Friday, April 16, 2010

Why Dancing With the Stars is Bad for America

I grew up listening to oldies radio, so I've always known the names of popular dances of the 1950s and 1960s, even if I had no clue what those dances actually looked like: e.g. The Twist, The Mashed Potato, The Watusi, The Limbo, The Locomotion. I've subsequently learned that so-called "dance crazes" pre-date rock and roll, that people were doing The Charleston during the roaring 20s, and The Tango even before that. Because I watch a lot of sports, I became aware of the YMCA dance without ever setting foot in a disco. And because I've been to weddings, I became aware of The Chicken Dance. I lived through the rise and fall of The Macarena.

And these days, of course, we've reached a golden era in the importance of dance in popular culture. Because of Dancing With the Stars, which is now beating American Idol in the Nielson ratings, Americans are taking to the dance floors like never before. Actually, they are following Martha and the Vandellas and they are dancing in the streets. You've got to be careful these days when driving in a residential area so as not to hit an overenthusiastic dancer.

Of course, the only true statement in the above paragraph is that Dancing With the Stars is, in its 10th season, is still a massively popular show, even moreso than ever before. But I haven't seen any evidence that more people are dancing. On the contrary, I don't think we've had a "dance craze" since The Macarena. (Wikipedia is trying to tell me that "Crank That Soulja Boy" is a recent dance fad, but I'm not buying it). Why might that be?

A couple of years ago I wrote a contrarian blog post about how rock and roll caused the end of singing (communal singing, that is). To quote myself:

To some degree, the rise of television made this an inevitability. It probably wouldn't have mattered who it was that appeared on Ed Sullivan, the very fact that somebody was being set apart as a featured performer would have caused a shift in public perception, as millions of viewers would have had an Adam and Eve experience and realized that they were naked, that they lacked the musical aptitude of the star being featured, and that there was a gulf between performer and audience...

Ironically, though, the opposite happened with dancing. People who saw Elvis felt liberated to turn their bodies loose. If you watch archival footage of the various variety shows of the early rock era, the cameras give a lot of face time to amateur dancing. Here is one random example, a Del Shannon performance from 1965. Notice around the 1:20 mark in particular:

Contrast that with this Britney Spears & N Sync performance on MTV in 1999. You can tell there is a large crowd, but the camera is firmly planted on the performers and the highly choreographed phalanx of professional dancers.

So the implicit message that the most recent generation has received is: "Don't try this at home; leave it to the professionals." And a show like Dancing With the Stars only reinforces the notion that there is a right and wrong way to dance, that those who are not good enough are judged and summarily dismissed, with dancing privileges revoked. Consequently, what for centuries has been a shared, communal practice across cultures is now becoming the domain of a privileged few.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I lost faith in DWTS after they eliminated Buzz Aldrin. This man literally walked on the moon, regardless of his dancing skills this fact alone should trump everyone else. (especially kate gosselin)

9:07 PM  
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9:08 PM  

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