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.


4 Responses to “Is So You Think You Can Dance Racist? And Sexist, and Ableist too…Oh My!”

  1. irritated white girl Says:

    Wow! I found this post looking for videos of my childrens’ uncle (Jeff) and actually laughed at the fact that the author thinks saying someone is built for b-boying as being racist. Jeff is built for B-boying because he is short and naturally muscular and fit, not because he is black. People please stop trying to make everyone out to be racist. People are naturally observant.

  2. […] no question that So You Think You Can Dance? has bandied about its share of unexamined racist and ableist stereotypes and sometimes objectified and oversexualized women in bizarre ways, but I also think it’s one […]

  3. Michelle Says:

    I agree with “irritated white girl” about the bboying bit–it IS harder for taller people to bboy. Also, I don’t really understand what you mean by “you make the dance [bboying] “pop” because of the innovative way you use the tool of your body”–are you getting bboying mixed up with popping? Because the two are entirely separate dance styles.

    OK, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way…I do agree with your critiques about the judges, and I’ve been irritated myself about the skimpy outfits given to women. And it’s definitely a fact that black culture (not just dancing) has been appropriated by white mainstream society many times, especially when looking for something “edgier.”

    One point–I’m not sure what you mean by “they don’t discuss technique – but are all about musicality”–are you saying that technique supersedes musicality in importance? If so, then I have to disagree. I would say that they are about the same in terms of importance. Musicality is a MAJOR part of dancing, and in bboying at least, you better damn well have musicality if you want to be able to inject any flavor into your dance. However, I agree with your overall point, which is that the judges don’t really seem to know much about many different styles/the techniques of those styles.

    • Musicality as I understand it, is how one responds to music with the body, how one uses the body to punctuate and compliment the music. Throughout history, Black people in particular, have been linked to “musicality.” The assumption or stereotype has been that Black people – and the Black body – naturally respond to music – and just can’t help dancing. So when complimenting musicality, which is indeed, as you point out a great trait for a dancer, for Black dancers, when that is the only compliment or the primary compliment it is reminiscent of ideas about the Black person as a performer and links to a long history of Black people being framed as uncontrollably moved by music. That is why I discuss the comfort of judges complimenting musicality – which indeed does seem like a compliment for a dancer, but which ignores or manages not to address the finer techniques of dance. In other words, the Black body in motion, is most interesting in response to a “natural” impulse to music, but is not lauded for skill, extension, control. Black talent is framed as both “natural” – “they just know how to move,” – and unnatural or fascinating – as in “how did you do that? That’s fascinating!”

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