I know this is long, but I have a strong stance on how Tap dancing has been displayed on "SYTYCD" Season Six.
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The Systematic Marginalization of Tap Dancing Continues on "So You Think You Can Dance."
marginalize |ˈmärjənəˌlīz|verb [ trans. ]treat (a person, group, or concept) as insignificant or peripheral :attempting to marginalize those who disagree | [as adj. ] ( marginalized)members of marginalized cultural groups.DERIVATIVESmarginalization |ˌmärjənələˈzā sh ən| noun
After blatantly dismissing tap dancing for the past five seasons, Nigel Lythgoe and the producers of "So You Think You Can Dance" have included three tap dancers in their lineup of twenty competitors for season six. Monday night's episode showcased the premiere of this history making event. Tap dancers far and wide are thrilled about this perceived victory; finally Tap is going to be performed by the dancers competing each week. Not getting to claim a spot on the short (long) list of dance styles that are featured regularly on the show has been a sore spot for the tap community, so spirits are running high due to this new development. At least on Facebook.
I, for one, do not share these sentiments. In fact, I'm irritated at how tap dancing has been portrayed on the show thus far. Truthfully, it seems a little gimmicky that the producers have chosen Bianca Revels, Peter Sabasino, and Phillip Atmore this year over other dancers from various genres that were more talented. After so many seasons without any tap dancers in the Top 20...gaining three at once seems a bit suspect... yet I was still looking forward to seeing the non-tap dancing contestants give tap choreography a shot.
What's that you say? Only the three tap dancers have to compete in the Tap category? Huh?
Nigel casually remarks that none of the other finalists can possibly learn how to tap dance in one week's time, so they won't be expected to compete in the Tap category. However, these same contestants WILL be able to learn Krumping, Bollywood, Texas Two Step, Ballroom, and at least twenty other styles within this timeframe. Oh, and so can the tap dancers, so they will be expected to compete in all of the other styles in addition to their tap dancing.
Are you kidding me?
Lythgoe's logic regarding this topic is faulty and convoluted, yet no one seems to feel inclined to refute it. Well, I am officially doing so. Mr. Lythgoe: your illogical theory regarding the inability of your contestants to compete in a Tap category is equal parts insulting and discouraging to tap dancers. I would like to issue you a challenge: allow me to attempt to disprove your supposition before what remote chance tap dancing has to reclaim its rightful position in the dance community is gone for good. It is VERY possible for the top 20 dancers to compete in a Tap category; they should have been doing so since the very first season. If I am successful in proving this to you, I would like you to agree to add Tap to your short list for "SYTYCD" without any qualifications or strings attached.
If you visit any dance studio in America you can trust that they will be offering these three basic classes: Ballet, TAP, and Jazz. Not Bollywood. Not Ballroom. Not Break dancing. Tap Dancing. It's an American tradition. I grew up in a dance studio, and studied all forms of dance. I have an appreciation for all of them because of it. I chose to pursue tap dancing as my profession at the age of thirteen, and have been self-producing shows and workshops all over the country since 1999. It has been an uphill battle fighting against the stereotypes that audiences have regarding tap dancing, and when a television show continues to perpetuate these cliches it doesn't help make my job any easier.
The fact that Tap has been devalued and ignored on mainstream television (save for the occasional out-of-context performance) has delivered a crushing blow to the field. The absence of a strong tap presence leaves students less inclined to don tap shoes and more inclined to prance around their studios barefoot, clad in booty shorts and skimpy bras, throwing themselves passionately into routines set to quirky love songs that allow them to writhe, slither, and explore their sexually mature alter egos. At some point these students forgo Tap altogether, choosing to spend more time and money focusing on the dance styles du jour: Lyrical and Contemporary. Many dance competition/convention owners seem to be relieved that the pressure to employ qualified tap teachers or judges has been removed. Fully embracing this development, some don't even bother to provide their participants with tap judges or tap classes, and others provide them with substandard faculty members that can turn on the charm but are sorely lacking in actual skill. This, in turn, makes it easier for dance studio owners to pooh pooh or omit tap training altogether. The few dance teachers and company directors that love tap dancing enough to still fight for its presence in their studios at an advanced level and maintain strong tap programs then get penalized at competitions because very few (if any) of the judges have any tap knowledge at all.
I can see how all of this would make it easy for anyone to assume that Tap dancing is irrelevant.
1. There is a far greater chance that the top 20 finalists have tap danced at some point in their lives than there is that they have had a single class of Bollywood or Krumping. Just because they don't currently tap dance doesn't mean they haven't in the past. Even though tap dancing jobs are hard to come by these days, there are still a hell of a lot more of them than there are Krumping opportunities.
2. Breakers and Hip Hop dancers often claim that they are inspired by the rhythms, movements, and style of Tap dancing. It stands to reason that learning how to tap dance would be much simpler for them than having to master Contemporary movement or the difficult lifts and posturing of Ballroom. Does anyone REALLY believe that making sounds with your feet and performing them proficiently is so much more difficult than what these contestants have to learn on a weekly basis? I was appalled at the physical risks that two of the contestants had to take during their disco routine. (disco over tap? Really?) The male contestant had his partner swinging over his head, around his body, flipping here, flipping there. Their countless dangerous maneuvers had me nervously hoping neither of them would severely injure themselves while careening through a frenetic, overwrought dance. How can anyone possibly believe that tap is so impossible comparatively?
3. Of course some contestants won't be capable of mastering tap technique in a week... but do they ever really MASTER any of the more obscure styles of movement that are thrown at them during this timespan anyway? Would Mia Michaels say after a week of working with a Krumper that he was ready to join a contemporary dance company? Would a Krumping choreographer say that a Russian ballroom contestant is ready to join his crew after a week of rehearsals? I sincerely doubt it. Therefore, why can't everyone take a stab at tap dancing? And let's face it: Bianca, Peter, and Phillip aren't the most talented tap dancers that exist in the country. They were probably selected to fill a quota, and because they weren't TERRIBLE at any other discipline they made it onto the show. At first glance I knew they weren't extraordinary. Their lack of proficiency and finesse within their field of "expertise" doesn't bode well for their chances at gracefully executing any of the other styles that will be thrown at them through the course of the competition. It is irksome that all three judges made sure to say that BECAUSE these three are "tappers" they won't dance as well as other finalists. The fact is, if they lack graceful lines or charisma it could be because they aren't very good dancers in general, or because they weren't born with great facility. Not because tap dancing made them that way. One doesn't develop shoulder problems, flat feet, or poor posture due to vigorous lower body movement. The tapping trio had those issues during their Tap performance too, which should have been mentioned afterwards in their critique. Instead, Nigel rhapsodized about how Tap dancing is all about being "a graceful swan on top, and moving your feet furiously on the bottom." He went on to theorize that tap dancers will struggle to pull in votes because of a supposed lack of personality due to upper body stillness. These comments are both ignorant and ridiculous. Voters select the contestant that appeals to them the most personality-wise and talent-wise. If a tap dancer has those characteristics, he will get votes... unless the judges sabotage the process through the power of suggestion. Why not give voters a chance to decide for themselves who they like? If Bianca, Peter and Phillip don't last long this season, it should be because they aren't particularly great period...not because they are tap dancers. I'm sure they are better at tap than anything else and that they went to the audition with the high hopes that by using the "tap gimmick" they would happen to get lucky. However, I have a feeling that with a little intensive coaching, we would find that one of the other seventeen finalists is actually better in tap than these three who were selected because of their "superior tap skills." I also know for a fact that there have been many contestants from previous seasons that are able to tap dance, yet were never given the opportunity.There have been plenty of instances in the past when contestants have had difficulties with whichever dance style they have been assigned, and their resulting mediocre performance influenced how many votes they received. Why should Bianca, Peter, and Phillip be put at a huge disadvantage comparatively to the other contestants by having to compete in unfamiliar dance genres, while none of the others have to even bother trying to tap at all? This is grossly unfair to the tapping trio, but more importantly, it is a disservice to tap dancing, and to the people who love it and know what amazing work is possible with good training and choreography. I'm choosing to give Nigel and the other producers of "SYT..." the benefit of the doubt. They probably don't realize how much discriminating against Tap (then alienating it from all of the other categories once it finally debuts) has helped to further a recession for this art form. Why should young students bother tap dancing at all if they don't see it on television? Instead of making a big production out of HAVING TAPPERS THIS YEAR!!! why not just make tap dancing one of the categories and keep it moving? I'm even more baffled that this hasn't been done already since Nigel is constantly raving about tap dancing and has even graced the stage himself to perform a shuffle or two.
So how is it possible for these contestants to learn other new styles of dance and perform them so quickly? Lythgoe and his associates have been lucky enough thus far to find choreographers from various genres that can produce solid material efficiently. Some are better at this than others, but overall this formula works. It stands to reason that if he found an equally gifted choreographer for tap dancing, the "tap isn't teachable" issue would no longer exist. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Even though Lythgoe can easily locate talented professional tap dancers that can perform their asses off, finding ones that can also teach Tap to finalists whose skill levels vary, then choreograph this mixed bag of dancers in a way that best suits each couple or individual, isn't so simple. It doesn't help that he has no idea as to what or whom to look for, nor a reliable source to ask. Because the tap field is so small and good jobs are hard to find, tap performers who know full well that there are better, more qualified choreographers for this particular job will take the work regardless for personal recognition, with hopes of parlaying the opportunity into more profitable ones for themselves. This does a great disservice to Tap dancing at large. Once said mediocre work debuts, no one even wants to bother to have tap in the lineup again. This becomes yet another mismanaged opportunity, and another decrease in potential work... not just for the specific tap choreographer, but for all tap dancers. If Nigel would consider hiring a tap choreographer/judge with vision and the necessary skills to get all of the contestants to compete in the Tap category on "SYTYCD," then there would be real cause for celebration in the tap community. Does a person exist that can choreograph Tap at a level that is on par with Mia Michael's choreography? Not in the fish pond where the producers are looking. Again, just because certain tap dancers have a higher profile than others doesn't mean they are qualified for this job. This potential choreographer needs to be able to float in and out of both the competition/dance studio world and the elite, tiny bubble of professional tap world, and be capable of blending these two wildly different approaches to the art form together.
Here is where I enter this equation.
I can do this. And I am no longer going to be silent about it so that I don't appear to be arrogant or overly confident in my abilities. I can put my money where my mouth is and prove that Tap dancing can be successful on "SYTYCD."
This is what I would request: one week of 8 hour/day rehearsals to get all of the contestants ready to compete. The choreography that they would perform would be danced to a variety of contemporary musical selections, not antiquated jazz standards. The rhythms and steps would reflect our day and age, instead of catapulting us back to Vaudeville. I understand the urge to tribute tap legends from the past in every "new" piece of choreography, but if that was the goal, Monday's performance certainly fell short of the mark. Cheesy smiles, low awkward kicks, bizarre jumps, cheerleader-like toe touches, bad arms, and embarrassing CARTWHEELS to introduce Tap dancing on this show? Is this what the producers requested? Is this really what they envision when they think "great tap number"? How could anyone possibly be expected to compare such a piece or judge it fairly against the rest of the choreography that was presented?
My hope is that someone will read this, see the validity of my stance, and help make this experiment possible ASAP. I am prepared to step up... not just complain behind closed doors... or worse yet pretend that any representation of Tap dancing on television is better than no exposure at all. I keep hearing from tap community members that we just "need to be patient." Why should tap dancers have to be patient? Did the Texas Two Steppers have to be patient? The tap community can't afford to lose any more audience members or enthusiasts due to inexperienced choreographers and substandard performances. The vast majority of the reviews I've read online make it abundantly clear that few people are impressed by the addition of tap dancing to this season's lineup. Questionable dancing combined with a distracting, moving-through-the-galaxy-light-show set completed the perfect recipe for a sloppy goulash of everything that is stereotypical and wrong about the depiction of Tap dancing in America today. This isn't the way tap dancing should be represented. I would rather it be considered an elite form of dance that is too good for the show than one that gets ridiculed and disrespected due to a lack of care or interest on the producers' part.
It would be nice to have an opportunity to expose America to the tap dancing that I know and love, and to the tap dancers that make up a diverse community of some of the coolest people I know. If "So You Think You Can Dance" doesn't end up being the forum for this, then I will continue to toil away at trying to make it happen somehow. In fact, I already have an excellent pilot episode in mind for a spin off.
UPDATE: in response to requests from readers, a Facebook group has been created... if you'd like to join the ranks and support the movement, please check it out! link