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For the latest installment of the Perpetual Post, I wrote a defense of the reality-television genius that is So You Think You Can Dance, vs the falseness of American Idol.  Read the other side of the story, and the newest issue of the PP here.

So You Think You Can Dance proves that people still do things on tv for reasons other than fame and fortune.

I was not immediately sold on the concept of So You Think You Can Dance. The inexplicable popularity of American Idol had left me wary of this type of cheesy, ‘call-in-to-vote for your favorite contestant’ variety show. The snide British judge, the wince-worthy audition episodes; I’d seen it all before, and I knew it wasn’t my thing.

Still, when I learned that friends of mine were getting together each week to order takeout and watch what they referred to as “Silly Dance Show”, I began to join them—for the company and the food, I told myself. Not the sexy dancing or the tear-away pants. It only took a few viewings before I gave in to my skepticism, did a victory dance on my dignity, and fully embraced the spirit of So You Think You Can Dance. I soon found myself watching the weekly episodes with my eyes shining and my hands clasped together beneath my chin. Some of the most well-performed and choreographed dance numbers even gave me chills. I was hooked.

It wasn’t hard for me to figure out what it was that drew me to this show when American Idol had for so long failed to gain my loyalty. It wasn’t just that it featured dancing instead of singing, although that was certainly a factor. Not to badmouth singing; I know singing is hard, especially on stage in front of millions—but so is doing three back flips in a row, or fox-trotting in stilettos and a fringed bikini…and guess which of those I find more entertaining?

It’s true that if all you’re after is a fringed bikini, you might do just as well by watching Dancing with the Stars (or, come to think of it, the Winter Olympics). However, part of the appeal of SYTYCD is the humble roots of the contestants. They are not celebrities. Many have little to no formal training in dance, and yet they still manage to be strong competitors. Since the first rule of SYTYCD is that a dancer has to be able to pick up and become reasonably proficient in many different styles of dance with lightning speed, extreme proficiency in one discipline is not necessarily a formula for success in others. The process of discovering who has what it takes and who doesn’t is fascinating.  There’s a certain thrill in watching a montage where a guy whose background is in breakdancing learns ballroom, or in observing a trained ballerina’s first attempts at shimmying. While these contestants already have an enviable amount of rhythm and control over their own bodies (although to me, any amount of rhythm is enviable), it’s fascinating to discover whether this translates into a passable Charleston from a tap dancer, or a decent Worm from a student of modern dance– though I’ll be the first to admit that my standards for The Worm are all but unattainable. The challenges that these dancers take on, and their subsequent successes, can be thrilling.

Not only that, but unlike the winners of American Idol, the winners of SYTYCD are not promised any particular fame or fortune. Frequently, visits from past winners of the show reveal that their careers in dance were boosted only faintly from their participation on the show. (“Good to see everyone again! Since I won SYTYCD last year I’ve starred as a back-up dancing peanut in a Skippy commercial, and I have a small part in an upcoming PBS special about the history of Jazz Hands.”) An awareness of these less-than-mighty expectations fosters the appealing concept that these dancers are on the show simply because they love to dance. Who can resist that?

Even the title of So You Think You Can Dance, with its hokey bravado, manages to evoke a more playful, irreverent era in pop culture and entertainment than does the humorless title of American Idol, which oozes with mocking self-importance. Idol is ultimately putting one over on you. Pick your prepackaged Idol, America, from these limited options. But on So You Think You Can Dance, everyone is in on the joke. Things never get too serious; one can almost picture the cast of Grease circling each other in a dance hall, snapping their fingers in theatrical menace as they prepare to demonstrate their unrivaled prowess in the art of getting down. These dance contestants are covered in bruises, have dirty bare feet and are frequently dressed in acid-washed denim and sequins. They know how to keep things light.

Granted, I still don’t particularly enjoy the show’s initial ‘audition’ episodes, perhaps because I am not an authority on the subject of dance (despite my behavior on certain inebriated late nights when AC/DC comes on the jukebox at the bar). Also, while it’s pretty easy to tell the genuinely talented from the tragically misguided on American Idol auditions, a really great audition for So You Think You Can Dance looks suspiciously similar to a really terrible audition, particularly once you’ve had a few beers. “Oh man, that girl dances like my six year old niece when she thinks no one is watching,” I’ve commented on occasion, only to have the judges fall all over each other, post audition, to praise the girl and hand her a plane ticket to LA. I suppose that’s why I’m a fan instead of a judge. Watch a couple of episodes this next season, and see if you can’t say the same thing.

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