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Real Dance vs. Reality Dancing?
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Last edited: Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Posted: Tuesday, April 20, 2010

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How far should the media go in comparing reality TV dancers from 'Dancing With The Stars' and 'So You Think You Can Dance' to the stars and legends of the 'real' dance world?

XMAS comes but once a year. Luckily for television dance fans, DWTS comes twice a year. Debuting on our TV screens in the summer of 2005, Dancing With The Stars - in all its glittering, fake-tanned & sequined glory  - is now in its tenth season.


Yes! There are already nine seasons of D.W.T.S. in the bag and nine celebrity champions have hoisted that much-maligned mirrorball trophy. But how many of those triumphant toe-tapping, tush-twirling, amateur terps can you name?


To help you out, the roll of honor is: Monaco, Lachey, Smith, Ohno, Castroneves, Yamaguchi, Burke, Johnson and Osmond. Each a star in their own sphere, but can they really be regarded as true stars of the dance world? Can they really be held in the same regard as a Baryshnikov or a Glover?


Does Emmitt Smith deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Bill T. Jones? Does Shawn Johnson belong in the same stratosphere as Ted Shawn? Does Donny Osmond measure up to Donald O’Connor? Kelly Monaco or Gene Kelly? … okay, you get my drift.


How highly should we regard champions - or, for that matter, any of the dancers - that have appeared on television dance shows? Whether it be Dancing With The Stars or So You Think You Can Dance or America’s Best Dance Crew the popularity of these shows and their dancers is beyond question. You only have to look at the top four most read blogs on a ‘real’ dance website like After a puff piece on ‘make up’ - look who is next in line of popularity … D.W.T.S., S.Y.T.Y.C.D. and A.B.D.C.


Like the proverbial dancing dog, it is surprising that ‘Dance on TV’ is not only the prevalent trend on, but that TV dance trends at all. If this well-regarded, professional dance site generates such an incontrovertible interest in the unreality of reality TV dance shows, how has the rest of the professional dance world reacted to this form of the ‘amateur’ dance hour?


In assessing how the professional dance world views shows such as D.W.T.S. and S.Y.T.Y.C.D. where better to start than in referencing Time magazine’s ‘Dancer of the 20th Century.’ Even though Martha Graham died in 1991, some fourteen years before Dancing With The Stars burst onto our screens, her memory is often revisited to explain the delights or deficiencies of the show.


“Martha Graham was telling the truth in her remark about the simplicity of body language: ‘Movement never lies,’ ” Gia Kourlas wrote in the New York Times. “The success of Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance proves a great deal about the potency of dance.”


Evoking a similar spirit from Martha’s Danceyard, Holly Cara Price offered a different slant on D.W.T.S. for The Huffington Post with another Graham cracker. “Martha Graham said, ‘Dance is the hidden language of the soul.’ Graham would probably not have been a viewer of this show, nor would she have believed any of these contestants to be speaking any kind of hidden language of the soul.”


Although D.W.T.S. pro Louis Van Amstel is a student of  the Martha Graham Technique, one supposes that most of the show’s fans are more familiar with former N.B.A. star and D.W.T.S. alumnus Clyde Drexler than Graham’s Clytemnestra.


One real dance critic clearly not enamored with reality TV dancing, is Keith Watson of the London Metro. “I love dance. I do not, however, love So You Think You Can Dance, which forces good dancers to look average because they’re doing stuff they’re no great shakes at.” Watson added, “Would you ask Carlos Acosta, the greatest ballet dancer of his generation, to have a go at tap dancing or the waltz? He’d probably make a pretty good job of it, but what’s the point?”


Ironically, the point is very simple. Acosta could so easily score a maximum three tens on Dancing With The Stars for a waltz that channels Vernon Castle, Fred Astaire and Arthur Murray. Then Acosta’s name would instantly become known to the general public who quite probably have never heard of him. THAT is the point of dance on TV.


One dance legend who knows Costa only too well is former partner Darcey Bussell.  Not only did the longtime prima ballerina of the Royal Ballet dance an unforgettable balletic jive on the U.K.’s Strictly Come Dancing but appeared for a few weeks on the judging panel. Given her background, Bussell is well placed to comment on both sides of the debate.


“People think, when you've been a professional dancer all your life, that you're going to have tried every sort of style, and I kind of felt embarrassed that I'd never ever tried ballroom dancing,” she told the Independent on Sunday last year. “I muck around in nightclubs maybe after a performance, with Carlos Acosta, and I love watching tango, but generally I've never had time to dabble in other styles.”


Bussell’s willingness to stretch her toes and her reputation onto the ballroom dance floor is not matched by fellow Royal Ballet principal, Michael Nunn. The Ballet Boyz co-founder has been extremely vocal about the way reality TV dancing clouds the public’s perception of real dance. Earlier this year Nunn told The Stage, “Most people, if they see dance, will probably see it once a year. And what are they going to go and see? Richard Alston or [Strictly’s] Lilia Kopylova?”


Nunn’s misgivings over reality dancing are echoed by the New Yorker’s dance reviewer Brian Seibert. Writing on, in 2005, he warned, “For a dance critic like me to offer a professional opinion about what happens on Dancing With The Stars could be considered cruel … Dancing With The Stars is not Baryshnikov on P.B.S.”


Seibert’s professional stance is tempered by two-time D.W.T.S. champion Julianne Hough, who also uses Misha as a misshapen means to an end. She said, “Doing Dancing With The Stars is pretty much the most famous you can get as a dancer … unless you’re Baryshnikov or something.” The ‘or something’ being the worst put-down Mikhail has suffered until this week, when The Mail on Sunday denigrated his dance career by referring to him as “Sex & The City star Mikhail Baryshnikov.”


Whatever real dance experts think as they seemingly look down their noses at reality dance on television, the amateur art form does boast at least one useful benefit. “Whenever [S.Y.T.Y.C.D. head judge] Nigel Lythgoe, muses about the influence of Michael Kidd and Bob Fosse in a beautifully choreographed piece, he’s giving a quick lesson in dance history,” wrote Alynda Wheat in Entertainment Weekly. “It’s like Bugs Bunny dropping opera, or mom slipping vegetables into the spaghetti sauce. It’s so sneaky, it works.”


Reality dancing on TV has undoubtedly opened the public’s eyes to the history of dance, introducing them to the almost unforgotten names of dancing greats and legendary choreographers. Although this hub of influence may have taken one clumsy step too many. Nowadays, it is has become all too easy for dance reviewers to compare a real dance project, with real professional dancers, in terms of a reality TV dance show.


Despite being awarded an M.B.E. by The Queen for his services to dance in the U.K, Akram Khan suffered the ultimate affront. His contemporary dance theater piece In-i - a duet with Oscar-winning actress Juliette Binoche - was dismissed by The Scotsman’s Andrea Mullaney, as “Basically a posh Strictly Come Dancing.” Ouch!


And if that was not galling enough for real dance aficionados, Sarah Frater, in The London Evening Standard, had the temerity to write off the American Ballet Theater’s Le Corsaire as, “two‑and‑a-half hours of fancy dress and flashy moves - the Strictly Come Dancing of ballet with a comedy plot and a mongrel score.”


Is there a solution to this thorny question of real versus reality dancing that has become as pointed as a ballerina’s toes and as heated as ‘Lil Kim’s showcase salsa?


Tonya Plank on The Huffington Post sensibly suggested a crossover between real and reality. “Works by choreographers like Twyla Tharp and Jerome Robbins who created ballroom-y ballets - would appeal to the D.W.T.S. crowd.” She went on to list a wide variety of dance companies and projects that would fit the primetime TV bill, “I'm sure audiences would savor seeing some of the current greats (for example, Marcelo Gomes and Misty Copeland - the ballerina of the future) perform Tharp's Sinatra Suite or portions of Deuce Coupe or Robbins's Other Dances or Alvin Ailey's jazzy Pas de Duke. Or Mimulus, a sweet Brazilian troupe who combine social Latin with modern. Or Keigwin and Company with their uniquely witty humor.”


Tonya neatly summed up the need for TV dance shows to use their precious air time to focus more on dance and less on non-performance filler, “There are a ridiculous number of excellent companies and dancers and choreographers this audience would be into; the list is endless. Dancing With The Stars is a show celebrating dance, after all, not idle chatter.”


Idle chatter or not, whatever your views on the boom in dancing on television, as long as the public are talking about dance rather than any of the other performing arts that can only be good for dance as a whole. As Bruce Forsyth, the 82-year-old host of Strictly…, likes to remind the viewers at the end of every show, “Keep Dancing!”


For more on Real Dance go to … THE QUOTABLE DANCER

For more on Reality TV Dancing go to … DANCING WITH THE QUOTES




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