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A `Dance' across demos

Sex, race, soapy drama, joy, real pain. A tricky backbeat underlies Fox's `Dance' hit.

July 30, 2006|David A. Keeps | Times Staff Writer

AS Ja Rule spits out the rhymes to "Clap Back," two teenagers, a white dude with an elaborately carved mohawk and his beauty-pageant-pretty African American partner throw down South-Central style in the aggressive form of hip-hop choreography known as "krumping." Another couple does the cha-cha to Los Amigos Invisibales' "Cuchi Cuchi." A third pair staggers like clockwork toys to the emo-rock sound of "Dance, Dance" by Fall Out Boy.

So you think you're watching BET? Telemundo? MTV 2? Think again. This is Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance," a prime-time network talent contest that is proving that unfamiliar music and obscure dance steps aren't necessarily a television turn-off. The two-hour July 19 broadcast of "So You Think You Can Dance" topped four other star-search series -- ABC's "The One," CBS' "Rock Star: Supernova," NBC's "America's Got Talent" and UPN's "America's Next Top Model" -- winning the 18-to-49 demographic that is most prized by advertisers.

The show debuted last summer after the surprising success of ABC's ballroom pro-am matchup "Dancing With the Stars." "So You Think" found its niche by emphasizing a young, culturally diverse group of contestants and embracing dozens of genres choreographed by experts in their disciplines. The show averages between 9 million and 10 million viewers per episode, up almost 20% from last year, making it a regular Top 10 program this summer. The season ends Aug. 16 with viewers deciding who will be America's Favorite Dancer.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 04, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
"So You Think You Can Dance": An article about the TV show "So You Think You Can Dance" in Sunday Calendar mistakenly gave choreographer Nancy O'Meara's first name as Anne.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 06, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
"So You Think You Can Dance": An article last Sunday about the TV show "So You Think You Can Dance" mistakenly gave choreographer Nancy O'Meara's first name as Anne.

The show can also be viewed as a successful marker in social evolution. In "Hairspray," the film and Broadway show now being made into a movie musical, racial integration on an "American Bandstand"-style TV dance show was a big taboo. "Dance is the G-rated version of having sex," said "Hairspray" director Adam Shankman. "And it's not always G-rated."

In 2001, the film "Save the Last Dance" featured a love affair between a white ballerina and a black hip-hopper and raised a few eyebrows. On both "Dancing With the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance," it's not even an issue." Generating sexual heat between performers of various ethnicities in flashy numbers that treat modern dance and contemporary hip-hop as equally legitimate, the show helps to erase divisive racial and cultural lines.

"It definitely ruffles some people's feathers, seeing an African American guy dancing sensually with a white girl," said Anne O'Meara, a choreographer for the likes of Paula Abdul, Elvis Costello and "Hannah Montana" star Miley Cyrus. "But no matter what your beliefs, when two people dance well together, people realize it is an art form and you can't help but sit back and smile."

For Denise Piane, a featured dancer and assistant to the director Anne Fletcher (who's making a new hip-hop/ballet flick, "Step Up"), the show provides a "forum for issues that people aren't necessarily comfortable with, like race, gender and sexual preference. A lot of people are living vicariously through these kids."

"It's a dancer's soap opera," said Studio City contestant Donyelle Jones, 26, after a recent show.

"You have sex, you have jokes, you have drama, crying, pain," added 18-year-old Aliso Viejo resident and Top 10 finalist Ivan Koumaev. "And then you have dance, which is huge right now in videos, commercials and movies. America enjoys watching people struggle through it."

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Baby steps

AMERICA is also struggling with a steep learning curve of dance terminology and technique. In addition to recognizable salsa, disco, Broadway and music video choreography, "So You Think You Can Dance" presents the abstract movements of contemporary (also known as lyrical, jazz, modern, or anything performed to the music of Enya), the romantic grace of 1920s foxtrots, the acrobatics of midcentury swing and the street swagger of today's hip-hop.

"You can't really teach that much on television. We're here to entertain as much of the family as is humanly possible, from grandmas to grandkids," executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said. "The mandate is to challenge the dancers."

There also seems to be an unspoken mandate to challenge many of the assumptions made about the role of dance and dancers in popular culture. "This show is making it cool for guys to dance," said studio owner Denise Wall, the mother of five dancing sons, including current contestant Travis.

"It is reteaching America what Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did back in the day," said 22-year-old Redlands contestant Benji Schwimmer, a West Coast swing specialist considered to have a serious shot at this year's title. "Dance is so vulnerable, so human and it's one of the most underappreciated arts. We work the hardest, get paid the least and have one of the most short-lived careers you can have."

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