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*This post first appeared as part of San Diego News Network’s Culture Cruncher blog

A few decades ago, Rudolf Nureyev made a splash with numerous guest appearances on The Muppet Show (watch him get seduced by Miss Piggy here:


It was a celebrated fusion of high art and pop culture, the melding of serious dance and serious fun. And more than that, it made one of the century’s greatest ballet dancers a household name in America. The dance community hasn’t had visibility like that in years, largely because the realm of concert dance and its ambassadors have been absent from the country’s number one cultural unifier: the television. Yet in the past few years, dance has made a comeback in a big way on the tube and has built up a mainstream following that has signaled a new wave of interest in the form.

Riding that wave is So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD), which launched its fifth season last night on Fox. SYTYCD is the dance equivalent of American Idol, that other popular reality talent show, which crowned its newest pop star on Wednesday. American Idol Season 8 came to a rather exciting close this year and seems to have found a new freshness and edge, thanks entirely to runner-up Adam Lambert. Let’s hope that SYTYCD can find a similar star within its ranks to capture America’s fascination.

American Idol this season also brought forth a lot of issues relating to gender expression and sexual ambiguity, again thanks to “guyliner” Lambert. A show about dance – never really accepted as a masculine pursuit in America anyway – inevitably butts up against similar questions. This all played out rather explicitly in the premiere episode as two men performed a ballroom routine together at auditions in Denver.

The blogosphere lit up with indignation at producer and judge Nigel Lythgoe’s comments that the two men would “alienate viewers” – as if the show didn’t already contain a huge gay and lesbian following. Lythgoe has over the past few seasons presented himself as a protector of masculine dance – last year he repeatedly criticized Matt Dorame for “effeminate” dancing. We’ll see if this continues through Season 5.

Last season, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company made a surprise appearance on the show, a rare and welcome opportunity for viewers to be introduced to one of the most popular and accomplished contemporary dance troupes in the world. Here’s hoping that the trend continues with other fine guests from the world of concert dance.

Despite some flaws in the dance shows that have flooded the airwaves (must they all be competitions? How can one possibly compare Irish step dancing with Indian bharata natyam, as they do on “Superstars of Dance”?), mass audiences are being exposed to a wide variety of dance styles and, thanks to the judges, viewers are being introduced to concepts such as artistic interpretation, technical execution, abstract choreography, etc. and are learning to view dance with a critical frame.

Yet despite the massive free publicity and opportunity to build a bridge from the world of television to the world of the stage, concert dance devotees seem hesitant to embrace the trend or even talk about what it means for dance in America.

OK, fair enough. Alastair Macaulay (Chief Dance Critic at the New York Times) is way too busy with the New York City Ballet and his memories of Margot Fonteyn to pay attention to these amateurs. But I can’t help wondering if we’re missing a chance to parlay this national interest into a broader dialogue about the value and importance of dance and hopefully allow that to develop into more curiosity and, ultimately, support of the dance for art’s sake that some of us hold so dear.

So let’s put a spotlight on it, shall we? I’ll be weighing in regularly on the dancers and choreographers taking center stage this season on SYTYCD and I invite you to join the conversation.

Because as I mentioned earlier, this is indeed a trend, make no mistake. And we really don’t know how long it will last. We have to grab hold of the energy while we can because who knows the next time Nureyev and Miss Piggy will engage in another pas de deux.