Wednesday, June 10, 2009

SYTYCD and the American Dance Renaissance

The new season of So You think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) has started (FOX Wed. nights 8:00, competition; Thur. nights 9:00, results). They are thru with the auditions and have selected the final 20: 10 girls and 10 boys (from this point forward the dancers work almost exclusively in mixed-gendered couples). As always, they have selected a range of dancers, some with already established skills, others with great artistic potential. And naturally, I didn’t always agree with their choices. In fact, they threw out almost everyone I was rooting for. Still, I anticipate an exciting season of dance. How could I not? Even the dancers who were cut demonstrated a level of talent that, to my knowledge, is unprecedented in dance history.

I have been out of touch with mainstream dance for several decades now so I was unaware of the developments in American dance training. How is it that so many dancers—male and female—can sustain multiple spins, acrobatic flips, and extreme splits? In my day it wasn’t even thot physiologically possible for most men to attain a full leg split…how wrong we were. Without doing any deep research (which I may do at some point), I am guessing that the increased strength, flexibility, and coordination of today’s studio-trained dancers is in part due to the increase in scientific knowledge about the human body in motion.  

Janelle Rodriquez, one of my bellydance sisters, once commented that bellydancers of the 1970s-80s demonstrated only a surface understanding of the movement rather than a deeply embodied one. After the fitness crazes of the 1990s, however, a deeper knowledge of the workings of the body in motion produced approaches to dance that require a more sophisticated somatic sensitivity. Suhaila Salimpour, Janelle’s case in point, is a product of this era and developed a technique that goes to the “core” of the movements, deep inside to the musculature.

I observed this teaching style in the gothic dancers as well. Since Salimpour and Gothic techniques require isolating and articulating joints and muscles, pedagogy focuses on contracting and releasing fractions of movement. Kinesiology courses, which address the science of motion, are sometimes required in serious dance training programs. In addition, teachers encourage cross-training in other dance genres as well as in stretch-and-strengthening programs like yoga and pilates which are now offered in dance studios. The results of these approaches is evident in the levels of strength and flexibility of today’s dancers.

The sheer numbers of talented dancers must also be attributed to our current dance-friendly environment. Borrowing from Anthony Shay, we could argue that America is undergoing widespread choreophilia: a love of dance.* There is also a vibrant circuit of dance competitions which challenge dancers to ever higher aspirations and afford teachers and choreographers with national exposure.  Show business ventures from the music industry, television, and touring dance companies provide dancers with real career opportunities.

In short, scientific knowledge, a choreophilic society, and economic opportunities are driving our dance renaissance. So, tune in to SYTYCD and let me know what you think.

* Anthony Shay coined the term “choreophobia” to refer to societies where dance “carries highly negative connotations.” Anthony Shay Choreophobia: Solo Improvised Dance in the Iranian World 1999.


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