Move Over Child Beauty Pageants: Another Summer of Dance (on TV)

Last year I proclaimed my love for the summer of dance-- and it's true again this year! It's also been a summer full of "morning" sickness for me, which means less time to write and more time prostrate in bed trying not to move. But one of the perks of being in bed so much is watching various TV shows and movies, which explains how I've been able to watch all these shows and movies... Seems like dance is really taking over our screens. Even Alana Thompson, aka Honey Boo Boo, has moved on from pageants to dancing (as seen on a recent episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, though thankfully NOT the scratch and sniff one...).

At this point I feel like Lifetime's Dance Moms bring much more crazy than Toddlers & Tiaras. I swear, the show has become so ridiculous (especially with Candy Apples nonsense) that if I didn't feel like I *had* to watch it for my work, I wouldn't (I know I'll feel the same way when Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition returns in the fall). You have to assume these moms are under strict contracts, getting insane amounts of money, or it's all scripted for them to allow their children to be in these situations.

So I didn't have high hopes for TLC's contribution to kids and dance, Dance Kids ATL. But, actually I was pleasantly surprised! Sure, there was some suggested momma drama, but I liked that the focus was more on families and on the kids (as the name implies). The style of the coach/choreagrapher reminded me more of the failed Dance Moms Miami and less of Abby Lee Miller. I also appreciated that it showed competitive hip hop (both in a cypher and in a competition-- though I'd love to see the kids at an actual hip hop competition and not just at a general dance competition) and a dance demographic not always recognized as serious in its own right by those who are "trained." This shows how the kids do learn counts, stretching, etc. I hope this gets picked up as a full series; I much prefer it to TLC's closest version, Cheer Perfection.

My other favorite reality dance series, Breaking Pointe, returned and it's interesting to get the updates on those featured last year-- especially the men with injuries. However, I had read that this season would have less personal drama, and that is definitely NOT the case thus far. So, please, more dancing and explanations of how companies work and less romantic entanglements! (FYI- that article I linked to is also interesting for the discussion of how being miked impacted friendships and how not all dancers in the company were happy to participate-- though I imagine the show has done wonders for Ballet West's ticket sales.)

During the worst of my sickness I rejoined Netflix and got to watch a ballet documentary that was similar in some ways to what Breaking Pointe does. The 2006 documentary Ballerina, about the Vaganova Ballet Academy and the company that performs at the Mariinsky was fascinating, showing different stages of a dancer's career-- and how much harsher teaching is in Russia! The women are absolutely beautiful in every way, so it's worth it for the clips of their practices and performances. It was strange to see the 10-year-old girls try-out for the Academy topless (surely cringe-worthy for a Western viewer), but interesting nonetheless. Here's the trailer:

(Of course I am DYING to get my hands on episodes of Australia's fictional version of their own national ballet academy, Dance Academy Season 3. If you love dance, you will become ADDICTED to this great series, and warning you will cry a LOT in Season 2!)

With all this dance on TV I still watch the old stalwart of So You Think You Can Dance, though not as obsessively as in other summers. My favorite guy is Tucker Knox (can't figure out why the judges don't like him more, but they also didn't like Danny Tidwell, one of my all-time faves, so...). Tucker Knox, SYTYCD

My fave girl is Amy Yakima (a fellow Michigander, it turns out!):

Amy Yakima, SYTYCD

It's been fun watching for SYTYCD alums Allison Holker and Courtney Galliano on VH1's new show, Hit the Floor, this summer too. Here's an interesting interview with them. Sadly, we lost another dance-based scripted show this summer, as ABC Family's Bunhead's was just canceled (and I love me some Sutton Foster).

Despite that cancellation, the world of dance on TV has rarely looked brighter-- despite the upcoming Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition, of course.

The Summer of Dance (on TV)

If last summer was The Summer of the Stage Mothers, this summer is The Summer of Dance (although if you watched Oxygen's reality show The Next Big Thing about Trapper Felides, a famous children's performance coach in NYC, you would know the stage moms are still lingering-- as are the Dance Moms on Lifetime). Actually since 2005 I've associated the summer with dance. Why? That's when So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) premiered.  While some might say Dancing with the Stars is responsible for the revival of dance on television if you look at the dance styles featured on the show I think it's thanks to SYTYCD.

While SYTYCD is the original and will always hold a special place in my heart, lately I've found it a bit predictable (not unlike its sister show American Idol).  In a sure sign of SYTYCD's success, one of its runners-up, Travis Wall (Season 2), now has his own show (although I feel like the show really jumped the shark last week when Nigel accused one of the choreographers of being mean like Abby Lee Miller and they then cut to a shot of her in the audience).  Like The Next Big Thing, All the Right Moves airs on Oxygen starting July 31.  Nick Lazzarini, the first winner of SYTYCD, also is featured on the show and I can't wait to see some of my favorite dancers onscreen again.

This summer I discovered some new favorite dancers thanks to The CW's Breaking Pointe (a real-life version of Center Stage [for the true pop culture fans out there, I laugh every time "Jody Sawyer and her bad feet" show up on my screen in Pretty Little Liars, my other guilty pleasure of the summer]), a docu-reality series about a set of dancers in Salt Lake City's ballet company Ballet West. I especially loved Beckanne Sisk; she also apparently appears in the dance documentary of the summer, First Position, which I sadly have not yet been able to see because of the Little Man, but I can't wait to see it! I mean, who wouldn't love these feet?

I found this article from Dance Magazine on Ballet West's decision to allow cameras in to be quite interesting-- and a commentary on the need for the arts today to find innovative sources of audience members and money in today's constrained environment.

While I love that I get to see Broadway star Sutton Foster on my TV screen once a week thanks to the new ABC Family Show Bunheads (not at all related to the book Bunheads by Sophie Flack I reviewed a few months ago) it's clear that TV and its money is still a draw even for the biggest stars of the Great White Way.  The show itself is a bit farcical, but I've enjoyed seeing the likes of Gary Janetti (who can forget the Les Mis flashmob he gifted his boyfriend Brad Goreski?!) and some talented young dancers/actresses. I only wish they would let Sutton do THIS more often:

Finally, that old standby TLC has been getting in on the dance action.  Last month they aired a new special on Irish dancing (not the fun documentary, Jig, I reviewed last fall), which you can watch in its entirety on YouTube by following this link.  [The New York Times Magazine got in on the act too last month, with this provocative spread on Irish dancers.] At their fall upfronts TLC announced they are filming their own reality show based on competitive Irish dance in the US.  And they're trying out a competitive kiddie cheer show.  Last week they aired Cheer Perfection starring the Dunlaps, who have been on Toddlers & Tiaras. Another crossover network star a la Honey Boo Boo Child, apparently. TLC doesn't have to pay for much show development when their shows just spin-off more and more interesting series... By the way, looks like these cheer moms in Arkansas give the Pittsburgh dance moms a run for their money in the crazy race, though they don't seem to approach the levels of the Texas cheerleader murdering mom. Yet.

While it's been my summer of dance thus far in less than two weeks most of my attention will be focused on Olympic sports. I'm especially excited about gymnastics, as you might expect-- though I wish that some of the gymnasts would learn some better dance skills.  What has been your favorite dance show of the summer and which Olympic event/athlete are you most looking forward to watching?

Pas de Deux: A Review of Bunheads and Audition (from The Huffington Post Books)

CLICK HERE TO READ THIS ON THE HUFFINGTON POST BOOKS! It's no wonder that young adult readers are fascinated by the world of competitive ballet. Even if they aren't dancers themselves, teens are drawn in by the all-consuming dance world (made more intriguing by the general absence of parents) and the focus on romance as male and female bodies intertwine. In time for holiday shopping, two books on young adult life in ballet companies have hit the shelves in the past month -- Sophie Flack's Bunheads and Stasia Ward Kehoe's Audition.

Sophie Flack, a former dancer (and one-time "bunhead") with the New York City Ballet who left her suburban Boston home at 14 to study at the School of American Ballet, has penned a well-paced, semi-autobiographical work of fiction. Her protagonist, Hannah Ward, also left her suburban Boston home for New York City as a young teen, and she now dances with the Manhattan Ballet Company. Flack's spot-on description of Hannah's childhood experiences with ballet (for example, "I'd change into my leotard in the backseat of our minivan and do my bun in the mirrored sun visor. I didn't fit in with the other kids at school, but when I got to the studio, I felt completely at home.") is surely culled from personal experience, and offers a window into the lives and experiences of thousands of young dancers.

Bunheads follows 19-year-old Hannah as she cycles through the annual ballet season, struggling with her identity as she yearns to see what friendship, romance, and daily city life looks like outside of a leotard and tights. As she is pursued by two different men -- one a collegiate musician and the other a wealthy son of a businessman with philanthropic ties to the ballet company --she also deals with the daily stress of competing with her only girlfriends and fighting off changes to her body. Hannah notes that she didn't get her period until she was 18 and while she watches what she eats, she does in fact eat, unlike some of her friends/rivals. As it is for many, Hannah's nineteenth year is a watershed one in which she finds out much about herself, relationships, and professional realities.

Stasia Ward Kehoe's teen ballet novel, Audition, also portrays a young, female, New England-born ballet dancer's struggles with identity, romance (this time with a fellow ballet dancer), and professional aspirations vs. realities throughout a ballet season. 16-year-old Sara has left her hometown in Vermont to train on scholarship with the Jersey City Ballet. Her life is turned upside down as she becomes the worst dancer in her age group and finds herself in a much more rigorous, but stimulating, academic setting. Kehoe's story is far more explicitly sexual than Flack's, as Sara loses her virginity to the older Remington, and then has a somewhat exploitative sexual relationship with him.

Written in verse Audition initially seems like a hefty read, but the pages turn quickly once the reader gets into the rhythm of the words and Sara's story. Kehoe can turn an evocative phrase, like the way she describes the "encrusted hairspray" of the dancer, or the minimalist way in which she describes a dancer's eating disorder:

"The way she counts out raisins -- only six/ To eat between afternoon technique class/ And a grueling evening of variations."

Both Bunheads and Audition emphasize the ways in which "every day is an audition" in the world of competitive ballet. There are many more similarities between the two works -- and to other fictional works about young people in ballet companies -- suggesting some common themes and stereotypes in the ballet world. If you have seen the movie Center Stage you will be familiar with the bad boy ballet dancer/choreographer who rides a motorcycle, like Kehoe's Remington. Or if you have read Toni Bentley's memoir Winter Season you will be familiar with the particular disdain dancers have for The Nutcracker and the horrible tasting fake snow they must dance with almost every night (Note that at times, Bunheads reads like an updated, fictionalized version of Bentley's young life in Balanchine's company of the early 1980s). All four works touch on eating disorders, homosexuality, and injuries. Most importantly they discuss the "ever-present fear of failure" that afflicts all teenagers, but which is heightened in the ultra-competitive, talent-and appearance-based world of dance.

Bentley also notes in Winter Season that ballet dancers are "a funny class of society -- we come from all backgrounds, from mailmen's kids to doctors' and lawyers' kids." This universality allows all of these works to appeal to a broad base, even if the readers aren't themselves dancers.

(Another 2011 young adult release, Leap, by Jodi Lundgren, is also about a teen dancer -- though 15-year-old Natalie is a modern dancer living in Canada, so her tale may resonate with fewer readers.)

Audition and Bunheadsare especially great picks for today's young readers as they are set in contemporary times, complete with text messaging dramas and traumas. They would make an excellent pas de deux together on any reader's bookshelf.