Review of Fox's High-Stepping 'So You Think You Can Dance'

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Melissa had the nano-dress, the spiked heels, the hiccupping rhythm. Even so, something was wrong with her cha-cha.

The judges on "So You Think You Can Dance" knew where the fault lay. Melissa is, by training, a ballet dancer, and those polite hips and her tea-at-the-Ritz posture had gotten in her way. No amount of sequins or daringly exposed skin could make up for the fact that her cha-cha needed a mojito. More heft, more hips, more Havana.

Her feet were "sliding all over the place." One judge said her legs were turned out too much; another said her feet turned in too far. Even her lips came under fire: They were too pursed.

"When you try and be sexy, you don't have to go over the top," cautioned Nigel Lythgoe, one of the regular judges and the show's executive producer. (Imagine, someone trying to tone down the sex on Fox TV.)

Melissa Sandvig was cut the next night, and rightly so. She had stumbled in the twin tests of technique and expression, getting it wrong -- albeit by the slimmest of degrees -- exactly where this show, episode after episode, so often gets it right.

With its fifth-season finale starting Wednesday and wrapping up Thursday, Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" is more of a runaway hit than ever. For the first time in its brief history, it will also air in the fall, returning Sept. 9, so fans won't have to wait until next summer to see more young hopefuls tackle two-minute duets in a range of dance styles as they vie for the title "America's Favorite Dancer." Fox is clearly looking for a knockout when it goes toe-to-toe against ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."

I wish Fox all the best, because "SYTYCD" is the superior dance show. It honors the art of dance much more than it gets credit for doing. For all its TV-land glitz -- the skimpy frocks, the shirtless men, the sappy pop tunes -- there is a certain honesty about this show. It stems from the primacy of the dancer's work ethic.

Focusing on the efforts of trained dancers rather than those of sorta-celebrities and adventurous athletes, "SYTYCD" offers an education, teaching viewers that the dance profession is not about pampered divadom, nor does it rest on achieving a look or aping a style. While "Dancing With the Stars" is about faking it -- which nondancer can best acquire the look of a dancer without having paid a dancer's dues -- "SYTYCD" is about the real thing.

Which is why Jeanine Mason, a raven-haired jazz and hip-hop dancer sporting purple tail feathers and just a soupcon of a top, was in for some finger-wagging on a recent episode when she failed to achieve that rolling, deep-in-the-hips quality of the samba.

"You're going to have to be hot not only with the way that you look, but with the way that you dance," counseled sharp-eyed judge Mary Murphy, a former ballroom champion who can be counted on for the most astute observations about style, substance and the art of dancing.

Art -- on TV? On Fox? The show's popularity in a mass medium and on a network that hyped celebrity boxing makes it tempting to dismiss "SYTYCD" as mere dance candy, dipped in shallow camera-glam and thick with wow-factor to please a nation that's been on a ballroom bender for the past few years. But the TV screen is a natural frame for dancing. As the most visual of the performing arts, dance is ideally suited to television. PBS discovered this in the three decades during which, on its "Dance in America" and "Great Performances" series, it regularly broadcast the best in concert dance -- the big ballet companies, the most experimental modern dance, choreographers such as George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp and Katherine Dunham.

But with diminished corporate sponsorship and a priorities shift to more mass-market fare (pop concerts, travelogues and no end to self-improvement shows), the days of elite dance over the airwaves are all but over. Dance on PBS has dwindled to an annual "Nutcracker" broadcast and little else.

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