Let me start off with a personal anecdote: in my teens, a couple of people told me that, before ever speaking to me, they conceived an irrational hatred of me based on my posture. They assumed that I was “stuck-up” or “prim” based on my carriage—a carriage formed by my training in ballet and, later, Irish dance. Fast-forward a few years: a couple of young American women with whom I’m teaching in China tell me that my spirituality is inferior to theirs because I belong to a liturgical (Anglican) tradition, and therefore my prayers cannot possibly be as heartfelt as their spontaneous, charismatic ones.
What do these two events have to do with each other—or with So You Think You Can Dance? To me, they’re simply illustrations of how many Americans distrust traditional forms, whether in dance or worship. Somehow, if it has structure or conventions of expression, we view it as antithetical to emotion and to being “human.”
So color me shocked that Melissa, the 29-year-old (read: ancient!) ballerina on this season of So You Think You Can Dance, has made it to the Top Six. Her success has, I think, been based largely on two factors: (1) her marketing as “naughty” and (2) last week’s Cancer Dance.
As soon as Melissa was christened the “naughty ballerina”—and I don’t remember who came up with the label, but I don’t really want to Google the phrase to find out—I groaned in simultaneous disgust and relief: disgust that she would have to be marketed that way, and relief because I suspected that marketing was the one thing that would keep her afloat. When your style of dance—or religion—leads people to assume that you are prim and proper, it’s a temptation to try to prove that you’re really down-to-earth and/or rebellious. Cue footage of Melissa burping.
One thing I’ve noticed through watching two seasons of So You Think You Can Dance and one season of Superstars of Dance (horrible show, but at least it had Irish dance on it) is a distinct preference for contemporary dance because of what is perceived as its expressiveness. To me, contemporary dance looks sloppy, and there’s really a limit to the emotions that can be expressed by flailing and rolling around on the floor. There. I have my biases. My real objection, though, is not to contemporary dance itself but to the assumption that it’s inherently more expressive than other, more precise forms of dance. (The anti-precision bias? That’s the reason we’ve never seen a percussive dancer of any sort as a competitor on So You Think You Can Dance.) Ideally, ballet (or tap or any dance form) can convey intense emotion, through and against the form, rather than without it.
Which brings us to last week’s “Cancer Dance.”
Melissa and Ade danced a contemporary piece choreographed by Tyce Diorio. Was it beautiful? Yes. Expressive? Yes. But is that why the judges and audience were in tears? No. The reason for the extreme emotional reaction was that we’d been told, in the interview clips before the dance started, that the piece was about breast cancer. Now, I don’t want to say that no one should ever create art about cancer or abuse or anything that taps into deeply felt human experience. But something about the whole set-up felt manipulative. I think my frustration is that it was emotionally expressive, but that Melissa’s skill didn’t matter here: everyone would have been crying anyway, simply because of how the subject matter was presented up-front. Judge Nigel Lythgoe even says that the number can’t be judged on the quality of the dancing.
Now compare the lead-in, dance, and judges’ comments to another duet from earlier in the season: Kayla and Kupono’s “Addict Dance.”
To me—even though I’m not a fan of contemporary dance and even less of a fan of choreographer Mia Michaels—this piece was more moving than the Cancer Dance, because it felt less emotionally manipulative. I think this has more to do with the choreography than the dancers, but one thing I will say is that, in this number, both dancers are involved in creating characters—in the cancer dance, Ade simply seems to be there to catch Melissa. Also, at this point I’m willing to admit that Kayla is, overall, a better actress than Melissa. That’s not to say that contemporary dancers are inherently better actors than ballet dancers, but in this particular case I’ll award points to a contemporary dancer above a ballerina. I think my ideal dancer, created via one of those flip-books where you can design your own creature, would be composed of Kayla’s top half and Melissa’s bottom half.
Interestingly enough, “a modern top” on “a ballet bottom” was exactly the phrase choreographer Alvin Ailey used to describe the style of dancer he sought to incorporate into his works, including 1960’s Revelations. Take a look at this clip—another male/female duet—from Revelations to see how Ailey’s dancers express emotion while still abiding within the loose framework of balletic form.
Again, this is just my personal taste, and I don’t want to assert that Ailey’s ballet-modern hybrid is inherently superior to any other dance style. For me, though, it works: it’s emotion expressed through a demanding form.
Even though I haven’t voted for Melissa for weeks and probably won’t again, I’m thankful for her presence on So You Think You Can Dance, and that it was she who did the Cancer Dance, because I hope it may help to end the stigma that traditional dance form is antithetical to emotion. To paraphrase William Wordsworth, who was writing about the joys of being confined within the form of the sonnet, I’ll be
“Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.”
Not all of us feel the weight of too much liberty, which is why there is a need for contemporary dance—and for contemporary worship and spontaneous prayer. But for those of us who do feel that weight, traditional forms are a solace and a joy.