Embodying Social Relationships on SYTYCD

Both last week and this, So You Think You Can Dance judges criticized the contestants for lackluster performances, for not embodying their characters, and for the lack of dynamics with their All-Star partners. But these young dancers (their average age is about 21) come to the show with previously embodied social habits and limited social-emotional experience. Under the current structure of the show, it does not surprise me that they find it difficult to fully committing to their characters.

It begins with the pairing of contestants into heterosexual couples with its implicit reference to sexuality, procreation, love, etc. As G. Jonas writes, “social dances socialize” and couples dancing socializes gendered behaviors (Jonas 1992). As many have said, ballroom dancing is a horizontal desire expressed in vertical form. Sexual tension is built into the form, though the choreographers have used this dynamic to explore a range of interpersonal relationships often with great success.

In past seasons, the couples were made up of two contestants with equal stakes and equal standing in the competition. This season, contestants are paired with SYTYCD alum who have gone from the show to develop their talents in professional settings. This new relationship is automatically unequal. It is more akin to teacher-student or master-novice relationships, which have in every society particular rules regarding their interactions. In American society, romantic and sexual relations between teachers and students (or any unequal power relationship like boss and employee) is considered unethical and in some cases is legally proscribed. This is a powerful prohibition; it is knowledge that becomes deeply encoded through informal and mostly unconscious socializing practices throughout life. Both partners in the SYTYCD relationship carry this knowledge whether they are aware of it or not.

In addition, the tactile nature of couples dancing imposes other concerns. Relations of power between gender and class give touching a powerful place in American society. Touch can be and is used to influence, persuade, or manipulate others. Who touches who is hierarchically organized in the U.S. and is a marker of social status. (Think about who you initiate touch with and who you don’t, who touches you, and how you feel about these touches.) Because physical touch is the most socially intimate sense, the special character of tactility is in its communication of “relational messages” (Jones 1994). Those can be either positive or negative messages, and the rules regarding touch may vary between cultural communities, but our responses to being touched or to touching others is very real.

Before the contestants even begin to learn the choreography, they have to overcome some powerful social restrictions involving gender, sexuality, power, and social hierarchy. In the current structure, contestant/students on SYTYCD are in many ways expected to enact and “embody” the very relations they have been taught are taboo or, at the very least, well outside their sociological experiences. This week, for example, they were asked to perform as romantically involved lovers and abusers in relationships already packed with emotional inequality. They may be very talented dancers, but that’s a lot to ask of dancers as young as these.

Jonas, Gerald (1992) Dancing: The Pleasure, Power, and Art of Movement NY, NY: Harry N Abrams, Inc.

Jones, S. E. (1994) The Right Touch, Understanding and the Language of Physical Contact Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.

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