Ten years ago, the average American didn’t know much about the ins and outs of the dance world. In fact, most people wouldn’t have been able to name the different dance styles, much less recognize the main differences between them. However nowadays with popular competition shows everywhere, the average non-dancing person now now has some familiarity with the variety of dance styles which frequent these shows, along with a greater curiosity about them.

Although dance has been on TV since its inception, it has experienced some major changes with each new era. Initially it was mainly movies which depicted dance scenes sprinkled amongst the hills and valleys of each story line.  Then the 1950’s ushered in a new wave of dance and music on television with the show American Bandstand, which ruled the airwaves until 1989. In its four decade run it featured young people dancing along to popular music videos and sometimes right along side the popular artists as they performed live in studio. This format carried on with shows like Soul Train which aired from 1971-2006, and holds the record as the longest-running first-run, nationally syndicated program in American television history. Both programs were instrumental in influencing pop culture trends in music, dance and even fashion. They were also instrumental in spring-boarding the careers of countless up and coming stars by broadcasting them to the masses. Other notable dance music variety shows graced television screens over the years including Solid Gold, Star Search and Dance Fever in the eighties. The late 1980’s and 1990’s had shows like Club MTV and The Grind which featured groups of teens and twenty-somethings freely dancing to music videos. There were also a number of fictional programs like the popular dramatic series Fame.

Some popular dances showcased on American Bandstand in the 1950’s

The new millennium ushered in an era of reality television series which dominated the airwaves and ratings. So aiming to mimic the success of reality talent competition shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent, in 2005 and 2008 dance based competition shows like Dancing With The Stars, So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Next Best Dance Crew debuted on American TV screens, and in doing so reshaped the landscape of the dance world. Nigel Lythgoe, creator of So You Think You Can Dance and former producer of American Idol states that, “All of these programs have moved, I believe now, a generation, and certainly revitalized dance and brought if before a much larger public arena than it’s ever had before.” There are others like David Parker, a choreographer from Juilliard and the Alvin Ailey School, who sees another side to the effects of dance television today. “It in a way shuts people down to dance as being anything but slick, flashy entertainment.” However Parker has also said that he was pleased to see that his students were drawing from a wider variety of dancing, sifting an array of cultural influences through their classical training. “I didn’t notice that five years ago,” he added. The standard of such shows has placed greater emphasis upon diversifying ones dance training. As a result it is no longer uncommon for ballet dancers to train in hip-hop, various street dancers to train in ballroom and so on.

The legendary Soul Train Line, where dance steps were popularized and often immortalized!

In spite of the debate as to whether dance television shows have positively or negatively affected the dance world itself, there is no doubt that there has been a major and direct impact on the careers of participating dancers and choreographers. Many heavyweights of dance credit such shows for revolutionizing the performing arts and revitalizing their careers via increased visibility and job opportunities, (which directly adds to their bottom line). The added exposure has offered a more lucrative career path for dancers and choreographers beyond the traditional jobs at ballet companies, on small show sets and teaching. Current trends are doing guest appearances on various programs, hosting master class tours – which generates revenue for the touring performers and reputed distinction for the hosting locations, as well as using ones position in the spotlight to sell DVD’s and merchandise. TV along with social media have made familiar faces and even household names out of many dancers who would typically just be in the background. In some cases background dancers and former show contestants have been catapulted to stardom with award winning performances on such shows; as choreographers to the stars and sometimes just from the tremendous exposure they’re given on these programs.

Dancers freely move to trendy dance steps of the 90’s while out on location on MTV’s The Grind

Studio owners and group directors have felt the impact as well with increased interest, participation and enrollment, coming from a larger pool of backgrounds and dance styles. Directors and instructors speak of the change in demand for which dance styles are offered. For example Emmy Award winning choreographer Mandy Moore has stated that she found it sad that studios and dancers feel tap is unimportant “just because it’s not on television.” She said she and her colleagues had a responsibility to fight such perceptions. But that’s a tough fight. When you have dance styles like Hip-Hop and Contemporary that have become must haves at most studios, in part due to their prominence on television as well as throughout pop music and culture, it can be tough to compete with demand for such trends. Industry experts say that the effects can be seen in classes, rehearsal halls and stages across the country.

Untrained street dancer (a.k.a ‘Animator’) Cyrus “Glitch” Spencer wows judges from his audition all the way to the top as a SYTYCD finalist

So although having dance on TV is nothing new in of itself, what’s new is the format, how it has affected the industry and the way viewers are engaged to get involved and vote to determine the outcome of each show. Showing extensive back-stories on each contestant allows viewers to feel more connected to them, which in turn gives them a vested interest in the process and the participants, which makes them more loyal viewers. On So You Think You Can Dance, viewers have witnessed untrained street dancers move in synchronicity with professional and highly trained dancers. We’ve also seen celebrities without any dance experience, who you would never expect on a show like Dancing With the Stars, transform from awkward movers to graceful technicians in the short span of just 10-12 weeks. Watching these people dance makes us want to get up and move with them, and also humors and inspires us with every dip, trip and twirl!

Actor and mixed martial artist Randy Courture surprises judges as he defies his macho image by gracefully gliding across the floor on DWTS


Cover photo : SYTYCD all star judges (from L-R) : Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy, Adam Shankman, Debbie Allen, Tyce Diorio, Mia Michaels, and Lil C