So You Think You Can Dance Canada:
Sugar and Spice, and Everyone’s (Too) Nice
Any good judging panel is kind of like the Seven Dwarves (stick with me here).
The people on the panel all play their roles, either productive (Doc, the wise leader), or conflicting (Grumpy, the curmudgeon), or entertaining (Dopey, the goof). Throw in a couple of variations here and there, and you have yourself a unit. It’s not an exact science, no, but the most important quality of those groups is that sense of diversity.
And So You Think You Can Dance Canada loves to talk about diversity. Where the American show tends to dumb down its categories to fit into more general categories (very rarely do you see them step outside of Hip Hop, for instance, outside of Krump), the Canadian edition loves to single out Dance Hall, and to indicate more clearly where they are drawing their inspiration. I don’t doubt that Canada has a diverse culture of dance, but the connection between this question of classification and our perception of Canada as a cultural mosaic of dance is pretty slim (and yes, this is my thesis bleeding into my viewing of a reality TV show – consider it my productivity for the evening).
The problem is that the judging panel doesn’t have any diversity in terms of how the judges actually, well, judge. They might represent a broad range of styles, but during this early part of the competition they have been beyond nice. There’s a place for a nice judge: Paula Abdul, now departed from American Idol, was an important part of that judging panel at the end of the day, even if I never felt as if she offered any substance. However, for some reason, the panel on SYTYCD Canada seems to be categorically focused on building up these dancers, focusing entirely on their strengths.
The problem with this isn’t that they shouldn’t be nice to dancers, or that they shouldn’t have positive things to say, but rather that it throws off the critical balance. When the judges are nice to everyone, including some admittedly flawed couples, but then rain down on the final performers, it creates an unrepresentative gap between the couples – in being too nice to almost all, they’re actually being CRUEL to the few people who they actually pan.
I’ve got a few more things to say about the judging below, and don’t worry – I’ll talk about the dancing a bit too.
The American panel of judges is perhaps my favourite panel of judges currently working in reality television. Nigel is sage and wise, informed about the subject, and not too pompous to make his critiques feel like the executive producer lording over the contestants. The revolving panel of guest judges offers a welcome change of pace, from Shankman and Debbie Allen’s excitement, to Lil’ C’s pontification, to Mia Michaels’ own brand of (occasionally) tough love. And, for all I say about Mary Murphy’s more than annoying screaming and hollering, she is not afraid to become critical, especially in the Latin Ballroom area where she is so knowledgeable. It’s a panel that knows its stuff, and that more importantly isn’t willing to call a dancer on a poor performance.
But if you look at Mary Murphy tonight, that wasn’t there. Sure, as a visiting judge she feels as if she should be celebrating more than much else, but she was only very tentatively critical, even of styles where she is very knowledgeable and clearly could have picked them apart. But she’s trapped around three judges who are always accentuating the positive to the point of excluding the negative. If she were negative, she’d turn into the invading American, daring to criticize or put down Canadian dancers. She has an excuse for being too nice, then, but the others don’t. Luther knows a lot about hip hop, but he seems so intent on promoting and building up the style that criticizing the dancers falls by the wayside. Tre, meanwhile, gets caught up in prescribing and informing the dancers but never really seems to be criticizing them. And, while I love Jean-Marx Genereaux dearly, his combination of terrible puns, vicious name-dropping and “VID” is hilarious but not nearly the reality check that Nigel is sometimes able to offer.
Now, you’re going to say that I’m being too harsh on them, and that this is a competition about celebrating dance so why the negativity? And trust me, you’re not the first to suggest that I’m too critical (I am, you know, a critic), and that being critical of judges is perhaps going too far. However, my problem is that when the final couple (Melanie and Austin) took to the stage, you could see them struggling. Melanie, in particular, just wasn’t pulling off the lines, and one could feel that their Smooth Waltz was just a bad draw for their personal styles (both favouring explosion, she with her Latin Ballroom and he with his tricks). And the judges let them know it, in their own way: Mary noted that Melanie disappointed her, Luther indicated she just wasn’t quite there, Tre commented that she missed the rise and fall (the most basic of Ballroom qualities), and Jean-Marc even said she was in the line of fire.
This is all fine, if they hadn’t said positive things about every single other couple. Every other couple was about personal growth and improvement, and about how they were blowing them away, and about how they were showing why they were in the Top 20 and every other cliche. In being critical of only one couple, the judges are actually being MORE critical than if they had said something negative about everyone. It would actually be nicer if they said a way that every couple could improve, or to point out the flaws in every performance, not only so that the dancers can use the constructive criticism (a few of them could use it, based on my previous experiences watching these shows) but so that no one couple feels (or seems to the audience) singled out for their mistakes.
I’m not suggesting that the judges should be mean, or that they should have attacked Anthony for his fall during he and Corynne’s Paso Doble. Those things happen, and there shouldn’t be a necessity for each judging panel to have a “mean” judge. But if everyone is going to speak of celebration and diversity and how amazing the dancers are, they all need to be willing to remain critical and objective so that when they do finally decide to actually critique a performance the audience reaction isn’t “Oh wow, that must have been REALLY bad.”And poor Melanie got it even worse: the judges, knowing they would have to critique her, seemed to praise Austin even more so as to even things out, in the process only making her seem even worse.
I do think that Austin and Melanie delivered the worst performance of the night, I don’t think there’s a question of that. But I didn’t think that everyone else was so amazing that they were the only couple who should have received a fair deal of critical comments. It was bad luck that they went last, and that the last thing viewers will remember is how the judges who like everything didn’t like Austin and Melanie. And if the judges think that’s being nice, then remind me not to get on their bad side.
- I thought that Amy and Vincent’s contemporary piece with Blake was perhaps the most accomplished of the evening, even if he remains the poor man’s Wade Robson in most respects. It was dark, yes, but the sudden bursts of power and changes of pace made it really dynamic on top of being creepy, and Vincent selling the undead element really did give over to the performance of the dance.
- One of the things I’ll be interested in seeing as the competition progresses is Natalie’s success. I thought she and Danny danced really well in the Jazz piece (Danny got some of the rare criticism from the judges, but all they would say is that he didn’t meet their expectations, but that he made up for it in his passion), but Natalie is the first person to break into this competition from the East Coast. We are well known for our irrational support of even the most intolerable reality show contestants (See: Canadian Idol), and while I think Natalie is more talented than they were I’m curious to see if she goes beyond her earned position based on the regional voting bloc we’ve seen emerge before.
- Interesting to see how many routines basically boil down to people fighting with each other – between the Martial Arts dance last week and then a couple more this time around, it certainly turns us nice Canadians into something quite violent. I like it, but it can be overdone, so I’ll be curious to see how that evens out.
- I’ll be curious to see how the American SYTYCD works running concurrently with this one. With both Tony/Melanie and Jean-Marc North of the Border (Tony/Melanie might work double duty), and Louis back on Dancing with the Stars (with Dimitry), it will be interesting to see how the U.S. version does ballroom without their biggest workhorses. There might be some red eye flights for some of them, methinks. I’ll presume that the Canadian version takes precedence for some (since they might have been contracted before the American edition was even announced, late, for Fall), but we’ll have to see how it all balances out.