ABC announced its latest Dancing with the Stars cast; a season of “All-Stars” consisting of former winners and fan favorites. I’m a bit a DWTS junkie, so here are some thoughts:
Dancing with the Stars (DWTS) captures dance in multiple places on the spectrum of performance from purely commercial to educational. At its most commercial DWTS capitalizes on the entertaining qualities of bodies in motion yet manages to offer the participating stars (and at times the viewers) an introspective, transformative learning experience that moves beyond mere physical movement to personal vindication. Investigating DWTS within the phenomenon of reality television introduces viewers to a varied cast of characters each contributing to the creation of contemporary popular culture’s new and improved version of the sitcom. Instead of the exaggerated truths encountered in domesticity as portrayed by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in their situational comedy “I Love Lucy,” DWTS conflates dynamics of domestic relationships (such as courtship and romance) through dancing bodies, Hollywood-style. On DWTS bigger is better in terms of personality, sex appeal, and sequins. Exaggerating these elements compensates for the dancers’ shortcomings in their partner relationships, audience interaction, temperamental judges, stardom and stage-fright.
DWTS boasts a cast of thousands: the hosts, musicians, judges, dancers, celebrities, in-house audience, and the unseen but no less influential audience at home. As reality television featuring dance, ABC smartly straddles trends in popular culture with the harsh disciplines of dance training and performance. Beyond the scope of reality dance television, DWTS revs the media firestorm of tabloid sensationalism by the melodramas enacted weekly through its stars in training, rehearsal, and performance.
DWTS (and reality television) begs the need to interpret portrayals of glamour; on DWTS glamour is highly coveted, almost as much as the Mirror Ball trophy. DWTS’ distinctive parameters for gender roles strongly resonate through the dancers’ movement, costuming, and assumed stage personae so that gender also emerges as in need of consideration. Once within the realm of reality television – which integrates the spectator as a necessary formatting component – spectatorship becomes a central theme through which glamour and gender are perceived, mitigated, and distorted. The appeal of spectatorship (and voyeurism) and its nostalgic underpinnings surface as a significant contribution to the show’s success. The commercialized entertainment-driven format of DWTS thrives with heavily romanticized glamour through courtship, the strict management of gender relations for mass appeal, and the self-sustaining interactive voyeurism readily available in reality television.
I love watching DWTS but I self-righteously cannot admit to loving DWTS itself. The stigmas attached to dance as reality television (inauthentic, cheesy, contrived, misleading, etc.) are too great to allow open enjoyment of such a show. And yes, my grandmother loves DWTS and it is fun to compare notes with her on who deserves to win, who is the best looking (we’re both fans of professional dancer Tony Dovolani) and why Judge Bruno Tonioli is so crazy. I also admit to enjoying the romantic swirling of couples as they weave their way across the floor because it stirs a physical memory. Finally, there is something satisfying about dance being featured during prime-time hours from a major network as a strategic move against its competitors. Regardless of the style of dance emphasized, through DWTS ABC grants over three hours a week to dance – a phenomenon in itself. The mainstream popularity DWTS achieves spreads to dance students and audiences eager to continue experiencing dance so that even those far removed from its set are affected. This consideration qualifies DWTS and other reality shows featuring dance as worthy of analysis by teachers, researchers, and promoters of dance in all practices.
More to come.