The truth and myths about dance TV Shows

For some reason, audiences never became as obsessed with dance as they did with “singing shows”. Nevertheless, in the last few years there have been several shows about dance. They range from reality competitions (So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing With the Stars), to documentary style reality shows (Breaking Pointe, Dance Moms) and even an attempt or two at scripted dramas (Bunheads). The “reality” factor of these shows varies and so does the seriousness with which they approach the subject of dance. The viewers learn about the world of dance by watching these shows, however not everything we see on TV is strictly true. Let’s take a look at some of the “Dance Facts” TV has been teaching us lately:

TRUTH: Injuries are part of the daily routine

I’ll start by saying that I was never a professional dancer, but I danced classical ballet for 10 years when I was younger. Even as a non-professional dancer I thought dancing life was quite brutal, so I can only imagine what it takes to dance as a career. I am assuming I should take my personal experience and multiply it by 100, which is REALLY awful when talking about injuries. Injuries are part of dancers’ daily life… and it is no wonder when they spend their days training for hours, jumping around and fearlessly throwing themselves into the arms of a partner. Throw in some pointe shoes and injuries can happen at any given time. Even the lucky dancers who escape serious injuries aren’t home free. Bruises are almost mandatory and you know how [on TV] they always show ballerinas with bloody toes after they remove their pointe shoes? Maybe you thought they were exaggerating for dramatic purposes… WRONG. Pointe shoes are awful hurtful evil things! A lot of people believe they are soft as cotton inside, when in fact they are made of very hard materials [no amount of patting can fix that]. Bloody toes and purple nails are unavoidable. I’ve seen girls injecting themselves with anesthesia [I’ve only gone as far as a lidocaine cream, but I was never a soloist]. So, ballerinas may look fragile and ethereal, but they are probably among the toughest chicks you will ever find.

MYTH: Props are awesome

Props are good TV. People like to watch props on TV. Since TV is all about what people want to watch, choreographers on dancing shows often incorporate props in their routines. At least half of the routines on So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars use props. I love watching people flying above couches and climbing suspended ladders while swinging a plastic sword as much as the next person; however my first thought every time I see a prop is “poor dancers”. Yes, props look cool but they are THE WORST. On top of learning the choreography and worrying about performing the steps while keeping the tempo and feeling the music, the dancers need to worry about the PROP and that can be VERY distracting. I am willing to bet that at least 8 times out of 10 something goes wrong with the infamous prop.

TRUTH: Real dancers learn complicated routines in a matter of hours [or less]

Here is something that sounds like a myth yet it isn’t. Dancing shows have pretty tight schedules, so we can assume dancers learn their routines in only a couple of hours and only have a few days to practice. Some weeks they even have to learn multiple group and individual numbers. Can you imagine the amount of stuff a 3 min routine has? Every single second is choreographed! It seems impossible, yet it is exactly what happens. Short prep times are very common in the dancing world. Dancers need the ability to learn new routines in a matter of minutes. So yeah, on top of being tough, dancers need to be impressively quick learners and have above normal retention capacity.

MYTH: Stars master the art of dance in a few weeks

I am constantly in awe of the dancers on So You Think You Can Dance. The level of talent on that show is off the charts! But, is it the most popular dancing competition? No it is not. The most popular dancing competition is probably Dancing with the Star; which, as the name suggests, has “stars” [mostly looking for a comeback] who dance with professional partners.  I don’t have an answer for why DWTS is the most popular show; it may have to do with the network, the time-slot or the star power. Nothing wrong with liking DWTS, especially if you are a fan of the participating stars and/or you enjoy watching people who shall not be dancing attempt a Quickstep. Every year there is a handful of stars that can actually dance… and usually they have some dance background. So no… these stars are not suddenly becoming professional dancers. Most of the routines are subpar [even the ones that get good feedback from the judges] and even the stars who dance “well” don’t come close to the level of the real dancers on So You Think You Can Dance. Not saying the DWTS judges don’t know what they are doing. I am sure they do, however their standards are lower. My point being, if you are looking to be entertained and watch some of your favorite celebrities, watch DWTS [it’s a perfectly good show with an interesting concept], however be aware that the dancing is not up to professional standards. Mind-blowing dancing talent [and some of the best choreography] can be found at the other less popular dancing show SYTYCD.  

MYTH: Choreographers are caring beings who only want to see the dancers succeed

Obviously Nigel Lythgoe [SYTYCD] is a class act gentleman, Adam Sklute [the artistic director of Ballet West featured on Breaking Pointe] treats all his dancers with respect  and pretty much every other director, choreographer or judge featured on TV is there to make the dancers look good. But those are TV shows. I don’t doubt the dancing world has a lot of wonderful artistic directors, dance teachers and choreographers. However, I highly doubt EVERYONE is like that. It would be really na├»ve to think that dancers never have to deal with difficult bosses and/or mentors. For some reason, none of the present dancing shows depict this side of dance. Based on my personal experience, even movies and TV shows that showed “difficult” dance teachers [Bunheads, Center Stage] came up short. I assume a lot of ballet classrooms have evolved and nowadays teachers tend to be more approachable. However, I also believe there are still a lot of “old school” instructors out there who run their classes like drill sergeants [at least that was my personal experience]. Besides old school teachers, dancers are bound to clash at some point or another with big egos and questionable wok ethics. It’s just the way of life, and as much as I love to watch these wonderful mentors on TV, it’s unlikely that dancers will spend their entire careers nurtured by that type of people.  

TRUTH: It is a cut-throat world

As seen on Breaking Pointe, and made fun of on Bunheads, ballet is VERY competitive. All the classes, all the training culminates in the workshops and presentations. The dancers’ fate is determined by the roles they get. Getting a leading role can make their careers and being relegated to the chorus can be a devastating experience. All the dancers are after the same roles and they are highly competitive. Analogously to professional athletes, dancers have to compete against their own friends. It can get pretty stressful and it is hard to stay in good terms with everyone. Some of my best friends are friends from my dancing days, but I’ve seen a LOT of fights over roles and even over being the teacher’s favorite. And remember, I never had the ambition to be a professional dancer, so I can only imagine how hard it must be when it is about your actual CAREER!

So… can non-dancers actually learn about the dancing world by watching TV? It’s seems a little hard. We all know that “reality” shows are not so “real” after all. Competitions place the dancers in artificial situations and docu-style shows show only what the editors choose to show us. Plus we are distracted from the dancing element by paying attention to who is dating who [which I really don’t care much about]. Now… I have been patiently waiting for a good scripted drama about dancers which could be so much more inclusive of what it actually means to be a professional dancer. Glee was created with the sole purpose of being a companion to American Idol, why hasn’t FOX created a show to air after So You Think You Can Dance yet? They tried scripted with Bunheads, but that was more about Amy Sherman Palladino pop culture-quick talking characters than it was about the dancers [plus it was cancelled after only two years]. Maybe I should just go ahead and write a show about dancers... In the meantime, we can keep trying to understand the dance world by watching TV, or we can just enjoy the awesome routines and not bother with the “reality” factor. 
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The TV Empress is a Media Management graduate, screenwriter in the making (and financial engineer in the meantime). She has serious plans to take over global television. You can follow the TVEmpress on twitter @TVRepublik

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