OK, so the really important summer television is over. The finale of So You Think You Can Dance? is finished and I’ll admit to being a little surprised at the results. I had assumed the winner would be Lacey or Neil, so imagine my surprise. A damn happy surprise, seeing Danny and Sabra as the final two finalists. The finale competitive show (not the final final show) also brought out a whole lot of stuff I’ve been writing about for the past two months. Namely, anxiety about masculinity and the strange place of dance in mass cultural consumption.
For me, the highlight of the final show (if not the season) was Danny’s aside, just as he and Neil were practicing the “macho” routine Mia Michaels had designed, that Nigel “loves masculine dancing.” It was a hilarious and appropriate crack. Danny and Neil are tall, fabulously, strong and acrobatic dancers, yet they’ve been told over and over – sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly – that they need to be more manly. I mean, seriously, how many times do we have to hear Neil being reminded his partner is sexy? They’ve been told this because their strength and athleticism have that softness and tenderness one expects from dance, but that isn’t quite digestible as a “proper” masculinity. Dance is a strange field in which to have anxiety about sexuality. Let’s be real here. I appreciated all my theorizing coming together in one joke facing the camera. Thanks, Danny!
I wish Danny had won. For all the talk about whether or not he was too reserved, too icy, or whatever, there was always this thing that couldn’t go away: he’s just beautiful in his body. I’ve always been stunned at Adam Shankman’s aggression toward Danny, that moment when Danny was told (critically) that he “dances like he’s already won” and that he was too “arrogant.” Part of the structure of the show is that Danny couldn’t respond, except by dancing with exceptional grace and skill – something that, sadly, only confirmed Adam’s remark to someone like Adam. Until the final show, that is, where Danny made the really revealing remark. Remember? Cat Deeley asked him about Adam’s criticism and Danny said he felt “misunderstood.” I liked that. “Misunderstood” is a really moving word, a word of genuine pain. In fact, at the time I wondered if it would win the competition for Danny, as it showed just how hurtful such words can be and how different “you’re arrogant” sounds than, say, “the more of you that shines through your dance, the more beautiful your dance…so let’s see more.”
Danny got to say his piece. And it said so much. Misunderstood. That is a terrible thing to be, for sure. We all know how that feels and can imagine just how terrible it would be to be misunderstood on such a huge stage. I wish Danny had won. Not just because he was my favorite (by far), but also because I like stories of redemption. I’ll have to settle for that insanely GREAT moment when he spun, then lifted his hands straight out to the side with head back in his final solo. We are the champions, indeed…take a moment to watch this video. The solo is so worth it, as is the interview.
Sabra is a lovely winner, though, so I’m not disappointed in the least. One of the things I like about her victory, especially given how much it is deserved, is that it restores some mysticism to the arts. We have this really powerful rhetoric in the U.S. about “if you work really hard…” That rhetoric is instructive, very true, and even inspirational. It says a lot about how, for example, I went from whatever I used to be to who I am now, a path that has meant a lot of hard work and dedication. (Seriously, a dissertation? A book? All those classes? You have to be insane…)
But the arts shouldn’t be reduced to hard work. There is all of that, without a doubt, for the arts. You have to learn technique and skill and all of that stuff. Practice. Etc. I get that. At the same time, there is the miracle of expression. Plato’s old stories about how the poet is mad, possessed by gods, unable to understand even how he’s come to bring beauty to words – there is something important in all that. The sense that, in the arts, we bear witness to something no one can do except this person here. That there is a specialness in the world unique to this person here, and that we’re all receiving a gift to have it before us. The old word for this is “genius.” I know it is a word that’s been contested, deconstructed, critiqued, and whatever, but I think it still means something.
Sabra is a hint at all of that. I mean, seriously, she’s been dancing for four years? And is able to be that kind of dancer, have that kind of control and grace, and just be beautiful in so many ways. I know that’s she’s worked really, really hard. That goes without saying. But you can’t just say that’s the whole story. Hard work only explains a little bit. There has to be specialness to a person, and I don’t think anyone who watched the show honestly could contest the claim that she’s special, the exception, very unlike the rest of us.
I was also perplexed by the judges’ perplexity at Wade Robson’s “kind of abstract” dance, with the foxes – mother and daughter. Again, as with Mia Michaels’ routine with the goggles, there was so much anxiety about the abstractness of the dance, a lot of groaning about “I REALLY didn’t get that,” and the like. Tiresome. Why so much anxiety? I think the judges are smart enough to get it. I don’t buy their perplexity. I worry that it is yet another version of underestimating viewers, the public. It’s as if they imagine the public unable to watch and consider abstract movement. As if the public wants only straightforward stories.
They couldn’t be more wrong, if you want my guess. I actually think folks want something to discuss, to interpret, to speculate about. That’s what is so important about art. There is real expertise. Some people know more than others. At the same, though, the arts invite all of us in to think together, to interpret and appreciate without the kind of reserve one would have in, say, the natural sciences. I like that about art. I think everyone likes that about art. In terms of just television even, I’m thinking about how Lost was such a smash hit, a show that’s pretty boring if you aren’t into solving puzzles. Why wouldn’t we expect the same from a show about the arts? Well, maybe that’s just it. Maybe the judges worry that dance can only be entertainment, never art, if the show is to survive. I find that a sad and patronizing assessment of all of us.
I liked the foxes theme. It was interesting and unexpected.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I passed over how problematic the critical eye was on this particular dance, especially in terms of gender issues. I’ve talked a lot about masculinity. I think it was the singular obsession of the first two-thirds of the show. Then there was this dance about a mother and daughter, which got so much criticism – is it accidental that an extremely flawed (surely in terms of performance, maybe even in choreography) dance about a father and daughter received only praise? Sure, Mia Michaels was describing a real loss and we can imagine or even feel all sorts of reasons why it stands outside public criticism, at that moment. That said, I’m convinced that a mother-daughter story gets more scrutiny because, well, let’s just be plain: mothers got a whole different standard-thing going on. Just as the show comes to a close, maybe women started to get just a bit of the gender anxiety stuff…
I’ll end as a fan. I’ll miss this show a lot. To my mind, it makes American Idol look over-produced and a bit too much, what with all the marketing and hype. I wouldn’t be surprised to see So You Think…? get more glitzy next year. I hope not. I like it just like this: great dancers, interesting choreography, enough cultural anxiety and flaws to be blog-worthy – you know, my summer companion. My boutique show. This really fun thing that took a lot of words to even begin understanding.