to the actually dancing and competition…