I’m late with this one. Alas. So, I’ll start by just saying it: the fact that Ricky got cut is really obnoxious and wrong. Sure, this season’s competition is extra-tense and close and all that, but, seriously, Ricky was an amazingly beautiful dancer. He’s off the show and brings with his ejection all sorts of quirks about So You Think You Can Dance?
Well, actually, I think this was one of those “send a messsage” dismissals. Alas.
Most of all, though, it was a matter of two chance features: randomly assigned dance form and the strange gendered normativity in ballroom. On the first, there is just that feature of the show. If you draw a dance form with which you are familiar or for which you have a certain knack, then things tend to go smoothly. Dance form that’s totally new? Good luck. No small part of the fun and drama of the competition part of the show.
The gendered normativity is a quirky one, and really complex to experience as a viewer. You, the viewer, may object to what the judges say on moral or political grounds, yet their criticism is not totally foreign. You get it. This week, Ricky and his partner Ashlee (who was also booted this week) were reasonably good in the given style, but the two main criticisms were that 1) there was no real passion and 2) Ricky was too short. The first criticism about passion was, frankly, just a variation on the second. If Ricky is short, then there cannot be proper sexual tension. (We’ll set aside the questions of voyeurism, etc.)
The short-tall thing is of course looped into all sorts of gendered stuff in ballroom dance (I think it is more complicated in other dance forms, where the masculine-feminine lines are blurry). On the one hand, it would be easy to be snarky and critical (not without warrant) about the judges. They enforce these rules with more than just an appeal to tradition or observation about form. The affect of their critical voice loads the critique will all sorts of moral language. It’s not just that the form requires, as per tradition, that certain relations of man-woman obtain. I’d accept that, to a large extent. At least it is rooted in something tangible and comprehensible, just as one can dislike, yet accept, that certain painting styles make very specific uses of space. And if you don’t use space in that way, you do the painting style poorly. Dance, especially the proximity of bodies in ballroom styles, uses space in very specific ways.
But that’s not the language or affect of the judges. The contempt for Ricky – only because he was shorter than Ashlee – was really quite shocking. For me, that’s an important transgression. The insistence on the integrity of form runs throughout the show, and, to be honest, that’s where I’ve actually learned from the show (how often does one say that about television?). Yet the show seems unable to give expression to those forms without enforcing the moral language they – as judges and experts in dance – imagine at stake in those forms.
In the end, then, this is an interesting and (for me) unexpected reminder of how everyday aesthetic forms carry, and are therefore sites of reproducing, ideology. That is, Althusser can really illuminate this moment in So You Think…? with his essay on ideology. Althusser’s essay argues quite convincingly that ideology is passed on through everyday institutions and interactions. We don’t assimilate to ideological forms because an authority has drilled them into our minds. Sure, that happens, but such indoctrination is easy to contest and overthrow. You identify the bad guy and say “no.” Everyday sites of reproduction of ideology are much more difficult to detect and critique. To wit: it’s not just that schools teach certain nationalist narratives about world history. It’s that schools make you sit quietly, in rows, and make you capable of following directions from authority figures. A whole set of values come down from that setting, and they’re not simply in the books. Values are in the very layout and posture of classrooms and students. A slumping student can’t be learning. He must be lazy and disrespect authority! See that student sitting up straight and “attentive”? Now there’s a real student!
So, to get back to So You Think…?, the same sort of ideological reproduction is happening when we see uneven height in ballroom dance and have that deep twitch, that deeply seated sense that Ricky being shorter than Ashlee isn’t quite right. It doesn’t work. We have that sense without any education whatsoever in dance. We just feel it. Now, learning about dance forms might give us another language for that sense – and one that, in part I’d argue, is purely about an aesthetic form (partly politicized too, of course) – but the immediate feeling “that doesn’t look right” is really something different. If we reject that feeling later, well, it is still rejecting it “later.” Because ideology is so familiar to us, we don’t see ideology itself, but rather have a fairly uniform set of immediate responses to what we see and hear. Becoming aware of how intimate we are with ideology is the first step – the biggest one, really – to imagining different sorts of relation to the world.
When the judges came down on Ricky and Ashlee so hard, infusing their remarks with all sorts of moral bullshit, that was the sound of an ideology at stake in a dance performance. The purely aesthetic judgment? That would be the judgment that says “the form requires X”? Sure, that was there and I have different thoughts about that judgment. But the affect of disappointment and real moral disapproval – that was something different. And instructive of how ballroom dance, no matter it’s status as a niche hobby, can carry and reproduce ideology as effectively as any other feature of everyday life.