Is So You Think You Can Dance Racist? And Sexist, and Ableist too…Oh My!
Is So You Think You Can Dance Racist? (SYTYCD?) Well, if you mean that they are fond of mocking darker-skinned people of color, referring to Latin (as in genre, not short for country of origin) dancers, particularly if they are Latino, as hot tamales, and seem never to actually advance people of color, even when we are dancing in genres that folks of color invented or perfected (hip hop, Latin, Alvin Ailey influences), then I think we’re going to have to go with, yes.
SYTYCD airs Wednesdays and Thursdays on everyone’s favorite network for parity, Fox, moving gently into the space recently vacated by American Idol. SYTYCD has been part of Fox’s summer roster since 2005. Now entering its eighth season, viewers are again in store for a season of bright-eyed, preternaturally flexible, and talented young people, trying to make it as dancers.
In truth, given the racial history and pathology of the United States, I’m not sure that a show that so fully engages the body – its movement, presentation, submission to direction, preserverance, and constant display could resists an essentializing gaze in which race, whether producers want it to or not, takes the stage.
But each year, SYTYCD get’s racier and racier; pun intended. The womyn’s dancing costumes and audition clothing seems skimpier, Nigel’s consistent commentary to Latin (style) dancers is to be more “masculine,” the overwhelming critique and comments made about dancers of color involves the judges expressing fascination in watching the body of color move, and very rarely comments on technique – and when comments from judges do address technique, it is usually with an statement that suggests the skill is “unreal.”
Moreover, the judges, with the exception of Little C, seem ill equipped to fully respond to the many dance genres outside of modern or Latin dance. Nigel uttered the very odd gem that Jeffrey McCann, a Black male 28 year old, who auditioned in Oakland, was naturally “built for b-boying.” Well, what does Nigel know about hip-hop? And in all my time, as a dancer (modern), I’ve not quite heard of someone being made to for b-boying. In fact, one could argue much of the point of b-boying is highlighting your own body’s special features and feats. In other words, you make the dance “pop” because of the innovative way you use the tool of your body.
It’s true that being 6’6″ might make b-boying difficult, but Nigel’s particular statement smacked of an appraisal of a Black male body that missed the mark; that was too close to “he’s built for labor, or built to do this work.”
Tonight’s episode has a brief introduction to turfing. A dance style, that stands for Taking Up Room on the Floor, and uses flexibility, transitions, storytelling, and gliding movements. It’s been around for more than a decade. Like many African diasporic-inspired styles, it reminds me a great deal of a masquerade. None of the judges had any experience with turfing. Thus, they weren’t really able to assess the technique or understand the dance – and Little C, who has some authority on a broad range of dance, was not present.
I bet you in 5 years, a white man is going to be teaching turfing and telling Black kids from Oakland who learned the moves on the block from their older cousin, that they are doing the moves all wrong. What I mean to say, in more academically appropriate language, is that at any moment, white critics and artists will co-opt turfing. This will be done, even as turfing isn’t being seen as a “proper” art form or style. Even while the judges on SYTYCD proffer the boring assessments of turfing dancers as “oh, so cool! That’s amazing.”
Black dancers and dancers of color are often labeled as unique or interesting to watch, focusing on the display and interest by the white judges or viewers of watching the black body. they don’t discuss technique – but are all about musicality (i.e. how a dancer responds to and punctuates their movement to the melody, harmony, and rthyms of the music).
This season marks an interesting change – now Little C is being mocked, adding in my opinion to the show’s hostility to Black people and the Black body. I am hoping that Debbie Allen will be featured again this season and hopefully more choreographers of color and more female choreographers.
Race is not the only challenge of the show. Ability comes up repeatedly on the show, with SYTYCD framing (dis)abled dancers in ways that Joseph Shapiro might call “the super crip” role.
Take for instance the framing of Jessica Jensen. On September 30, 2009, Fox aired episode 4 (Season 6) of SYTYCD. During the episode, we meet Jessica Jensen a contemporary dancer who had her hand amputated a year and a half ago, to stop the spread of cancer.
Cat: So tell me about some of the experiences you’ve had in life….
The personal narrative has propelled the framing of contestants – acting to bestow them with the title of show “darling,” “underdog,” or simply “not good enough.” That personal narrative is often deeply impacted by the race, gender, ability, and (presumed) economic class of the dancer in question. SYTYCD has a troubling relationship with the body and difference. Over the summer I’ll investigate how the show frames and positions race, gender, ability, and sexuality.