It’s no secret I’m a fan of So You Think You Can Dance. I discuss it at length with my cohost each week on our podcast, The Televerse, I tweet about it nonstop, and I frequently force particularly impressive routines (via YouTube) upon unsuspecting friends and family members. More than just enjoying the show though, each week I become more convinced that this isn’t just a series for dance aficionados or reality fiends; every teenager in America should be watching SYTYCD.
There are many reasons people should be tuning in. First of all, it’s a great reality competition show. It’s well designed and executed, with striking visuals, smooth transitions, and excellent time management. It has knowledgeable judges, likeable contestants, and one of the very best hosts in the business. Every week, fantastically talented dancers and choreographers get the opportunity to share their gifts, and hard work, with America, and this passion can’t help but inspire an appreciation for art and expression in the audience. The show has a hugely positive message; the dancers are incredibly supportive of each other and the aforementioned host, Cat Deeley, stays firmly in the dancers’ corners as they await judgment from the panel and is quick with a hug or encouraging word as needed.
More than that, though, the show (almost) entirely eschews mockery or cynicism in the audition rounds, only presenting capable dancers to the audience for critique, and it encourages viewers to get up and dance, regardless of training or expertise. The show also features one of the most diverse casts in all of television. From every corner of the country, every socio-economic background, with formal training or without, all dancers are welcome. Compare the Top 14 cast photo above with any current series about or starring “teenagers”, reality show or otherwise (full disclosure- 4 of the above are in their 20s. The rest are teens). I challenge you to find another as diverse, even down to facial structure and height.
Those are all reasons people should watch SYTYCD. Teens specifically should be watching for two more significant reasons. First of all, this show demonstrates what people their age, or just a bit older, are capable of, with hard work and determination. Obviously everyone has different strengths and areas of expertise, but what these performers achieve week in and week out is staggering. For the most part, contestants wind up with dance styles outside their comfort zone, they’re usually nervous, but they step up, do their best, and usually succeed, to some extent. It’s inspiring and the behind-the-scenes glimpses at rehearsal make these people feel like rounded teens and twenty-somethings, rather than impersonal, infallible wunderkinds. More than this, though, teens should watch SYTYCD to help fight the crazy body image messages the rest of the entertainment industry is constantly shooting their way.
Plenty of ink has been spilled bemoaning the unhealthy obsession our culture has with body image. Representations of teenagers are hugely skewed and at this point, it seems like that will never change. I offer the SYTYCD contestants as an antidote to the scarily thin models and overly airbrushed actresses bombarding our screens, both silver and small. This is what incredibly strong, incredibly fit, and let’s be honest, genetically gifted teens and twenty-somethings look like. No tiny waists coupled with enormous breasts, no countable ribs, and no constantly protruding veins. They actually have thighs and the clear straps holding the women’s fabulous, back-less dresses in place press ever so slightly into their skin, because along with the muscle there’s a thin layer of fat on top, and that’s okay. The dancers look great, but they work their butt off to do so, and we certainly don’t see them hanging out at bars or eating fast food all the time. And guess what, they sweat. They have acne. When they’re working out, learning routines, their hair’s a mess and they’re breathing heavy. Because that’s what it takes and that’s what hard, physical training looks like.
It’s depressing how incredibly refreshing it is to actually see healthily fit young people on television. When you stand these men and women next to their Victoria’s Secret or Abercrombie and Fitch counterparts, the contrast is striking, and yet it’s the latter, rather than the former, that is most frequently presented as desirable. It’s more than just impossibly thin models staring out from magazines, though. When’s the last time (onscreen) one of the waif-like girls on a teen drama put in 5 miles on a treadmill or the impossibly huge boys lifted weights? When’s the last time they had a protein shake for dinner or, heaven forbid, a salad? And happily? When’s the last time a network series with high schoolers actually cast their show with age appropriate actors?
The standards of beauty on television for both male and female teens are insane- perfect hair, perfect skin, no extra weight, and muscle definition for days. Without working out, spending an hour with a blowdryer, or using zit cream. The biggest offender, the CW, has filled its schedule with supernaturally-themed series, putting their impossibly pretty, cardboard-cutout “teens” into heightened realities where apparently being a vampire, werewolf, or superhero helps you zoom right past the awkward stage of puberty. It’s escapism, and that’s alright. But when chiseled jaws and pouty lips are the rule and you’re lucky to see anyone under 20 milling around a set of lockers, thank goodness there’s a show like So You Think You Can Dance to provide a contrast, maybe open up a discussion, and hopefully bring the ideal to a healthier and more reasonable place.