Another Summer of Dance on TV (the Fall, too!)

For most of my life summer has been associated with dance-- from dance competitions when I was younger, to So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) on TV beginning in my mid-20s, and on this blog. This past summer it felt to me like dance was everywhere on TV, not unlike the summer of 2014 when there were also six dance shows on my DVR.

  1. SYTYCD- Just like in 2014, the winner (Lex Ishimoto) was pretty much a foregone conclusion from his first audition, but this was a really lovely season to watch. Several of the girls were great and the group numbers (especially with the All Stars) were very strong. This middle-aged lady, oddly, became all shippy about the relationship between Taylor and Lex as well...
  2. World of Dance- A new addition to dance shows this year and I doubt it will come back. The convoluted structure resulted in an unsatisfactory result (I thought). There were many SYTYCD crossovers, from dancers to competitors, but there was a link between Taylor (pictured above) and my favorite, Eva Igo. Both attend the same dance studio- Larkin! Must be something in that Minnesota water.
  3. Dance Moms- Notice that none of these top dancers have ever been on any iteration of Dance Moms. I've written before that I feel obligated to watch this show, but honestly the formula and the yelling had gotten so bad that I started fast forwarding a lot of it. Not true this season (Season *7*, how is that even possible?!). With Abby Lee Miller's legal troubles the whole format and show have been transformed, and for the better. The new teachers/choreographers make things interesting and t's fascinating to see these dancers take on new styles. And it must be said that I have loved Laurie Ann Gibson since Making the Band 3, so I love seeing some boom kack on my screen again.
  4. Bring It- Remember what I said about Dance Moms getting so formulaic I fast forwarded a lot? Well, I can now say that's how I feel about this other dance series on Lifetime. Which is a shame, because it had been more interesting in the past. (Wish Hit the Floor came back this summer, but I can hope soon!)
  5. So Sharp- This was basically my favorite show of the summer. The "girls" are older (all of them are in college, dancing as a Lousiville Ladybird). The coach, Todd Sharp, is clearly a fascinating character. The built-in dramatic arc of a national championship (the only competition we saw thankfully) and college worked well, and seeing so much practice put the attention on dancing and relationships. This show regularly made me laugh out loud (like, after seeing him do a very girly dance routine, Todd declares that anyone who sees him dancing should, "Consider yourself blessed."). He takes himself seriously, but with a wink and a nod. of course there is also some other dance show crossover, as there must be. Jill Vertes, mother to mom Kendall on Dance Moms, is also mom to Ryleigh on So Sharp (another older daughter also danced for Louisville). I wonder if we will see Kendall on this team in a few years? It would be good sign for her to go to college considering all the homeschooling the Dance Moms girls do now...
  6. Making the Team: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders- I'm late to this bandwagon, but I am all in now. I watched Season 11 on my iPad and was fascinated for so many reasons (more on that another time). This current season has quickly become one of my must-watch shows. The whole cult of the Cowboys, and this team, is compelling to watch. With some many contestants it's hard to keep track of everyone (but I do get bummed when a multi-season competitor gets cut), and I now sense there is *so much* behind the scenes drama that I kind of desperately want more of (examples: Holly P. leaving the team [the redhead pictured below] and an audition favorite who was spotlighted, who danced for Louisiana and had dark hair that "needed a makeover", just not at training camp and no mention of her ever again). The multi-generational ties is also really interesting as well...* I wonder what dance shows the summer of 2018 will bring!*

Miss AmeriCARA

My relationship with Miss America 2018, Cara Mund (North Dakota), began in September 2015, almost exactly two years before she was crowned. I was getting ready to teach my first class at Brown (called "Beauty Pageants in American Society") and before the semester began I reached out to pre-registered students to see if any of them wanted to attend the Miss America 2016 pageant in Atlantic City. Cara was one of the students who signed up. At the first class I learned that she had been North Dakota's Outstanding Teen in 2011 and that she had already competed at Miss North Dakota.

Three days later we met up in Atlantic City, where we saw Betty Cantrell crowned Miss America 2016-- and much more interesting (to me) the return of Vanessa Williams to the Miss America stage.

A few weeks later when Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle came to seminar to talk about her book Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain, Cara was one of the students reporter Steve Klamkin spoke to at the end of class; she was quoted in this article (and stay tuned for more from this interview).

For the rest of that academic year I advised Cara as she worked to graduate with Honors from Brown (which is not something most undergraduates do at Brown given the increased workload). When I found out she would be competing at Miss North Dakota that year I wanted to go-- I'd never been to North Dakota and I'd never seen someone I personally know compete. I had an amazing journey across the gorgeous state of ND (the Badlands, Medora Musical, and Salem Sue were particular highlights) and was thrilled when Cara did a superb job on the stage at the pageant, where she finished as first runner-up. She swept nearly every category (including the biggies of interview, talent, and platform) and I could see why. Her talent was very strong and she was very charismatic in her on-stage presentation.

With one year of eligibility left, Cara knew she had to give her dream one more shot. After interning in DC for one of her U.S. Senators, she returned home to Bismarck to get ready to compete at Miss North Dakota 2017. Focused on her goal, Cara worked to get ready, giving it everything she had. When she was crowned in June I watched on Facebook Live and screamed while watching in my PJs in bed. Immediately I knew that there was no way I wouldn't be in Atlantic City this year!

In the meantime, I judged Miss America's Outstanding Teen in Orlando in July, where my boys got to see Cara during the competition, though I didn't...

Once the competition concluded we got to meet up and talk about what was to come in September.

All along I felt reasonably confident that she had a very good chance of making Top 15. I knew she was smart, genuine, talented, kind, and had done serious work on her platform. As she headed off to AC Cara seemed to hit her stride. And the whole time she was in NJ she was calm, taking in every moment, excited to compete at Miss America. I knew she performed well in the first two nights of preliminaries, and when I made it for the last night of prelims I saw her absolutely nail her onstage question (about integrating her platform work on Make-a-Wish with the national platform of Children's Miracle Network hospitals).

She was on some people's short lists, though I don't always put much stock in prognostication because no one can see the 10- minute judges' interview, which is so crucial. That said, several pageant people, especially Executive Directors who I have judged with before, saw her making the cut, which bolstered my confidence.

By Saturday evening I upped my confidence level to 75% (having to do with TV production especially). That said, I was a *wreck* all day Sunday. As I kept reapplying deodorant I reflected that if I was this nervous for Cara, how would I ever survive my kids doing something high stakes. I couldn't imagine how Cara's mom felt!

So, based on my pageant knowledge I had her in Top 15 and I knew that if she did make the cut she would make Top 10 because her pageant talent was very strong and it would be on TV. After that though, pre-show, I wasn't sure. With the separate celebrity panel you just don't know what can happen (the year Cara went to Miss America with me there was a double prelim winner who didn't go far in front of the new panel). Once the show started and she came out in the opening production number I did get a chilling premonition that she could win the whole thing. It sounds so silly, but the way she was waving and smiling, and engaging with the audience read as very "Miss America" to me (I didn't voice this to anyone though, and her aunt sitting next to me said before the live show started that she really thought she was going to take the crown).

The only time I was truly nervous the whole night-- I actually texted my husband that I might throw up-- was when she wasn't called until spot #14 into the Top 15. If you can find me in this screen shot my husband took you will get some clue about how excited I was. I was relieved on many levels-- most importantly for Cara as this was the fulfillment of a big goal, and for myself that I hadn't completely misunderstood the system!

I was right that she would do her talent, and because she went third, I had some time to reflect in Convention Hall. Cara's talent went so well that I then felt sure she would make the Top 7. And new this year was a "personality" question before the cut to Top 5. If that went well I knew the judges would be on her side, that she'd speak well and probably move on to Top 5. Whoa!

I can say sincerely that once Texas was called as fourth runner-up, I knew she'd won. It was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life to just go nuts screaming and yelling and saying "Oh my God!" over and over again as she was crowned and walked down the runway. Even though I had a raspy voice until the Thursday after, I wouldn't change a thing.

My husband, who had never watched a pageant before we started dated, watched the whole thing back at home. He even recorded his reaction during crowning, which included, "Wow, this just got real." After, he launched into his statistical explanation of the cuts, which pretty much sums up our relationship, and which I made him email me: The revelation of information follows a very interesting "U-shaped" pattern at Miss America. The first cut is a very sharp cut - from 51 contestants down to the top 15 - so that (from a naive perspective) the odds are not that great for any given candidate to make it. More than 70% of contestants are eliminated in this first cut. But once a contestant makes the top 15, the fraction of candidates cut in each round shrinks dramatically. Just 20% are cut after swimsuit (3 of 15), 16% after evening gown (2 of 12), 30% after talent (3 of 10), and 28% after the personal question (2 of 7). As a result, a candidate can make it from the top 15 into the top 5 without any great surprise, as each cut is a relatively high probability. "Sure she wont be cut after swimsuit," you say, since 80% of candidates make it to the next round. So before you know it, a candidate has made the top 5, where once again the odds become much lower, since only 20% of them (1 of 5) wins the crown.

The rest of the details of that evening can be saved for another time, but I finally got to see Cara around 2 am in Miss America's suite. It really sets in then that a new path is set for the winner for the next year, and beyond (especially when security tells everyone they have thirty minutes and then they're gone).

I had so much adrenaline that I didn't sleep until 4:45 am, and then only for a few hours before I made the drive back to Rhode Island. Along the way I spoke with some reporters. Steve Klamkin called and I did this radio interview, which is worth a listen for the last minute, where I guarantee you will get goosebumps if you listen to the old interview he dug up from 2015.

Because I've let this experience marinate a bit, I'm less giddy than I was for the first week after (though you can get a sense of that from my social media posts). My feeling that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and relationship hasn't dimmed at all. I'm loving following Cara's travels and I can't wait to welcome her back to Providence at some point this year.

And let's just say that when I do teach Beauty Pageants in American Society again, I may now have an in with another Miss America... ;)

My Favorite Reads in 2017 (thus far)

It's been a minute since last I blogged. And since that post was about books I figured I'd do a reentry with another post on reading. I'm a bit behind my usual pace of reading this year-- and the reasons why are similar to my reasons for being bad about posting. These include: 1) obsessively reading news, especially about politics, 2) being even more politically involved, 3) teaching a lot in the spring, and 4) posting on social media, mainly Facebook and Instagram, instead (see points 1 and 2). But I miss writing short posts, so resolving to get back on track for the rest of 2017! Thus far here are my top six reads (out of 45 books) this year, listed in alphabetical order by author:

  1. Killer Show: The Station Nightclub Fire, America’s Deadliest Rock Concert by John Barylick– Written by one of the lawyers involved with the case, this is a very detailed book that covers so many areas (history of lawsuits, science of fires, the way touring bands work). But it is the human tragedy that is most compelling. I appreciate the book follows things all the way through, from disaster to years later… I live less than 10 miles from where this tragedy occurred and wanted to learn more, and that I did.
  2. We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh– I had to keep reading once I started this book. It is a reminder that the world is full of such sadness, and struggle, but once in awhile things work out. A lot of issues at play here– inequality, immigration, disability, teen pregnancy– so it becomes a lot at times, but the story is beautiful and the addition of science very good.
  3. American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century by David Glassberg- Such a fascinating book about a short time in American civic life, but thanks to great organizational records it can be studied and remembered. Even though the details became a bit much at times, and I would have liked to understand the later incarnations/evolutions, a very useful book.
  4. The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine- By far my favorite book read in 2017. It is technically YA, but serious themes, great characters, wonderful language, a forgotten part of history make it a worthwhile read for anyone of any age. Definitely a must read! (Set in Little Rock 1958-9)

5. A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner- I can't lie, this book made me outright sob at least twice (once in public). I initially liked the historical portion more, then liked the 2011 story more, which shows I just liked the whole thing. Loved the blended stories, even if they didn't exactly line up (which I actually liked-- would have been too "pat" otherwise). I do recommend, but know it's a tearjerker.

6.In this Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear- I love the Maisie Dobbs series and try to read the latest installment as soon as it is out (this one I had to wait a bit to get from library as others clearly feel the same way!). Did not disappoint-- and this even made me cry. Can't wait to see what WWII brings for Maisie; I am sure many important adventures.

You can see all the books I've read in 2017 here.


The Best Books I Read in 2016

As I have for the past few years, I kept track of the books (only the books, not magazines!) I read in 2016. I read slightly more than my average of two books per week this year, partly because I am doing a lot of "work" reading. So out of 106 books here are my Top 11 (in the order I read them), complete with the little review I wrote on my "Reading List" section. Note this is dominated by fiction (only two non-fiction), and female authors (seven women). 1.Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead– Definitely my favorite book of 2016 thus far. So captures the angst of relationships in middle school and budding romance, fused with modern technology. Tackles complicated issues while giving the kids agency and complexity, which I love. Highly recommend for adult and young readers! And, and, and.

2.Trouble is a Friend of Mine by Stephanie Tromly– I’ve been clear about my Veronica Mars love, and this book (what will clearly be a series) is very reminiscent of the TV series, movie, and book series. But it’s also different– a male “Veronica,” no Logan, etc. But a town with lots and lots of secrets, a class divide, an enduring mysterious crime, and kids who are too smart by half. It’s a quick, witty read with teenage angst and romance thrown in for good measure. Don’t miss it. [I love mystery series.]

3. This Side of Providence by Rachel M. Harper– A haunting, lyrical, multi-faceted look at poverty, addiction, immigration, education, and more. Hit home for me in many ways, especially with the Providence location and my volunteer CASA work. It’s also written by a Wheeler grad (where my son is at school), but I would love this book anyway. I am still thinking about it.

4. Dark Road Home by Anna Carlisle– The first in a new series. The bed news is that it just came out this week and I read it in less than 12 hours, and now I likely have to wait a bit for the next installment! Interesting characters, setting, motivation. I’m excited to see where it will go. If you had any interest in the TV series “The Family,” note you will really enjoy this. Compelling stuff. [I also liked latest installments in Kate Burkholder, Cork O'Corcoran, and Joe Guenther series this year, but didn't include them on this list.]

5. The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls by Joan Jacobs Brumberg– It is an actual shanda that I had never before read this amazing history (based on girls’ diaries) of girls and their bodies. I love the organization of this book, its focus on everyday life, and it’s insights that resonate today. Would love to know Brumberg’s take on the role of social media now– both as a cultural mirror AND as a diary– in young girls’ lives today.

6. Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy– Wow, I LOVED this book. I had to stay up late to finish it after I began it that day. It’s been a long time since I have done that. About loving yourself, body, complicated role of pageants in small towns. But it’s also the story of friendship, romance, and more. Highly recommend.

7.  The Black Widow by Dan Silva– Gulped it down in less than 24 hours. A big move toward new action and possibilities– and eerie with real world ramifications. If only we had real life Allons, which I hope we actually do. Had to wait awhile to start a new book after because I was still lost in this novel.

8. The Dread Line by Bruce DeSilva– So good. Gobbled it down so quickly. So many different, interesting threads. Movement forward in all directions. Can’t wait for next Liam Mulligan novel!

9. Sweetbitter by Stephani Danler– Wow. This novel engaged all my senses. I wish I had read it sooner– believe the hype. It is such a specific moment in time and in age.

10. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond– This book is the real deal– well-researched, compelling writing, important issue. I love the last lines in the Prologue: “Not everyone living in a distressed neighborhood is associated with gang members, parole officers, employers, social workers, or pastors. But nearly all of them have a landlord.” (5) It is a little depressing (though by all means this should NOT deter you from reading and facing the subject), and at times the chronology feels off, but it is an important book. I will continue to think about stable poverty vs. grinding poverty.

11. Livia Lone by Barry Eisler– A more than worthy successor to the Rain series– loved this new character and the Then-Now technique. Very much looking forward to the follow-up and seeing what becomes of some old friends.

I ended the year with some great books, which was very nice. I just bought this necklace (on my other addiction, Zulily) that captures how I have always, and continue to feel, about reading.

"She reads books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live."

My older son just started reading his first chapter book and I just get so excited for him knowing the worlds he will see through reading...

The Pageantry of Politics

This is adapted from a Facebook post I wrote last week. Monday night Emma Gray sent me a link to her great Huffington Post article about how Clinton's loss has motivated a new generation of women to consider running for office.

I then proceeded not to share it. Why? Because I felt so much chagrin that Gray chose to write about *me* to start it off. I felt undeserving, mainly because I hadn't done anything to earn such attention. As most people who know me know, I am a do-er; talk is cheap, it's action and accomplishment that count. "Write about me when I DO something," I thought.

When one friend emailed me about it, that's what I said. When another sent me the link, that's what I texted her back. And then more people started to share on Facebook and comment and again I felt embarrassed, but also touched.

Last Tuesday night another group of women, in person, who are on the Temple Torat Yisrael Board of Trustees with me (more female leadership in action!) talked me down a bit. But I decided I still needed to process before sharing.

And then on Wednesday morning I was quoted in The New York Times about the links between politics and pageantry, especially when it comes to the way the cabinet is being formed. I spoke to the impressive Susan Chira last week, though I thought the article would come out later.

Now this, THIS, I wanted to share it right away. The NYT! My research (the book I am working and working and working on)! This shows the consequential sides of pageantry I have been trying to illuminate and disentangle! Illustrates the seriousness with which I always say we OUGHT to treat popular culture! This is a type of action I understand and can be proud of (though still need to finish writing that book, but that's another story).

So I can share the research, I can share the pics of my kids, but it's hard to share myself. Oh, yes, right, this is why more women don't run for office, huh?

Today after balancing work obligations and sick kids I arrived at the Rhode Island State House to watch the Electoral College vote. Yes, I cried (and, yes I worried I might smell like sick child). And I was reminded again of the pageantry of politics: the ritual, the costumes, the traditions, the songs, the pomp. And also the competition, the voting, the winner-take-all system.

Politics seems weightier to many, but often the two mix. Monday's vote comes on the heels of the Miss World Pageant over the weekend, where Miss Puerto Rico won (on American soil). Many in the US aren't very familiar with Miss World (admittedly, myself including, and this Washington Post article does a good job explaining why), but Miss World had its own political issue with Miss Canada speaking out against the Chinese government. Read The New York Times and The Boston Globe for more on this situation, which shows the platform pageants provide contestants/winners can matter in the political arena.

Stay tuned for more personal and professional mingling of pageantry and politics in the future...