First, as a fan of the show, I’m totally shocked – and even a bit scandalized – at the booting of Shauna from the competition. I think it is clear that the judges are committed, for whatever reason, to keeping a good number of ballroom dancers on the show. Not my judgment, but, hey, that’s how it goes.
Now, on to more interesting things…not unrelated.
For me, the signature moment of this week’s show was the dressing-down of Danny. Or whatever we want to call it. The message was straightforward: you’re not expressive enough. Danny’s technique – they recognized and applauded – is amazing and first-rate. But his personality as a dancer hides behind the spectacular technique; he’s so good that we forget that dance is a way of saying the Self.
I get that. They’re right, actually, that Danny’s self has yet to fully come to expression. He’s an amazing technician, yet he’s not the most engaging dancer of the group. He should be. But he isn’t.
There is something very instructive about this “controversy” from the week’s show. Two things are especially interesting to me:
On the one hand, it almost functions (unintentionally, I think) as a response to one dance critic’s comment on the show in the New York Times. (Thanks for the reference, Beckyloo!) The critic is predictably cranky and snobbish (“high” culture reviews television? Predictable result: tv = bad), identifying one particular dance aesthetic as the measure of dance aesthetics as such. (Note: by “aesthetic,” I here mean those standards of expression according to which we judge something good, true, and beautiful.) That floats as pop criticism (NYT is a newspaper, not an academic journal), but, as theory, it is just so weak. That big aesthetic question is another post, yes, but it is worth noting that part of So You Think You Can Dance?’s innovation as a show is its mash-up of dance aesthetics. In some ways, So You Can Think…? does for dance what hip-hop sampling did for hooks: break it up, reassemble to make something new. Sure, the result is a lack of clarity in terms of performance principles, but that’s the point. Once you leave one, sole form of dance, you lose the aesthetic anchor. For the better, I think, but it is clearly confusing to some critics. Alas.
On another hand, the judges’ critique of Danny says a lot about why ballroom dancers have stayed around so long. The ballroom folks get a real pass on the “dance for your life” segment; we’re pretty convinced, thanks judges!, that they struggle to do solo work, given the central role of “partnering” in ballroom styles. Ballroom is about technique and choreography, sure, but after that is mastered, it is as much about exuberant personality as anything else. (Let’s leave the strange fashion aside for now.) And so the critique of Danny tells us a lot about why ballroom people stick around. If the judges want personality, then ballroom is all about just that personality. The energy, the charisma, etc. Danny’s form has a different relation to expression. It is first about technique – which the write-up in the New York Times obsesses over – and only after about the personal. Even then, the personal sits on the fringes of performance (and therein lies the difference from ballroom).
I wonder a lot about this demand from Danny. What do they expect? Ballroom telegraphs its personality outlet with nostalgic stories of romance and pep. Personally, that’s why I find ballroom tiresome after awhile. The feelings are so pre-arranged, really. I don’t think Danny’s home-style of dance is so telegraphed, and we might just learn a lot about Danny that is difficult to digest in a mass culture format. His personality, insofar as we have glimpsed it, is not arrogant, but it is obviously complex. His life story is pretty trying, even just to read on the So You Think…? website. We might learn about Danny through dance and find that he’s not the “super-psyched!” character of last year’s winner Benji or his sister on this year’s show. We might find something more complex, melancholic, or even just someone in that peculiar place of transition.
What I’m saying, hypothetically to the judges, is this: do you know what you are asking of him? And is it really what you think makes for America’s “favorite” dancer, rather than America’s “best” dancer? To be the best dancer, Danny needs to bring that Self to his form and every form asked of him. Would that make him the favorite dancer? My guess is that it depends on what part of his Self he chooses to bring into that form.
We shall see.
For now, I will miss Shauna. She was spectacular, athletic, and really expressive of her Self. You could feel her ecstasy and struggle in her jumps and landings.
Again, this makes me ask: are we sure the judges want that “Self” in expression? Shauna makes me wonder, you know, if maybe the judges actually just want ballroom feeling with lyrical technique. Does Danny have a ballroom aspect of the Self?
We shall see.