So You Think You Can Move Me to Tears: Why I Love SYTYCD

The only reality competition series I’ve ever loved is back for its ninth season. I’m trying to sort out why it matters to me so much.

Jun 15, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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You can see it, right?

I first began watching "So You Think You Can Dance" in season four. Prior to this I had treated it with the same disdain with which I treated all reality competition series. This is not to say that I was one of those people who thought myself better than reality television -- I just found it weird and awkward and reliant on a level of self-exposure that is a little beyond my comfort level. (Irony, kids.) 

(One of the first routines I saw that really stuck with me for ages.)

Actually, I should back up a bit. The truth is I was once a zealous adherent to one particular reality series -- that was the original first season of MTV’s seminal “The Real World.” I only discovered this series as a result of being home sick from school on a day when MTV was running a marathon of episodes. 

By the second hour I was utterly rapt, and would have gladly given up a kidney if it meant I could watch that show for EVER. The drama! The outrageous misunderstandings and arguments! The absurd diversity of the group being forced to live together! I was obsessed, and no subsequent season -- even those that were pointedly MORE drama-laden -- would ever compare.

At some point, though, I gave up on reality TV. For a few years I watched some of it for the laughs -- my husband and I basked in the evil schadenfreude of both seasons of "Joe Millionaire," for example, as well as that series that got cancelled midway through in which ladies were competing for the heart of a wealthy mystery dude whose face you never saw, and which I was fairly convinced would turn out to be a chimpanzee or something. 

I watched (and semi-famously recapped) the hilariously earnest and occasionally awful “More to Love,” literally a version of “The Bachelor” only with all fat people.

But ultimately I have always had trouble with that mingling of attraction and revulsion reality TV relies on; it’s fun to laugh at stupid people doing stupid things, but it also made me feel kind of like a terrible person. I’m probably oversensitive. But I always try to imagine that person at home in their real life, going about their day knowing people have really strong opinions about how unlikable they are. 

I found competition-format shows especially troubling, as for all their reveling in the discovery of heretofore unknown talent, they also take a lot of pleasure in the humiliation of the auditions that particularly suck. This, more than anything else, makes me squirm.

“So You Think You Can Dance” is not free from these conventions; in the audition-based episodes early on, there is a certain amount of time dedicted to mocking those who are terrible. But for me, its positive effects far outweigh these small negative ones, which evaporate once auditions are over anyway.

(If you can watch this one and not cry like a tiny little baby, you are a much stronger person than I.)

Both my husband and I have mused about the emotional impact this show has on us; in my case, nearly every episode moves me to tears at least once -- and sometimes to body-wracking sobs -- and even he has gotten misty-eyed on multiple occasions. 

What we have landed on as a reason is fairly simple: We are watching people chase their dreams, and get a pretty good shot at achieving them.

You can say this is true of most reality competition shows, but SYTYCD is different for me. Why does SYTYCD make me cry when American Idol does not? Part of it is the nature of dance; unlike singing competitions, which are as much about fame as they are about skill, the hopefuls of SYTYCD are not striving to become a massive, universally recognized rock star. Many are simply striving to dance behind a much more famous person on tour, or to choreograph that tour behind the scenes. 

They follow this path because they love it beyond all reason, not because it is a path to riches and reknown. There is something compellingly pure about that, about individuals fighting to succeed at an art form because they believe it is magical and expressive and transformative and they would give anything, anything, to go on doing it forever. In most cases, we abandon such intrinsically creative pursuits in favor of a practical living, and I admire those who refuse to give up.

And, of course, there are also examples like Leroy Martinez.

This is not a guy who had a hope in hell of being selected for the show. He auditioned as much to promote his crew -- “Peacemakers” -- an organization which brings dance to kids who might otherwise be bored and looking for trouble after school. Martinez fits the “inspirational but doomed” role in the early auditions, as do the rare disabled folks who try out, or anyone who comes on to provide a tale of beating the odds and busting the stereotypes, but who will never get sent on to the main competition.

But then Martinez’s audition is so full of joy and confidence and full-on skills (not to mention backflips!) that it makes Adam Shankman cry. In fairness, this is not a difficult feat, but nevertheless.

His audition reminded me of another one: Megan Carter from season seven, one of my favorite auditions ever, in which Adam Shankman thanks her for “schooling” him on stereotypes, and Mia Michaels gets all verklempt about her memories of having been told she’d never be a dancer because she doesn’t have the traditional (i.e., slim) dancer’s body. 

And then of course Nigel comes in like a black cloud with the hard truth that nobody will be able to lift her. So she’s out. It doesn’t matter to me, though, because the point -- that anybody can benefit from the beauty and pleasure of dance -- is made. 

Both of these auditions make me cry, even Megan Carter’s and I’ve seen it a million times. I cry at so many of the auditions, so many of the later partner routines, so many of the solos, because you can feel it when a person is putting all of themselves out there, and being true and sharing something emotional and deep. I am moved by movement; I am moved by the joy of movement so many of these dancers literally embody. 

So much of the physical movement we value as a culture, especially athletic activity, is about pushing, or punishing, or hitting one’s limit and then going past it -- and that’s marvelous if you’re into it. But sometimes it is lacking in pure joy and emotion; only dance comes close to being as much about telling a story or expressing a feeling as it is about the admittedly extraordinary physical feats it requires its practioners to perform. 

The beauty of humanity -- which I believe is intrinsic in all of us, if only we can find it and let it out -- is what makes me cry.

All of this is kind of funny in light of my post earlier this week, in which I proposed that so-called “fitspo” or fitness-inspiring imagery on social networks may just be the same old body-loathing under a different name.

Many commenters asserted that they do not use these images in negative ways, but find them wonderfully positive, and I believe them. I believe them because I can watch "So You Think You Dance" and marvel at the physical accomplishments of these dancers without feeling like a toad for not being able to do them myself -- indeed, if this show inspires me to do anything, it is to believe in my ability to accomplish my wildest dreams on my own terms.

And it inspires me to dance, a little. It reminds me that we’re all to some extent or another laboring under the heavy yoke of expectations, both our own and other people’s, when really, we should just be dancing.