The season finale of Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance airs tonight, and I’m as excited for this, the tenth installment of the show, as I was for the first. In a pool of reality television where cutthroat competition reigns supreme (even on shows where no real skill is involved), SYTYCD offers viewers something different—artistic excellence where the best dancers elevate their competitors instead of degrading them. Iron sharpens iron.
Throughout the season, the audience does not get glimpses of the top twenty in their lodgings, and the relationships displayed on screen follow a light tone of friendship and general silliness. Instead, we see rehearsals where the dancers work and play together to develop a relationship and learn challenging routines. I don’t doubt that some conflict is simply edited away, because the physical and emotional stresses of a high-stakes competition undoubtedly create tensions. Yet where other programs highlight that kind of drama as the primary plot-line, this show focuses on the performers as dancers in partnership with other dancers.
It may be that the nature of the art form lends itself well to camaraderie. Dancers are paired in every episode of the season, and successful (not to mention safe) performances depend upon trusting relationships. The judges often praise or condemn the contestants based on their ability to partner. On most reality television programs, the dreaded “team” challenges elicit a groan from the audience; such challenges seem to exist purely to draw out spite and ire. In dance, though, teamwork transforms the art form, letting multiple performers transcend what one body could do alone. There is also the partnership with the choreographers, who surely can claim as much ownership of the performance as the dancers themselves. From rehearsal to final curtain, the dance that airs for the audiences to evaluate is a collaborative effort, and often the perceived triumph or failure of the piece is based on how well the different parties work together.
It’s not that I don’t understand competition, either. I’ve been a competitive runner for more than twenty years. I’ve run with people who would snub me if I were faster or insult me if I were slower. I’ve been on teams consumed by jealousy, and, I am ashamed to admit, I at times perpetuated that disease. And I’ve run with some who pushed me to excellence; in the latter relationships, we shared a desire to outrun the other in the race but never let the tallies of wins and losses pollute our friendship. Indeed, those are some of my greatest friendships, where we could respect each other’s gifts, hone those aptitudes, and still draw on each other for support and admiration. As much as I love to win, I love even more the women who’ve been sharpening me (and outrunning me) for two decades. And one of the things that journey has taught me is that I’m usually faster than someone—and usually slower than someone too.
Of course I never competed on the level of the contestants for So You Think You Can Dance, but the competitors’ mutual regard seems evident on the show. Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe describes the show as “a celebration of dance,” and reminded one dancer this season that dancers are voted on to the show, not off. Dancers exit with a montage celebrating their growth over the season as opposed to an angry or tearful final interview. What this show illustrates for me, beyond the beauty of an art form I can never hope to recreate myself, is the possibility inherent in competition. Each of these dancers battles to win the title and the prizes promised by the program, but in the process, they confirm the ways that one person can sharpen another.