Friday, June 14, 2013

“I want the girls to have this sense of submissiveness.”

This was Vegas Week on So You Think You Can Dance. Dancers auditioning in cities across the country try to win a ticket to Las Vegas to compete in this round, which determines who makes the final twenty. It follows the same formula as Hollywood Week in American Idol: the dancers do solos before a panel of judges, develop a performance with a small group and an assigned piece of music, and have to learn and perform choreographed routines in various styles (hip hop, contemporary, and so on).

The jazz round this week was choreographed by Sonya Tayeh, whose work I’ve long enjoyed and who always seemed fairly respectful of the young dancers. So I was surprised that in this instance she appeared to treat them like young children (not the way anyone should be treating young children, either, in any event). She seemed hostile and disrespectful towards these dancers, who didn’t seem to be behaving unprofessionally.

I would have been bothered by this alone, but it was the larger context that made her bullying behavior intolerable. As the viewing audience is being shown the dancers learning the choreography, she explains that she wants the guys to be “really strong” and trustworthy partners, and the “girls” to have “this sense of submissiveness” as they rely on their partners in a routine involving intricate partner work. She tells the dancers, “You should not have one doubt in your partner, even if you just met them.”

Keep in mind - these are young dancers coming from a variety of dance backgrounds, many of whom have never done any sort of partner work, let alone at this high level. Further, she instructs them (with an eyerollingly melodramatic rendition of Debbie Allen’s Fame speech) to stay up all night practicing on their own around the hotel – “When you feel that fatigue, pass through the fatigue. Your body can handle more than your mind thinks it can.”

So this is a situation in which women are expected to trust inexperienced, sleep-deprived, nervous men with their safety. If a man fails at the task, he’ll feel guilty and possibly be eliminated from the competition. The potential consequences for women are disproportionately extreme – they risk serious, even life-threatening, injuries that could end their career in dance, let alone the competition. And it’s demanded that they do so submissively – that they don’t question decisions with potentially serious consequences, that they don’t voice their concerns, and that they don’t show any lack of trust during the performance itself.

As anyone could have predicted, during the night at least one dancer was dropped directly on her head by her partner (he’s actually a ballroom dancer, but seemed more focused on his cell phone than on mastering the choreography), sending her to the hospital where they kept her for several hours to monitor her for a concussion. This was all milked for maximum drama.

Here’s what happened the next morning: The droppee, despite her relative lack of practice, having been dropped on her head on a concrete floor, and spending the night in the hospital, had to perform the routine with the dude who’d dropped her on her head on a concrete floor. (“I’m trying to have as much trust as I can,” she says nervously before she goes on.) The dropper was given a stern lecture, but not eliminated from the competition at that point. The droppee was also put through to the next round, and roundly praised for not giving any indication of what had happened – “That’s what dancers do,” a judge informs.

This sends a terrible message to dancers, women dancers, and women generally. Sure, dancers at a top level are expected to take some risks (of their choice) with their bodies, and to dance through pain and not show it. There are also occasions in which choreography requires that a dancer - by no means should it always be women - take on a submissive character for the performance.

But dance itself should not require submissiveness from women or anyone else. Demanding that women set aside the usual and very reasonable rules of trust – that you trust people who’ve given you reason to trust them, and don’t trust them if they haven’t, especially if they’ve given you reason not to – when it comes to their comfort, their bodies, and their dreams is not acceptable. It’s not acceptable to demand that a contestant dance with the dude who hours earlier dropped her on her head on a concrete floor, and to judge her on how well she conceals her fear. Think about the message this sends to women, especially those who want to become dancers.

This was just the most egregious example of what seems to me an undercurrent on the show of late. It portrays the world of dance not as a collaborative artistic effort of professionals, but as an authoritarian structure to which dancers are expected to meekly submit, even at the expense of their personality and judgment. In the auditions in one city, the judges attempted a show of power toward a dancer they’d previously deemed insufficiently deferential by demanding that he go through an extra round of auditions. I think his decision to leave the competition rather than submit to this exercise was supposed to show his arrogance and intransigence, but I agreed that he was right not to put up with it.

It also wasn’t the only problematic message to women on the show, or even in this episode. Towards the end, a pair of dancers is eliminated. Neither of them danced especially well, but in the post-elimination interview the man keeps apologizing for having let the woman down while groping her and telling her how beautiful she is. Already upset about her elimination, she tries to placate him and extricate herself, but as she walks off he’s shown chasing after her, literally licking his lips lasciviously. This seems to be played for laughs, as was a past contestant’s repeated inappropriate behavior towards the Emmy-nominated host Cat Deeley.

This can be fixed. At Vegas Week, they should have a talk with everyone at the very beginning about respect – from everyone, including the judges, for everyone. Of course, people might flirt and hook up, but it should be understood that they’re there as dancers and competitors, and no one should have to put up with unwanted attention in order to participate or pursue their dream. In routines in which people are partnering with others, unnecessary risks should be avoided by avoiding more dangerous moves in the beginning and by proper training over time, and no woman should be expected to entrust her safety or future in dance to anyone who hasn’t shown they warrant that trust. No one should be expected to “submit” other than in very specific senses related to choreography. And the show should not be making light of the disrespecting of women’s boundaries. I suppose it would be too much to hope that dancers have more of a voice in the artistic process…?

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