I’m a little disoriented by the change in schedule this week. The rhythm of vote-send off is kind of part of the show, especially writing about it week-to-week. I guess there’s a rationale; I’ve been too busy to figure it out. This week’s performances were really first-rate and, with that first-rateness, the difference between “best” and “favorite” really comes out into the open. We also saw how the judges have conceived this whole season as an arc of sorts, wrapping up all the “dramas” and “stories” in the last normal episode. Even though those dramas and stories have long been brought to a close for regular viewers. In that, we see how even reality television hasn’t shaken so old-fashioned ideas about how we entertain and tell stories.
In particular, I’m thinking about how the story about Danny as a repressed personality and dancer – an assessment with which I agreed, in large part – was suddenly reopened, then closed, by the judges this week. And how strange was that? After all, Danny’s pleasure as a dancer, both in his embodied expression and in his connection with the spectator, has been explosive for the past few weeks. Whatever his initial reservations (and we can only speculate), he’s come back to his body and the stage in full vibrancy and expression. That’s been the case for quite awhile, so when the judges prattled on about it, even Danny seemed a little surprised. What are they talking about? I thought we were done with this story line? We should have been, in all honesty.
But this is a storyline-thing, television. The “reality” dimension has not gotten rid of things like narrative and resolution. It has only made those features of telling stories more improvisational, requiring editors and commentators on-site to create the dramas and their solutions on-the-spot. With live performance, that’s all the more improvisational. Really on-the-spot. I found this “resolution” of Danny’s story awkward and strangely out of date.
The performances were so good this week. It is what makes this season so different than the past two, where you could really see, even into the final four, how a couple of dancers were just so much better. Not so, this season. Sure, I have my favorites and a couple of dancers really grate on my nerves (you hear me, Lacey and Lauren!), but I have to be honest: they’re both good enough to win a competition. For a good while, I doubted Pasha deserved to be this far along. The past two weeks have changed my mind, and in fact he seems not only exceptionally skilled (especially when it comes to dancing music, not just choreography), but especially sincere in his embodiment. Pasha is really Pasha when he dances. I like that sort of embodied honesty.
Back to past seasons. The distinction between favorite and best was barely there; Benji and Travis, last year, were clearly the two best (or at least no one was better), so the favorite – you know, the popularity contest portion of the show – wasn’t that far from the best. This time around, though, it is all about the favorite. No one is just so obviously the best. Even Danny, who I love just so much, has struggled with hip-hop, so isn’t drawing from a completely flawless record (though, for real, the choreography question…).
And so it does just become a popularity contest.
What would any candidate tell us about ourselves, as a national culture? How each dancerly Self expresses aspects of American culture and its (our) obsessions? That’s fun speculation. How Lacey might reveal our national obsession with girliness. How Lauren might embody our obsession with speed and precision. How Sabra might express our admiration for genius and the naturalness of beauty (has she REALLY only been dancing for four years?). How Danny might be our aristocratic class, whom we’ve always held to a different standard. How Neil plays the role of exemplary idol with white-boy cuteness and untouchable “something.” How Pasha is the immigrant par excellence, both himself (undeniably Russian) and “us” (ballroom as nostalgia).
That’s just playing around, but not so far from reality, I think. Perhaps when there’s a winner, we can speculate in big cultural terms about what that mirror reveals. I’m never averse to taking something small – like this quirky summer reality television show – and making it mean something really big, to the point of disproportion.
Finally, as a fan, I hope Danny or Sabra win. They have a tenderness and soulfulness in their movement, in their bodies, that is really unmatched by even the most virtuous and virtuoso moments of the other dancers. I guess, in the end, I want to image that as our highest aspiration and affection as a nation, culture: to be tender, to be soulful…maybe even sexy.