Friday, July 23, 2010

Has So You Think You Can Dance Gone Too Far?

Television shows like FOX's So You Think You Can Dance have done wonders for an art form that seemed lost with the days of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers. Dancers who were once limited to performing in the chorus of Broadway shows or dancing behind pop and hip-hop stars in music videos are now receiving national exposure based on their own merit. However, in an attempt to wow television audiences and prove their technical abilities to critical panels of judges, dancers and choreographers have begun to push the boundaries of the human body in an extreme way. From gravity defying jumps to intricate partnering and often dangerous tumbling passes, performers push their physical limits every day, but has it gone too far? Many critics, and even some diehard fans of So You Think You Can Dance will answer this question with an affirmative 'yes'.

For the past three weeks of the show's seventh season, at least one dancer has injured themselves in rehearsals. On the July 7th show it was announced that Alex Wong, whom many thought to be a front-runner to win the competition, had injured his achilles tendon performing a taxing series of Russian split jumps in a Bollywood routine. He was unable to perform in the show and was automatically placed in the bottom 3 and was ultimately voted out because surgery was required to repair his severed tendon. In the same week, All-Star Allison Holker was sent to the emergency room during rehearsals due to a rib injury.

On July 14th, it was revealed at the beginning of the show that dancer Ashley Galvan would not be performing due to a rib injury. She too was voted out during the results show when her doctors prescribed at least 5-6 weeks of rest.

When we finally thought the string of injuries had ended, the July 21st show began without Billy Bell, who had hurt his knee in rehearsal. This injury appeared to be minor however, and he was not sent home during this week's results show, in fact no one was.

The show has seen some minor injuries to dancers in previous seasons, but nothing even remotely close to the bloodbath of these past three weeks. So what is going on this season that hasn't happened before? This question can be answered in a multitude of ways, but one noticeable difference between previous seasons and the current one is the All-Star format. The idea is simple: pair contestants with finalists from previous seasons to push the younger dancers to the level of those who have already been working in the industry for a few years. This format is not to blame, but the sheer number of routines for each dancer may in fact be the cause. The season started out normally with each dancer performing one duet, but oddly enough, the week that each contestant was asked to perform two duet routines and a solo in addition to the group number, was the same week the first injury to Alex Wong occurred. The amount of time spent rehearsing for multiple routines also means that dancers have little time, if any at all, to spend warming-up and taking technique classes to keep their bodies conditioned and to prevent injury.

It seems that the network and producers are trying to cram as many numbers into the show as possible to encourage viewers to keep watching and voting. But the fatal flaw in this thought process is that these dancers, though disciplined and impeccably trained, are humans, not machines. And not only has the number of routines per show increased, but so has the difficulty and risk of each piece. It is very rare to see a work of choreography on this show that does not include dangerous tumbling, jumps that could snap an ankle if the landing is the slightest bit off, or lifts that could leave the female paralyzed if she is dropped. I have always thought the show would have more artistic merit and less potential for injury if the choreographers would cut the "tricks" and actually allowed the performers to dance. But as terrifying as all of this sounds, these dancers are at the peak of their training and should not have a problem with this choreography, that is if they weren't exhausted from the other three routines they were rehearsing that same week.

Here are the opinions of some dancers and fans of the show who feel that the recent injuries are not accidents, as well as their theories on improving the show and the safety of its dancers.

"The show has had injuries in the past, but three weeks in a row is actually quite alarming. If we were talking about Dancing with the Stars where you are dealing with untrained dancers who don't know how to stretch or warm up their bodies properly, then it is quite plausible. However, these are talented and smart dancers who know their bodies and how to prevent injury. There's a huge difference between challenging the dancers to help them grow and challenging the dancers to their breaking points. It's dangerous, and these injuries could affect them for many years to come. Entertaining America is not worth risking the dancers' future careers. One or two pieces is more than enough for one night."
Komal Thakkar, dancing for 16 years

"I think that Nigel [Lythgoe, producer of So You Think You Can Dance] subconsciously mentioned something at the heart of this matter. He said something to the effect of, 'We're bringing people in to take a look at the show and what we're doing. Maybe we need to do warm-ups.' These dancers are being pushed to learn highly technical routines with minimal time with their choreographers. Then, they're rehearsing up a storm and wearing themselves out. If you aren't holding warm-ups for your dancers, you're at a major liability, no matter how may tricks they're performing."
Rick Westerkamp, dancing for 18 years

"I think its unfortunate when the producers make jokes about the seriousness of the situation [ie calling it Survivor]. Injuries are not uncommon in dance but some of the situations they have put the dancers in encourage injury. The jumps that severed Alex's achilles were very difficult and unnatural. After he suffered an injury performing the jumps, they then asked another contestant to do the same jumps in performance.

I think another part of the problem is that the dancers are being asked to do styles they are not trained in which puts them at greater risk for injury. While this has been true across all seasons, the dancers are now being asked to change partners each week instead of having the same partner for five weeks. They now have three-four days to learn a new style and get comfortable with a new partner.

I'm also think there is some blame to lay on the choreographers. Allison [Holker] had a rib injury and was asked to do a lift that required her to leap into her partner's arms and land with her rib on his shoulder. If choreographers know about specific injuries they should alter their choreography for the safety of the dancer."
Amber Lewis, dancing for 19 years

So it seems that what lies at the hear of the matter is this: the well-being of dancers is being sacrificed for ratings and audience appeal. FOX and the producers of So You Think You Can Dance must realize that they are dealing with human beings who have careers riding on the ability of their bodies to function and move properly. This conflict between innovative, entertaining choreography and the dancers' safety seems like an impossible problem to resolve, but in actuality, we have known the answer since we were three years old in our first ballet classes. We were taught by our teachers to always warm-up and stretch before class or rehearsal, take technique class regularly, and most importantly, allow ourselves to rest and recover. So shame on you Nigel Lythgoe and the other producers, you are not giving your dancers a chance to do any of these things, and their childhood ballet teachers must be very disappointed in you.

1 comment:

  1. Very well thought out and argued Whitney, great work :D