Dance on TV: Is bad publicity better than no publicity?

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Dance is everywhere nowadays. Movie musicals have made a comeback. Shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars, America’s Got Talent, and Breaking Pointe have refocused the spotlight on our magnificent art form. However, the same resurgence of dance awareness over the last decade may be its downfall. Low-brow entertainment is presenting dance to the general public as a means to a trophy, a way to super stardom, or a world wrought with drama. One could argue that any publicity is good publicity, but is it really?

As a dancer, I can enjoy and appreciate the blood, sweat, and tears that go into these reality competition shows. Having lived it first-hand, I can even be entertained by the catty drama of the lives of the professional dancers on Breaking Pointe. But this prime-time exposure for dance is missing an opportunity. With government support for the arts rapidly dwindling and the National Endowment for the Arts on the brink of extinction, how are we to expect people across our nation to justify giving their tax dollars if we don’t begin to put our thoughts into educating audiences and not simply entertaining them?

We as dancers and choreographers are largely to blame. As highly trained yet usually poorly compensated artists, we should be doing more to promote awareness of how vital dance is to society.

In the mainstream media, dance is being presented largely as flashy and overly emotional. It’s product over process. Americans have a sick desire for instant gratification and it’s being manifested in mass media. How big can something be? How loud? How bright? Who is this week’s celebrity judge—who may have little to no real experience as a dancer? I enjoy watching the Olympics, but I really shouldn’t be called upon to critique the javelin throw. I enjoy watching dance shows, but how can we expect ‘Joe Shmo’ from ‘Middle of Nowhere,’ America to be inspired to support dance when he turns on the TV and sees a popular show that means nothing to him? Sure, it may be entertaining. But it doesn’t help him feed his family, and sadly, personal success above all is what comprises the American Dream.

This is why we need to stop deluding ourselves into thinking that overly saturating the media is going to change hearts and minds. If we want this exciting renaissance of dance to be more than just a reality show phase, we have to dig deeper within ourselves. Reality shows make for great, hot, and fleeting television. But by nature, they are designed to entertain and get you hooked. Is this really how we expect to grow awareness of our beloved art form? Are we willing to put our future into the hands of reality television producers and audience voting?

I’m not. It’s time to stop beating people over the heads in the hopes that they’ll take the bait for something they really know nothing about. It’s time to point our fingers at each other, as dancers, and start preaching to the choir. It’s time to be ambassadors of dance and discover authentic ways to genuinely reach out and educate people, proving why we deserve to be here.

The arts are vital to our society. But if we lose our funding because people don’t understand what we do, we will be largely to blame. Let pop culture help us in our efforts, not lead us. No longer is it enough to put our efforts solely into making great art. Art will always find a way to exist. Paintings look better when they are preserved over time in temperature controlled museums, and dance looks a lot better when companies can afford to put it onto a professional stage.

Dancers of America, take a stand. It’s past time…

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  • chelsea

    I agree wholeheartedly with you. Usually when I hear the phrase “bad publicity is better than no publicity” it is in reference to someone akin to Lindsay Lohan not a centuries old art form.

  • stephanie

    I do think it is crucial for us as artists to continue to be critical of these programs. While there are aspects of SYTYCD I do embrace — it is intended to be a celebration of dance and the work and dedication of dance artists — I do agree that there are elements that still need to be challenged on these programs. For example, the prevalence of injury on this program is ALARMING and the work is often relentless in nature. Yet, I do support the continuation of this show, keeping in mind it is based on commercial dance and not classical dance.

    I’ve struggled with Breaking Pointe this season even more than last. The CW is a terrible medium for this type of show, which is why it plays up the behind-the-scenes theatrics rather than the onstage drama. It flirts with interesting topics like diversity in the arts, injuries, and how professionally pursuing the art form requires an extraordinary amount of personal sacrifices. But it never goes beyond surface level on these issues. I understand that the show is trying to appeal to a broader audience with claims that the drama is what the general public tunes in for week after week. The problem is the general public is NOT tuning in week after week. Ratings for the second season have dropped by 50%, making a third season an unlikely scenario ( The people who would support the show are dancers — so why is this demographic being alienated?

    I am for dance in media, but I think we have to give more consideration about how we want our art form to be portrayed in front of a larger audience. I do NOT support the cliche that bad publicity is better than no publicity when it comes to something I care for so deeply. It is not a sound rebuttal to criticism against these shows, and it does not get more people interested in live dance. I’ll take a stand with you. Let’s create this positive publicity here on Dd. Let’s give dancers, dance-makers, and dance companies a platform to do good for the art form.

  • candice

    Thanks for this Matthew and I agree with all of these comments! Publicity that is positive is vital for the art form and has nothing to do with either being cheerleaders of frivolous work or propping up embarrassing behavior. It has to do with giving context to dance and educating the audience about how to make meaning out of performance. It begins with being a dance ambassador–and I love that you use this term because my teacher Kee Juan Han always insists on it from his students (but he is sometimes considered old school in his viewpoints).

    Annie wrote a piece at the end of Season 1 of Breaking Pointe wishing that there were better role models for her daughter who is aspiring to a career in dance:

    I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch this season yet. I am mildly curious now but realize I might have to fast forward through a lot of junk. And as far as SYTYCD, I don’t need to watch it…it is already influencing the contemporary ballet I see live for better or worse.

  • Rebecca Hadley

    One of my friends was recently saying that she has taken to rehearsing in parks so as to not spend money on studio space. I said that I thought that was a lovely idea, and she said the only problem was that she often has people bugging her. Often, they’ll say, “Well keep practicing and maybe you can be on ‘So You Think You Can Dance’!” Ouch.

    I think dance occupies an awkward realm, in a way. It’s art…but there’s not tangible product. And if there’s no object that a consumer can own, people look for a competitive aspect. It’s hard for people to understand doing something just for the joy of it, without the reality show thing. I think it’s also an issue of attention span. Since it occupies space and time…a lot of people do better with short dances rather than evening-length works.

    “As highly trained yet usually poorly compensated artists, we should be doing more to promote awareness of how vital dance is to society.”

    I’m not sure how dance is vital to society. It’s vital to me. How do you guys sell dance? Or express how vital it is?

  • chelsea

    I think art is vital to society (as supported by quote below) and when dance is explored as an art form and dancers develop themselves as artists (and, yes, unfortunately, starving is always attached to that word in all disciplines, rarely excepting for those at the very top) then dance is vital to society. Once dance is no longer respected as an art form it will no longer be vital to society, which happens to be the precipice we are at currently.

    SYTCYD makes dancing a competition and to quote Traci Gilchrest, “How do you quantify something that moves you to tears?” I remember watching ice skating in the 1980s and being captivated by how beautiful it was (remember Katrina Witt?); now it is all about who can do a triple axl or a quadruple what have you. And I could care less.

    Breaking Pointe turns artists into meat heads (whether or not they truly are that way, they are NOT protrayed as artists in any sense). The dancers seem mostly concerned with beating out the other person and will trash the art form in the process (the corps de ballet comment by Beckanne).

    Here is a quote from JFK about art and society:

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Kyle Abraham, Alejandro Cerrudo, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, and Wendy Whelan. Photo by Emil J. Kang.