The Real Deal

November 9, 2008

“What do I have to lose?” thought Ashlee Langas when she auditioned for season three of Fox TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance.” Langas, who grew up in a small Texas town studying ballet, jazz, tap and lyrical, was both elated and relieved each time she made it through a round of cuts. And when she landed a coveted Top 20 spot, she received glowing praise from the judges. Then, on the show’s opening night (after drawing a dreaded Argentine Tango) she was the first girl voted home. Was her career over? Absolutely not. Within a week of leaving the show, she was signed to a big-name agency and has started her professional career in L.A.


Without a doubt, dance reality shows have made an impact on the dance world. Shows like “So You Think You Can Dance,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “Dancelife” and “The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll” have stirred up a vibrant interest in the artform. Dance reality TV shows are creating more job opportunities for dancers, providing choreographers with a new platform for their work, and sometimes even catapulting both to celebrity status. It’s now common to see contemporary dancers leaping through a McDonald’s salad commercial or ballroom dancers (their bottom halves, at least) showing off heels from DSW. “Without a doubt, the reality shows put dance in the forefront and we have never had more dance in commercials, film and television,” says Lucille Di Campli, a NYC-based agent for McDonald Selznick Associates.


But are they providing a skewed view of the artform? DS takes a closer look.

“‘So You Think You Can Dance’ has evangelized dance,” says Debbie Allen, famed L.A.-based studio owner and judge on the show’s third season.


“Good, bad, indifferent—no matter how you feel about the show or its contestants, I don’t know anybody that’s not talking about it.” Wade Robson, who headed up one of the first dance competition shows, “The Wade Robson Project” (which aired in 2003 on MTV) and is now a regular choreographer and judge on “SYTYCD,” says that dance TV shows have no doubt brought dance into the limelight and educated the general public about different styles of dance. He’s continually surprised by the diversity of people who approach him on the street to talk about his work—people who would have never known him or his choreography before. Robin Antin, executive producer of the CW’s “The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll,” says, “[Reality dance shows] have given the world an inside look at what dance is all about. It makes people respect what dancers go through.”


One concern of the dance community at large about how dance is being represented on TV is that we’re losing part of our artform to commercialism. Are choreographers being forced to water down their work in the name of entertainment? Maybe. “I definitely always go for creative and artistic—but I’m very much aware of our audience, too, so I don’t go to the point where it’s just so internal that they wouldn’t get it,” says Mia Michaels, a judge and choreographer for “SYTYCD.” “Dancers need to do the same thing if they’re on a commercial television show. They have to realize that it’s not a concert dance venue, and remember that they need to incorporate things that make the public relate to them,” says Michaels. “Is it a sell-out? I don’t think it’s a sell-out, I just think we’re spoon-feeding people who don’t dance. If you give them too much art all at once, they don’t get it. When you give it in little doses, they start understanding it better.”


So are young dancers being influenced, too? Are they more interested in learning eye-popping tricks than, say, perfecting a plié with proper placement at the barre? Absolutely, says Victoria Flores Cooke, co-owner of Denise Wall’s Dance Energy in Virginia Beach, VA, the hometown studio of “SYTYCD” dancers Travis Wall, Danny Tidwell and Jaimie Goodwin. “Of course [young students] want to turn out eight pirouettes and do fouettés all over the place—but then we make them understand how difficult it is just to stand on one foot,” says Cooke. “They don’t really understand that it takes so many years to get to that point.” It’s up to teachers to remind starry-eyed students that preparing for a career in dance requires years of diligent training from the basics on up—and that there’s more to a compelling performer than technical tricks.


Michaels, always an ambassador for artistry, has her own opinion on the 30-second “dance-for-your-life” solos on “SYTYCD.” “I don’t like all the tricks,” she says. “If I were to sit down with any of those dancers and talk about what I would like to see [in their solos], it would not be what I’m seeing. It would be a much more unique voice and vocabulary,” says Michaels. “I think the balance is crucial.”


The premise of “SYTYCD” is to subject dancers to different styles. The most well-rounded dancers—and the most popular—make it to the finals. In the working dance world, versatility is useful—to a point. “You can’t just be a ballerina anymore, even if you’re in American Ballet Theatre, because the language of dance is expanding exponentially,” says Allen. If you want to be a modern dancer, for example, whether you can or can’t do the paso doble is most likely of little interest to the artistic directors of companies you’ll be auditioning for. However, as a commercial dancer, being truly versatile can increase the number of auditions that your agent sends you out on.


When it comes down to it, versatility alone doesn’t guarantee you a spot in a reality show either. Michaels explains that shows like “SYTYCD” look for more than talent—personality and diversity are major factors in casting. “When it comes down to the top 20, Nigel [Lythgoe, executive producer] sits there and says, ‘Remember, we’re casting a television show. We’re not casting a dance company…so now we’re looking at personalities,’” she says. “It really comes down to that in the end.”


There’s more to the dance world than what’s on TV. Robson says that maintaining the integrity of dance as an artform while appealing to the TV-watching public is going to continue to be a challenge. “What comes along with good opportunities for choreographers in big prime-time situations is a responsibility to fight to keep integrity in the work,” he says. “I think that’s happening right now and it’s in a good place, but [as with] everything in the biggest pop-culture scenes, it can start to be just an exploitation—it can become just surface and just entertainment.”


In the end, dancers like Ashlee Langas are living proof that you don’t have to be the last dancer standing to have a successful career. For Langas, the show just confirmed her talent. “I don’t know that I ever would have just up and moved to L.A. on my own, without knowing that I was going to have a for-sure shot at getting signed by an agent,” she says. “[Being on the show] has helped me have the confidence, if anything, to know that [a professional career is] a totally achievable goal.” Though dance reality shows have had a major impact on the dance world and audiences, you can’t train to be on them. You have to train to be a professional—in whichever style of dance you love most—to ensure a fruitful career after the cameras are off.