‘Bunheads’: A TV dance show I can love

“If you’re not auditioning,” veteran dance pro Michelle Simms snaps to the snotty teenager lazing in front of her, “get your butt off my floor before someone jetes through your head.”

It was at that moment that my affection for “Bunheads,” the dance-themed dramedy that debuted Monday night, became cautious infatuation. Shall I list its seductions? The sour tempers! The insider dance jokes! The caustic comebacks! (Gaudily dressed hooker to a dejected Simms: “Who died?” Simms: “Your fashion sense.”)


View Photo Gallery: Our guide for what’s worth watching this summer, including some promising old favorites and new additions, including “Bunheads.”

Like Simms, the Vegas showgirl played with weary warmth by Sutton Foster, I’d begun to think I sucked at love. TV dance-show love, in my case. I’d been burned so many times: Remember “Eli Stone,” with British actor Jonny Lee Miller as the lawyer with a brain tumor who hallucinated fabulous musical production numbers? Yanked after two seasons. “Glee,” once so promising, left me feeling cheated. And “Smash”— let’s not go there. The disappointment is too fresh.

So my expectations were lizard-level for ABC Family’s “Bunheads,” in which the impulsive, ready-to-can-it-all Simms winds up teaching ballet in a one-room Dolly Dinkle school in the sticks.

And yet, the show appealed to me more and more with every scene.

Oh no, I thought as Simms and another chorine start sniping to each other onstage in the chorus line as the episode opened. But there was a genuine point to their bellyaching. Here they were in full feathered regalia doing all the dancing—and then the strippers walk on, shimmy and bring the house down. And the strippers are better paid! Now there’s a labor issue I never considered. I thought the businessman obsessed with Simms would turn out to be a lech, but he was sensitive and sweet. I loved Simms’ rubbery, expressive face—especially after a few martinis and a lot of aging-dancer self-pity—and the rough wisdom of Fanny Flowers, Simms’ mother-in-law, dispensed over shots in a dive bar.

“Wow, you’re terrible!” Flowers, a former ballerina, says to Simms, more in surprise than in meanness, as the older woman drags the younger one onto the dance floor and tries to get her to swing. “Well, you made me the man,” Simms shoots back.

Even the ballet students—the bunheads of the title—bore hints of authenticity. (Every dance class, it seems, has a Little Miss Perfect, like Sasha in this show, though her character gets an added edge because she was born with a ballet body and is snarkily indifferent to its potential.)

With all these pleasures, one overlooked detail jumped out at me: In one scene, Simms strides across the gleaming wood floor of the ballet studio and begins energetically tutoring the kids in how to audition, while wearing her stiletto heels. Nobody wears street shoes in the studio! Imagine the scratches! Dance floors are sacred.

So “Bunheads” is not perfect. But I’ll forgive it that—at least for now. Because that schlurping sound you hear is my heart, being hooked by a show I never thought I’d fall for.

READ MORE: TV review of ‘Bunheads’

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. She is the author of THE ART OF GRACE: On Moving Well Through Life, coming in Nov. 2015. She has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996, and after logging time in opera houses, black boxes, and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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