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Common Ground | Small-Screen Dancing, Big-Time Impact

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The power of So You Think You Can Dance

By Nancy Wozny

I’ll never forget the day I landed in “the big chair.” It was shortly after the end of the second season of the hit Fox Broadcasting Company show So You Think You Can Dance. I was at a meeting of artists, wearing my usual hat as the “dance person.” There were a few empty chairs in the room, one of which was large and comfortable looking. One of the artists piped up, “Nancy, you take the big chair; your art form is hot right now.”

The final four contestants—(left to right) Lacey Schwimmer, Danny Tidwell, Neil Haskell, and Sabra Johnson—pulled out all the stops in a Bradway routine. (Photo by Kelsey McNeal/FOX)

Who knew that the trickle-down effect of So You Think would land a Houston dance critic in the coveted big chair? It’s curious enough that the show was on the radar of poets and visual artists, but that’s not why the experience stayed with me. It was the idea of dance being in front of so many people—that “big chair” moment—and what that means in terms of visibility for the art form itself.

What is it about So You Think that puts dance in the global “big chair,” and what are people learning about dance from the show? This season, with the best-trained group of dancers thus far in the show’s three-year history, was an ideal time for viewers to get exposed to the results of top-notch training. The final four were hardly newbies. Danny Tidwell, a former corps de ballet member with American Ballet Theatre who has also danced with Complexions Dance Company, was named one of “25 to Watch” in 2006 by Dance Magazine. Neil Haskell danced on Broadway in Twyla Tharp’s Times They Are a-Changin’. America’s favorite dancer, Sabra Johnson, appeared in the mega-hit Disney film High School Musical. Lacey-Mae Schwimmer is just about West Coast swing royalty. Her father is a legend, and her brother, Benji, was last year’s winner. Amateurs they are not.

America’s top two dancers
Who best to answer the question “What does So You Think teach the American public about dance?” than America’s current favorite dancer, Sabra Johnson, who started dancing only four years ago. It has been an intense few years of training, in ballet, jazz, and hip-hop in Bountiful, UT, for this young dancer. “Once I got serious, dancing was all I wanted to do. I was in ballet class every single day. The show really shows the kind of dedication it takes to be a dancer, what’s really involved,” Johnson says. “The audience gets an idea of how hard dancing is and how tricky it is to switch from genre to genre. They also get to see so many different kinds of dance, from ballroom to hip-hop to lyrical, and it shows the opportunities dancers can have if they really put their minds to it.”

Runner-up Tidwell found that his strong ballet foundation gave him what he needed to compete fully. He started dancing at Denise Wall’s Dance Energy, where Travis Wall, last year’s runner-up, and this year’s top-ten ranker Jamie Goodwin also trained. That’s quite a record—Wall’s dancers show a clean, versatile technique and a good deal of performance polish. Tidwell credits Wall, his adoptive mother, for her strong support throughout his dance career. “My mom’s studio is like a family,” says Tidwell. “I studied the usual ballet, hip-hop, and jazz. When I arrived at the Kirov Academy [of Ballet of Washington, DC], they put me together technically.”

Johnson and Tidwell both say that their experiences on the show were life changing, including the pressure of having to “dance for their lives” when they landed in the bottom three a few weeks in a row. There were perks, too, like working with “tremendous choreographers—people like Mia Michaels and Wade Robson,” says Tidwell.

As for the future, Tidwell has some teaching gigs lined up, and Johnson hopes to teach as well. Tidwell will join the faculty of JUMP (Break the Floor) this season and is looking forward to commanding a roomful of 600 to 700 kids. He says he enjoyed teaching the warm-up while the So You Think dancers were rehearsing for the show tour. “I taught some jazz and ballet and even threw some Pilates in,” he says. “It was really fun because we have such different backgrounds as dancers.” But the two dancers are by no means done with performing. Both hope to be onstage as much as possible. “The TV show is great, of course, but there’s nothing like the power of a live performance,” says Tidwell. He hasn’t ruled out starting his own company, and Johnson hopes to land a great dance job.

Questions and kudos
The show has done a marvelous job of making distinctions between various ballroom forms, but it raised a few questions in my mind, like how ballroom dancers are trained these days (they seem like an enormously versatile bunch) and why those Russians are so good. And how many actual rumba steps need to be in a rumba routine? When is a dance not a routine? How do ballroom purists feel about the artistic license the show’s choreographers take with classic ballroom forms?

Johnson and Tidwell both say that their experiences on the show were life changing, including the pressure of having to ‘dance for their lives’ when they landed in the bottom three a few weeks in a row.

And then there’s the prevalence of hip-hop. I love the new directions this art form is taking, which were nicely demonstrated by Cedric’s fluid style and Hok’s uncanny ability to catapult himself into the airspace with minimal touchdowns, as if the floor were on fire. Why are some hip-hop dancers able to transfer their skills to other forms of dance while others look like rank beginners in contemporary pieces? Do some of them sneak in ballet training on the side?

All questions aside, one of So You Think’s greatest accomplishments is putting dance front and center, on primetime TV, for months at a time. How wonderful and empowering it must be for dance students to be able to turn on the television and see dance week after week, not only when Dance in America is airing one of its terrific shows. After all, sports aficionados can watch top-level contenders hit the field anytime. And putting fabulous young male dancers and choreographers on camera each week places a much-needed emphasis on men in dance. I imagine the show also has had a loyal following among those already dancing. Week after week they were treated to polished performances (all done with five hours of rehearsal per piece). And the sense of camaraderie among the participants did not seem at all like an act.

Audiences also gained insight into the role of the choreographer and the choreography. How to tell the dancer from the dance often proved a tricky issue on the show, but it became more clarified as season three progressed. Early on, if the judges did not like the choreography, they appeared to blame the dancers. Later more distinction was made between the success of the choreography and that of the performers. In the end, viewers learned how choreography can either elevate or sink a performance. They may also have a better idea of what the life and work of a choreographer is like. That rehearsal footage did a great job of answering the question of what exactly a choreographer does. And Mia Michaels is now recognized on the street as a choreographer. That’s progress.

The future
What does the show’s success say about the future of dance? Tidwell and Johnson feel that it has put dance in the public eye in a big way and does a terrific job of informing the public about who’s hot in the commercial dance world. Dance teachers certainly should feel more empowered in their professions. Did enrollment rise at studios across the United States this fall? Will more and more people sign up for ballroom lessons? Are teens getting the idea—from Johnson, who started dancing at the late age of 16—that it’s not too late to start taking dance classes, whether for fun or a possible career? Johnson reminds late starters that they need to stay focused. “Every class has a purpose,” she says.

Perhaps changes will happen on the local level. Will friends and parents be more willing to go to dance recitals or watch the dance team during halftime? Will more seats for concert dance have warm bodies in them? Are the people who watched the show more comfortable around dance, or with the idea of letting their sons dance? I hope that the answer to all or at least some of these questions is a big yes. One tends to get a bit dreamy sitting in the big chair.

How to Make a Good Thing Better
Now that So You Think You Can Dance has brought dance to mainstream America’s attention, what else could it do to expand what dance means to people? We’ve gotten the idea that dance is an economically viable profession, and that’s good, but there are other aspects of dance that could use more visibility.

Just because So You Think is entertainment doesn’t mean there can’t be some representation from the concert world. Modern dance would be perfect—after all, it’s a homegrown art form. I would like to see some ballet presented on that stage as well. If hip-hop and krumping can share the stage with ballroom, is ballet such a stretch? And how about including world dance forms down the road?

And as for choreographers, there’s no reason why concert-dance people can’t be included in the mix. I can think of several whose work has broad general appeal: David Parsons, Seán Curran, and Aszure Barton (the young Canadian whose work has been championed by Baryshnikov), for example. An ideal time to bring in some choreographic savvy would be for the opening group pieces and those “dance for your life” solos, which all end up looking the same. Since the participants are being judged as dancers, they should not be downgraded if their own choreographic chops are less than stellar. Putting more emphasis on ensemble work (to get out of the rut of duets that always seem to tell similar stories) also sounds like a good idea.

While we’re at it, why not use some of the filler time that’s usually given to recording artists to spotlight dance companies, especially those that have diverse repertoires? I could see Ailey II, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Momix, and Philadanco fitting in nicely. Why, even the Academy Awards spiced up its show with Pilobolus’ clever rendition of nominees for best picture. This is a dance show—why not show viewers some professional dance? And what about including a professional critic on the panel of judges?

Now that the show has a steady audience, expanding the range seems like a natural progression. Shows like this one can play an important role in emphasizing that dance is a big place with room for many styles and tastes. —NW

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August 2014
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