Yours for a Dollar


by Neil Nisbet

If the press hacks are to be believed dance is, once again, undergoing a resurgence of popularity with the advent of numerous ‘reality’ television shows featuring dance as their premise that have appeared on a number of networks, worldwide over the last few years.

We have dance shows featuring famous people, dance shows featuring hopeless people, we even have dance shows on ice, with famous and hopeless people. If the hacks are to be believed, these shows are causing an upswing in the popularity of dance across the world. Finally, this art form is getting some global attention!

It’s not really the kind of attention you want though, is it?

You Think You Can Dance?

Two of the most popular shows, in the USA at least, are ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and ‘So You Think You Can Dance?’ For this particular editorial let’s focus on ‘So You Think You Can Dance?’ and see just how much these shows are actually about, you know, dance!

If you have never seen this particular cultural revolution then allow me to enlighten you. The basic premise is this. Thousands of dancers, both amateur and professional, attend open auditions in various US states. They perform a one minute solo, choreographed by the dancer, followed by a short discussion with the three judges (Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy and a random “Guest Judge”).

The judges will either wax lyrical about the abilities of the dancer or go into “cruel bastard” mode and humiliate the poor unfortunate who was ill advised enough to put themselves through this particular meat grinder.

Within these two minute “audition” segments we have the first real problem with the show. It is inevitable that if you put trained, professional dancers alongside an obviously overweight young woman with no experience whatsoever, as was the case for one segment, the results will be, to put it mildly, catastrophic.

At no point does anyone connected to the programme make a reasoned judgment and say “no” when it will be blatantly obvious from reading their application information that they have little to no experience in the field and shouldn’t be allowed within a mile of the stage or the cameras.

Of course; the reason they are allowed onto the stage is to create cannon fodder for the television audience to laugh at and nothing more. These particular contestants also provide easy prey for the judges, many of whom appear to have created “choreography” for Britney Spears.

Every single scene of the show is edited to within an inch of its life to maximise the emotional pain being inflicted upon the unwary victims.

Even after they leave the stage the participants are not left alone. One girl, following an on stage confrontation with the judges where she was, metaphorically, beaten to a pulp, was followed into an elevator, as she cried her eyes out, by a camera operator to further compound her pain and humiliation.

Further Down The Line

Following the audition stage the show moves to Las Vegas, of all places, where the ranks of dancers are put through another round of auditions under the guise of a call back process where they are whittled down to the final twenty performers.

This entire process takes about four episodes to complete, each episode is one hour long. The remaining twenty episodes of the show are used to reduce the number of dancers as slowly as possible, using a combination of judges decisions and phone voting. The eventual winner receives a $250,000 cash prize (before taxes) and a 200 word mention on the news.

The exploitative antics in evidence with this programme should come as no surprise when you look at who the creators are.

Nigel Lythgoe is a judge/producer who worked his way up through the ranks of television after a stint as the choreographer on the Muppet Show (I’m not making this up!) He is also a former producer of such television highlights as Gladiators, Pop Idol and Blind Date along with the British version of Survivor.

Simon Fuller, another Executive Producer, is the man behind making the Spice Girls and S Club 7 popular and more recently brokered deals for football “star” David Beckham. There have been many accusations over the years that Mr Fuller raked in millions from his music endeavours while the actual protagonists received relatively little in the way of financial reward. Accusations that he has denied.

Together they are the co-creators of an entire genre of reality fame, including the most popular of them all ‘American Idol’.

The prize money on offer to the winner of ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ and the meager production cost associated with making the show, and others like it, are nothing compared to the millions in advertising, endorsement and phone-in revenue generated for the broadcaster (in this case Fox Television) and the production companies.

Over the last six years American Idol alone has generated revenues estimated to be in the region of (US)$2.5Billion. The ultimate prize for those taking part, if they win, is a small price to pay for producers.

No matter the source material of the show, the same mantra applies. Big money for the producers, small reward for the participants.


What About The Dance?

Supporters of these programmes argue that they place dance front and center in the minds of those who watch and also encourage them to go out and participate in dance classes. There is little evidence to support these claims however.

What about the on screen quality of the choreography and dancing you say?

In the latter stages of the season, viewers are often treated to some of the most ham fisted attempts at dance making you could possibly imagine. While it is obvious that the dancers have a great deal of skill the limitations of the format and the desire to show off big moves often leaves artistic integrity in the gutter.

Someone really needs to point out to these guys that grasping your heart, flinging your head back and pumping your fists into the air does not equate to an illustration of emotion!

Not a piece of dance gets on the stage without split jumps, box splits, developpe’s or jazz pirouettes being thrown in, irrespective of the theme. The girls are usually in nothing but hot pants and bras and everybody has bright white teeth and shiny lip balm, even the judges. We breathlessly await the first instance of “jazz hands”!

This show is a primary school dance competition in High Definition with all the artistic sophistication of YouTube, Big Brother and the Crazy Frog ring tone combined.

‘So You Think You Can Dance?’ and its ilk are exercises, initially, in humiliation for those clearly deluded enough to go on national television in the mistaken belief they stand a chance of progressing. The viewing public look on as if rubber necking a pile up on the motorway.

Later in the season the show degenerates further into pantomime as the judges play the bad guy to the dancer’s Lone Ranger. The television audience, just as culpable as everybody else in this sham, respond by jeering at the bad guys and voting for their favourite for no other reason than to prove the judges wrong. As we all know, when it comes to a coherent “group think” television audiences that make phone votes really do know what’s best!

Overall, a genre of television has created the desire to obtain fame and fortune, and perhaps notoriety, over excelling in your chosen profession with integrity, diligence and a bit of class.


Such programming should not be held up as a shining beacon of hope for this profession because it allegedly gets people to attend dance classes. These shows should be treated with contempt and mocked for being the exploitative, ill conceived trash that they are.

By allowing professional and untrained dancers to audition the producers of this programme are universally deriding the entire profession as one that doesn’t require years to master and more years to hone to a fine point. You can just show up, do some moves and hey presto you’re in! Except you’re not because the professionals will make you look stupid.

Using the reasoning of this programme, if a job opens up for a specialist in rocket propulsion at NASA then I should feel free to apply. I know nothing about jet propulsion of course and any rocket I designed would explode immediately and many would be killed in the fireball. That hardly matters though because the interview would be hilarious as I mangled my way through an explanation of rocket fuel and how it will go boom when it’s mixed with matches.

Why not make that into a TV show? They could call it ‘So You Think You Know Astrophysics’ and it would encourage countless thousands of people to go to university and study rocket science. Except it wouldn’t, would it?

Dance is not just something you can show up and “do”. You can if you’re going to a wedding but not if you’re going to do it in front of other people and ask them to pay money for the privilege of watching you. So why do we let it go when Fox or the BBC say it’s ok?

The producers, viewers and participants share the blame in equal measure but ultimately the viewers have the power.

If you don’t watch they will stop making them in a heart beat. If you want good dance goto the theatre. If you want this profession to have some integrity stop selling it down the river because Messrs. Fuller and Lythgoe wave a dollar bill in front of your face.

[ Photo by Andy Brown ]