Russian Roulette with SYTYCD Aug. 26, 2009
By Alexis Weisbrod
I’ll admit, I’m not surprised about this season’s winner of So You Think You Can Dance, Jeanine Mason. I wasn’t surprised when I found out, before the airing of the final episode in Pacific Time– thanks to friends’ facebook status updates who live in a reality three hours ahead of my own. Unable to experience the anticipation of the announcement of the winner, I watched the episode with a very different lens. Seeing details and reflecting on what led up to Mason’s win, I found myself intrigued by a brief portion of her interview with host Cat Deeley during which she implied that the biggest “mistake” that she encounter throughout the competition was drawing Russian folk dance “out of the hat”. Rather than thinking about what she may have dropped the ball on, she pointed to a choice of the producers, one that had been referenced only a handful of times by show participants, but always in a way that deemed it a failure, on the part of the producers as well as the form of Russian folk dance.
I wouldn’t call myself a fan of SYTYCD, as that implies that I fully support the show and its process. I do, however, think of myself as an aficionado. I follow the language, structure and design of the show with extreme curiosity and passion, always fascinated by its methods for displaying and promoting dance. Over its history the show, which began with a focus on Western dance forms, has introduced several “cultural” forms. Some of these forms, such as Bollywood, were well received. However, when Mason and her partner, Phillip Chbeeb, picked Russian folk dance “out of the hat” in Week 5 of the competition a new stone was turned by the producers. Though I’m unsure why it was decided to include Russian folk dance in the dance styles, one thing is clear, producer and judge Nigel Lythgoe didn’t research the form. Moreover, after the performance he definitely thought it was a bad idea to ask any dancers to perform it.
Immediately following the performance Lythgoe made a comment that suggested that vodka was necessary in order to view the form. Normally complimenting the choreographers, Lythgoe did not acknowledge Youri Nelzine, whose Trepak choreography for Joshua Allen and Stephen “Twitch” Boss in the Season 4 finale was met with high praise. Nelzine’s Trepak was an atheletic, exciting and energetic choreographic representation of the traditional Nutcracker piece (it should be noted that The Nutcracker is known for inaccurate representations of non-European dance forms and is Orientalism at its finest). That coupled with the performances of Allen and Boss, two well-liked contestants, created a memorable piece. However, Lythgoe seemed surprised by what he was given when he saw the Russian folk dance choreography. He did not blame the dancers for what he saw as the failure of the piece but, rather, the dance itself.
Poignantly, Lythgoe never fully clarified what he saw as a “mistake”, only implying that the dance form itself was a mistake. Certainly there are a variety of reason why Russian folk dance would not mesh well with a show focused on providing the American public dancing images of popular culture. However, Lythgoe was unable to articulate any of these. Instead, he verbally dismissed the entire dance practice. Many viewers probably don’t recall a statement made in the first episode of the show by a dancer who did not survive the first round of auditions but I’d like to bring it up here. After having auditioned with a Middle Eastern dance, this particular dancer, I believe her name was Sarah, left the audition saying the show would be “a bunch of white people who have lots of money and have taken lots of dance classes”. Probably unaware of how prolific this statement was Lythoge confirmed this theory in his dismissal of Russian folk dance.
In this moment—the labeling Russian folk dance a “mistake”—Lythgoe and Mason unknowingly identify a key aspect in the show’s make-up, a Eurocentric approach to dance. There have been many recent discussions on-air that claim excitement for the show’s ability to encourage well-rounded dancers that can perform varying cultural forms. However, a central, unspoken qualification to that idea is that the diversity only be comprised of those styles that are either well regarded by the American public—ballet, jazz, hip hop, etc.—or those that are appealing in their exoticism—Bollywood, tango, etc. This results in a limited version of cultural diversity wherein those that are “boring” or unappealing to the American public are disregarded and deemed less important.
The title, “America’s favorite dancer” is not only bestowed because the American viewing public votes the winner to success but also because this dancer can dance in the country’s image. The winning dancer must be able to successfully perform only those dance forms that already fit into a viewing household. Relying on avenues of popular culture that have supported the entrance of forms such as hip hop and Bollywood into mainstream culture, SYTYCD brings a Eurocentric perspective of dance while suggesting that it is multi-cultural. Had Lythgoe been able to spin his comments on the Russian folk dance performance in a way that did not so clearly state his own boredom and disappointment, he may have been able to maintain his façade. However, instead, he merely proved Middle Eastern dancer Sarah right. I personally look forward to seeing what others holes Lythgoe and his team reveal in Season 6 as they continue to “bring [their version of] dance to the American people”.