I really just don’t get So You Think You Can Dance? judging. Which is to say, I think I bring the wrong set of principles. Naively, I’ve been watching the show with the expectation that marginal dancers are on the way out, exceptional dancers staying around to develop. Especially since this year’s group is exceptional. This week’s goodbye to Jimmy means I’m wrong.
Second week in a row, now, we’ve kept a “unique” dancer around while a fairly serious dancer moves on. OK, so that was strangely dull of me to forget the entertainment and marketing part of the show. You know, the part that gives up on the whole meritocratic thing. Forgive me for forgetting.
Having registered my disappointment, on to even stranger things.
What’s up with the obsession with “chemistry” this past week? On the one hand, I get it. The drama at work in so much ballroom style dance – and even modern programs – lies in sexual or emotional tension. So, there has to be at least the appearance of “connection” and intensity between the dancers. You can’t really question that; it’s in the structure and meaning of a number of dances.
On the other hand, and the one that rejoins us with themes of homophobia and gender normativity, the critique from the judges (or approval, in a number of cases) has been visceral. It’s worth noting that the judges do not say “you need to get into role X in order to make that routine work.” The judges say “you are not chemical with your partner.” The shift from playing a role to who you are as a person is not just about word choice of phrasing. Like most accidents of phrasing, when they become repeated, this one is clearly acting out all sorts of anxieties about masculinity and sexuality. I wish the So You Think…? people would take a deep breath. Seriously. Relax.
I’m remembering last year’s winner. He was hardly the most masculine guy on the show. And he certainly wasn’t much of what one thinks of as a typical heterosexual man. Let’s be honest: he’s a dancer. Yet, he was really, really good at acting when a dance form called for a certain kind of presence. His versatility with that presence – the ability to be an intense, sexual presence or an abstract canvas for choreography – was part of why he won. He was really good. Part of that “good” was how he made us forget the “natural” Benji and see that blend of dance and theater called “performance.” Again, I wish the So You Think…? people would take a deep breath and relax.
Funny that, amidst this sudden anxiety about “chemistry” and trying so hard to re-render the male dancers as models of straight masculinity, we hear the judges fawning over Danny. I remember the initial complaints from the judges that he was “arrogant” and “empty.” Well, we now see that he’s arrogant because he’s so fucking unbelievably talented and good. And he’s hardly empty. He actually seems a little over-full to me; he’s clearly from a complex emotional past that is still raw. But he’s both effeminate as hell and a master at playing a role. The carriage of his body is really remarkable, completely taking over the ballroom forms he’s done thus far. Mia talked about his hands in the last show, and I’d noticed them as well. They’re spectacular as part of his movement. But, seriously, hands? At the moment that the judges get collectively anxious about the lack of straight manliness, they are fawning over how a man uses his hands in dance?
This comes back to one of the most consistent elements of the show: the pharmakon. The pharmakon, recall, is what simultaneously destroys something and makes it possible, makes something sick at the moment it brings health. So You Think…? is dominated – even structured – by the pharmakon of the male dancer. The show needs the poison and the cure of male dancers’ transgression of gender normativity. This week had that pharmakon on display so perfectly: the poison of lack of “real chemistry” (not just poor theater) and the cure of Danny’s utterly non-typical, even anti-thetical masculinity in his hands.